Dominant Dogs, Recognition & Management

By Catherine Waters

I live with and train dominant dogs by choice. I like dominant dogs. Dominance is not necessarily a bad trait. It is a trait that can cause trouble if it is allowed to get out of control.

Dominance is not aggression. Dominance is a desire to run things. The dominant dog wants to have everything his (or her) way. Aggression is the desire or intent to cause harm. The aggressive dog intends to hurt or damage another living being. Sometimes a dog may exhibit both dominance and aggression. Some may only show one of these attitudes. With any dog that has shown aggression be careful. If you are unsure of yourself, or the dog, please get help from someone with experience. Just like people, dominant dogs who are also aggressive like getting their own way and may resent efforts to control them.

Dominant behavior in dogs is the natural result of their having no concept of equality. Every member of their social world is seen as being either higher or lower in rank than they are. This social world includes their immediate family (people, other dogs, cats, etc.) and any other dogs they meet casually. The more dominant a dog is by nature, the harder it will try for a high rank.

Dominance appears to have a strong genetic factor. A puppy can be identified as being dominant at as young as two weeks old. A dominant dog is dominant forever. There are degrees of dominance, from not at all (submissive) to extremely dominant. How dominant a dog is may be influenced by its environment or "how it is raised."

Dominance should be of special concern to breeders because, too often, high working drive and dominant behaviors go together. You can have one without the other but I have rarely seen high working drive in a non-dominant animal.

As dog owners, trainers and breeders we need to be concerned with dominance in our animals. A dominant dog can be a challenge to live with. These dogs want to run the home and pack. They will try to make decisions for their families about what is done, when it is done, how it is done and who does it. Sometimes dominance can get out of control to the point where the dog becomes dangerous because it is willing to enforce its decisions with its teeth.

A dominant dog will not be dominant in all things all the time. Your dog may be pushy some times but allow you to make some decisions on your own.

So, do you live with a dominant dog? How can you tell?

Dominant dogs are pushy, unresponsive to training and may not have good house and company manners. They will try to have everything their own way. Does this sound like a dog you know?

If so, you may want to try to change some things in your relationship with your dog so that you are the clear leader and it is the follower. There are several things you can do to manage a dominant dog.However, first you have to be able to recognize one.

Please remember that dominance and aggression are not the same. Only dominant behaviors are addressed here.

Some Behaviors that May Indicate Dominance:

Pushing through doors, inside or outside, before you.

Jumping or reaching for food or treat before it is put down or in reach.

Putting his or her feet on you, standing on or pawing at you.

Barking at you when told to do something or when he or she wants something.

Trying to be physically taller than you.

Getting on furniture before you or before being given permission.

Reluctance to move from a spot you want to sit on, walk through or put something in.

Reluctance to release food or toys.

Staring at you; prolonged eye contact except when you ask for it in a training or working situation.

Reluctance to obey simple, normal commands such as sit, go-out, get-off, etc. May be a refusal or slow compliance.

Marking (urinating or defecating) in house, marking your personal belongings or bed.

Running into you or jumping on you hard during play. This is a display of physical superiority and rights.

Growling or barking at you during play.

Sexual behaviors, such as mounting, with an inappropriate partner.

Putting her or his head on or over your head or shoulders.

Holding chews or toys against you while chewing or playing with toy.

Any attempt to shove you out of the way when walking, sitting with, moving past or laying with you.

Mouthing you at any time, any placing of her or his mouth on you whether in protest, during play or during petting.

Eating before you.

Not accepting petting or touching on top of his or her head or body.

Getting playful or cute instead of obeying when told to do things. The dog may obey briefly and immediately resume previous behavior.

Guarding food, toys or locations that they see as theirs.


The following are things you can do to let your dog know that you are higher ranking than he or she is. None of these activities are physically abusive. Most of them are not directly confrontational so there is nothing for the dog to become aggressive about.

The activities are not intended to control aggression problems. While, in many cases, they help reduce mild and dominance related aggression, these techniques are not enough to control a seriously aggressive dog. If you feel your dog intends to hurt you, go to someone who has experience for help.

All of the following management activities MUST be used in a matter-of-fact manner and with NO show of anger toward the dog. A crate is strongly recommended for use as a timeout place. Do not get so pushy yourself that the dog feels the need to defend its position physically. Take it easy at first if you need to. You don't have to do everything on the list right away.

These management activities are meant to be used with standard obedience training and corrections for unwanted behaviors. Do what ever you would normally do to teach a dog not to mouth, jump up, pull on the leash, etc. If you incorrectly think your dog is dominant, these activities will not do any harm to your non-dominant dog. The worst that will happen is nothing, while in many cases you will find your dog acting more secure and confident because you have clarified and reinforced its position in the family.

Some Management Techniques:

Obedience training is a GOOD idea.

You always eat first. Have a snack or eat your meal before you feed the dog. Make sure the dog sees you eat.

Do not free feed, put dog on a feeding schedule so it becomes aware that you control the food source.

Dog must sit or down-stay while food is being put down or offered and must wait for permission to eat or take a treat. The same is true of toys or chews. If the dog will not wait for permission, the food or treat or toy is quietly put away to be re-offered later. The dog will figure this one out before it starves.

Occasionally add food or a treat to the dinner bowl while the dog is eating, enforce a sit if needed, so dog accepts you being around and controlling the food. Do not take the food away unless you have a good reason. Taking the dogs food is threatening rather than dominant if done too often.

Go through all doors first, stop the dog physically if you have to. If you are not going through the door but are only letting the dog out or in, then the dog needs to wait for permission to go through the door.

You start and finish all games and keep any toys when the game is done. You decide when and what to play. No competitive games, such as tug-of-war or wrestling, are allowed at first. Later these games may be reintroduced on a limited basis if you can keep control of the game. The owner must always win the last round.

Firm, not rough, body shoving. Physically forcing the dog to move away or out of your way. This can be done while paying no apparent attention to the dog. Or it may be done with eye contact and a threatening body posture if needed to make the dog move. Body shoving can be used when sitting down by the dog. Sitting partially on the dog if they are in a spot you want can be effective also.

Stand or sit in the dog's favorite spot, or its bed or crate, for 1 to 2 minutes several times a week.

Move the dog's sleeping quarters out of your bedroom if that is where the dog now sleeps.

Dog must "do something" to earn attention including petting. A sit or a down or a trick on command will suffice.

Do not respond to demands for attention, even if the dog is being cute. Make the dog work for its petting and treats if it indicates it is interested. If you want to pet the dog and the dog is not being demanding that is OK. So are treats as long as it is your decision and not the dog's demand.

The dog may not join you on any furniture without your permission. It must also get off any furniture you are going to use before you sit or lay down and may not rejoin you without permission. If the dog will not get off on command, pull it firmly but not roughly off by the collar. Any pushiness or trying to be taller than you should result in your forcing it to get off.

Methods of Enforcement:

Drag Line & Time Out Some dogs may resist losing their power over you. They may even get a little physically nasty about it.

First, if you are going to get bitten, stop. Don't push anything to the point of confrontation. Sneak up on some of the above activities if you need to.

Drag Line

If the dog gets nasty about any of the management activities, put it on a snug buckle collar with a 5 to 25 foot drag line and use the line to enforce your demands. You can drag a dog off furniture with it. You can tie the dog to a doorknob with it when you feed or offer toys or treats, or pick up toys or treats. You can pull the dog to the time out place and restrain it there. Be inventive and be safe.

NOTE: The drag line should only be used if the dog is being supervised.

Time Out

If the dog refuses to behave, or actively contests your right to run things, you have the right to assess a penalty. The most effective penalty I have found is a Time Out. This is a short (10 to 15 minute) period of isolation from the social group (family). The dog is placed in a crate, or otherwise confined, in a location where it cannot interact with family members, including other animals. A crate is ideal, but any other place where the dog can be confined without anything to amuse them will do. Putting the dog outside is not a good Time Out because there is usually too much for them to do outside.

To be effective a Time Out must not have any anger associated with it. When you put the dog on a Time Out you need to be very matter-of-fact about it. When you release the dog you also need to be very unemotional about it and should ignore the dog for 5 to 30 minutes after release.

A Time Out should be used if the dog refuses to behave or to accept your control more than two times in a row. For instance, if the dog has been told to get off the couch, or has been removed from the couch, and gets back on right away this is one refusal. If it gets back on the couch after the second removal the dog should be removed and taken straight to the Time Out place. You calmly restrain the dog and leave. In 10 to 15 minutes you go back and release the dog and ignore it for a while longer before you resume normal behavior.

A Time Out may be used when the dog refuses to comply with any reasonable demand you make.

Managing dominant behaviors can help you have a dog you enjoy living and working with. With you as the clear leader in the family, your dog will be happier and so, I hope, will you.

Copyright 1997 by Catherine Waters. Questions or comments may be addressed to Catherine by e-mail at:

This article may be reproduced for non-profit purposes with author's credit given.

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