Leadership is not Dominance

The word ‘dominance’ is thrown about so much in the dog world. It stems from the idea that dogs are effectively domesticated wolves, which were said to live in hierarchical packs, with an alpha animal leading, and other pack members taking subordinate roles. The theory was that this hierarchy was maintained by force and aggression and that the strongest animal became the leader.

We now know that this is not the way that dogs think. More recent research shows that even wolves in the wild do not live in this way. Wolf packs tend to be extended families, the older youngsters staying to help with the next generation of pups until and unless they leave to pursue their own lives. Pack leaders are usually parents and control their packs though benevolent, calm and caring leadership. Dogs have evolved as domesticated pets for as much as 20,000 years since the days when they roamed wild and, although they are closely related to wolves, they do not behave in the same way. Packs of feral dogs are motivated by what they can get and the more they want a particular resource, the harder they will try to achieve it. This is not a true pack hierarchy as many owners of multiple dogs will tell you. Dogs are social animals and packs form because they need and value one another’s’ company.

I was chatting to a client the other day who is doing a wonderful job at rehabilitating and calming her two little dogs. They would bark madly when visitors arrived, leaping around the room demanding attention and, more worryingly, would lunge and snap at dogs when they were away from home. Over the course of a month she has started, at home, to adjust their perception of her status by applying the psychological methods I recommended and it has now dawned on them that she and not they, make the rules at home. Because of this, they are now becoming polite and respectful towards her and so she can train them more easily. When they go out they now know that she can take responsibility for whatever happens and will look to her for guidance when a dog appears rather than trying to frighten it away as they did before.

She told me that a dog walker came to her home recently to help her out and this person apparently raised her voice to the dogs, tugging on their leads. She was determined that the dogs needed to know ‘who was boss’ and that this was the way to do it. The dogs’ reactions were to pull back, bark and become anxious and upset almost immediately, much to the consternation of their owner.

Leadership is not about dominating dogs in a negative way. Even wolves do not behave in this way and treating dogs in an aggressive way can only lead to them becoming more afraid or worse still, aggressive in response.

Our role in bringing up balanced and secure pets is to set an example of calm behaviour and to demonstrate to our dogs in a language they can understand that we can take care of them, so they don’t have to worry about all the things they don’t understand or that frighten them in our human orientated world. Security is crucial to dogs and it comes to them through understanding the rules and boundaries that their owners set for them. They can’t relax without this security and we owe it to them to take time to understand how to give it to them. It is only when we can create a mutually respectful and loving relationship with our dogs, with them recognising our benign authority, that we can really enjoy fulfilling and wonderful relationships with these unique animals.