Dominance in dogs? Never.

The word dominance has been hugely corrupted over the years as the root of its definition actually lies in having influence and authority, which can be achieved without using overbearing methods; owners often think that ‘dominant’ behaviour is being overbearing, forceful and violent but this is simply not the case.

Dogs who are branded ‘dominant’ will often have their weight distributed forwards, ears pricked/forward and stiff tails. In reality, this posture is associated with a dog who is feeling insecure and is on high alert as a result, assessing potential threats to their safety. Conversely, dogs incorrectly labelled as ‘submissive’ will often lay down and show their bellies, lift their legs up and try and make themselves appear small. This is not submission but is instead a dog who is saying, “Look how small I am. Look at my exposed belly. I am not a threat to you. Please don’t hurt me.”


Both of these reactions are rooted in a dog who is insecure, uncomfortable and, sometimes, fearful. They are trying to ensure the same thing: conflict avoidance. Both types of dog have learnt what works for them; they are repeating body language that they know has worked for them in the past. Neither is trying to dominate or submit.

Indeed, contrary to traditional training ideologies and modern media, most canine behaviour problems stem from a dog being insecure and having a desire to maintain safety and comfort, not from a desire to establish a higher rank and become the ‘alpha’. As such, teaching dogs who’s ‘the boss’ by forcing them into a non-existent state of ‘calm submission’ through punishment, intimidation and fear is the opposite of what the under confident dog needs to learn and overcome behavioural issues.

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A German scientist, Schenkel, conducted a study on wolves in the 30s and 40s, looking at body language and communication. It was in this study that the terms alpha and beta were first coined and where a lot of the misinformation around so called ‘dominance’ in dogs is rooted. The study had many limitations, namely that there were a large number of adult wolves in a small space, during breeding season, in captivity and so it was not representative of wolves in the wild.

Since then, the results of these studies have been disproved repeatedly, including by the very scientists who first conducted them. This shows that forced submission is not representative of how animals, including dogs, establish healthy functional relationships. Wild wolves do not show aggression to their pack or the pack would not survive. In the wild, wolves live in a qualified democracy where the leaders are in charge because they do a good job of providing. A bullying alpha will result in a pack which is unable to thrive due to having an insecure leader. In other words, dominant relationships among wolves are exerted without the use of force or threat of aggression, thereby reducing the potential for conflict.

Despite the fact that dominance theory in dogs has been repeatedly debunked (including by the same scientists who first put it forward!), many individuals still use methods, rooted in a misunderstanding of dominance, to train in an overbearing and intimidating way which use pain, fear and worry to alter a dog’s behaviour. People have allowed human ideas of dominance (gaining a high rank, amassing power and exerting control) to dictate how they manage and train dogs and confuse understanding of canine relationships. Training a dog in this way, especially a dog who is already showing signs of reactivity, aggression or fear, can cause untold damage.

The reason these trainers still exist, is because these methods will work in the short-term. E-collars, prong collars, slip leads, spray bottles, coins in a can. A dog will do almost anything to avoid being scared or in pain. But in the long-term, a dominance-led approach will see a dog exhibiting more extreme behaviours than they were initially as their confidence and trust of their owner has been knocked and their belief in themselves is diminished. Once the dog ‘relapses’, the owners often go back to that very same trainer and the cycle repeats itself.

This is why I believe passionately in a positive based approach to dog training, where dogs are praised for making their own good decisions. We teach them appropriate ways to behave and set them up for success. Training becomes fun, engaging and a great opportunity to bond for you and your dog. This is how I believe human-canine relationships should look.

Further reading: 

The truth about dominance, Positively 2014