Dominance and Your Dog

Ben being ‘dominant’ on the couch

If you own a dog, at some stage you may have been told the following…. That your dog is a wolf in dogs’ clothing, and that your dog is always watching you for signs of ‘weakness’ so that they can elevate themselves to the position of top dog- or alpha. Admittedly, I used to also believe this. However, now the trend is moving away from this dominance theory of dog training because of new research that all dog owners need to be aware of.

There have been two notable studies conducted that I think are worth a mention. One was on free roaming dogs, the other has been a longitudinal study on domestic dogs in a domestic setting. Both of these studies highlight how different our dogs are from wolves, and because of this, I believe that dog training based on similarities of the two, is now outdated and we need to move on.

Daniels and Bekoff (1989) studied dogs that had been at one stage bred by humans, but had become ‘loose’. What this study found was that these dogs spent most of their time as solitary scavengers. Free roaming dogs live off human dumps. Hundreds of years of human influenced breeding has led dogs to loose the ability and need to hunt for their own food source. This is very different from wolf behaviour.

The study also found that free roaming dogs often come in to contact with other dogs, but have no need to remain together. They come together fleetingly for breeding, and occasionaly do spend time together, but would probably best be referred to as open groups, rather than packs. The groups are so open that individual dogs come and go as they please, and the female is able to mate with different males. Again, this is very different from the way wolves operate.

These free ranging dog groups are usually made up of unrelated dogs and the female dog will often raise her pups by herself. There seems to be no reason for free ranging dogs to run in packs. Food is readily available at the dump so there is no need to hunt, there is also no need for protection against other large wild animals. Further proof that dogs and wolves are very different.

This study has debunked the myth that dogs are strict pack animals and hunters. Dogs’ scavenge, we see it all the time in our own dogs, especially when they try to eat rubbish in the park. This presents a very different picture to the wolf- a pack animal, born to stalk, kill and eat, and rear it’s young within the safety of the pack. Wolves and dogs are not the same.

The second study by Semyonova (2003) is a first of it’s kind (as far as I am aware) on domestic dogs in a domestic setting. The study began in 1994 and is still continuing.  It follows a group several dogs living with humans in a group of two or more dogs, and has been video recorded 24/7, this ensured that no behaviour, or pre-cursor to a behaviour, was missed.

This research discovered that aggression was a sign of system disintegration, dogs prefer stability in their relationships, and would avoid confrontation. It was also found that dogs who live together do not organise themselves in a linear hierarchical structure.

If you live with more than one dog you can see evidence of this non-linear structure in your own home. Often one dog will value a resource more than the other, and thus becomes ‘domianant’ in that specific situation, but with another resource they show indifference. For example, some dogs love their bones and will not allow the other resident dog near them while eating it. However, when it comes to toys or sleeping arrangements the other dog may become the more ‘dominant’ dog.

Dogs with behavioural problems are often labelled as ‘dominant’ dogs, and people believe they must reassert their authority as alpha or top dog. In the past, most dog trainers used the umbrella of dominance aggression and the ‘dominant’ dog to explain away problems, and that a general leadership program will make everything OK. Understandably this stuck, because it made sense, and there was nothing to suggest otherwise. This is what a leadership program looks like….

Always eat before your dog, even pretend to eat from their bowl before feeding them.

Never let your dog through a door before you

Always move your dog if it is in your way, never go around them

Never have your dog on the couch or on the bed with you, the best spaces and highest spaces, are reserved for the alpha.

If your dog has their paw resting on you they are displaying dominant behaviour- don’t let this happen.

You must always win a staring contest, even if you need to growl at your dog to make them turn away.

Never loose a tug of war contest, in fact don’t even play tug.

Your dog should always walk beside or behind you on a walk. You can let them stop twice only during the walk to smell a scent.

If your dog challenges you, roll them on the ground and hold them down until they stop resisting, otherwise known as an alpha roll.

If your dog challenges you, grab the scruff of their neck and give them a good shake, get in their face and say “NO!”. You may even like to use your hand to close their muzzle.

This kind of leadership program, in my opinion, is far too general and can be harmful to your dog. Specific problem behaviours in dogs should have specific answers, be based on canine (not wolf) behaviour, and should also have a scientific solution based on the science of learning- all of which a progressive trainer should be able to help you with.

Using dominance theory exclusively as a way to run our dogs’ lives is all about exerting control. You will often read that your (dominant) dog is ‘challenging’ you by jumpingmouthing and barking at you- now dog ownership becomes adversary. We all know it feels good to win, but at what cost? How does dominating our dogs effect the dog-human relationship? How does it make us feel?


Daniels, T.J and Bekoff, M (1989). Population and Social Biology of Free-ranging Dogs, Canis Familiaris. Journal of Mammalogy 70 (4), 754-762 Resourced from:

O’Heare, J. (2008). Dominance Theory and Dog: An in-depth examination of social dominance and its insidious consequences and an alternative. 2nd Ed. Dog Psych, Canada.

Semyonova, A. (2003). The Social Organisation of the Domestic Dog: A Longitudinal Study of Domestic Canine Behaviour andthe Ontogeny of Canine Social Systems. Can be found at…..

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20 Responses to Dominance and Your Dog

  1. Rebecca says:

    I love this new research, could never do the ‘dominance’ thing, as I thought it was a bit scary to get in a dogs face like that. I much prefer to be friends and develop a mutual respect.

    Also love that your training methods are based on research. So much more credible and trustworthy.

    Can’t wait to start training with you with my Wilbur!

    • katarina says:

      Hi Rebecca, thanks for the comment.

      All of this research is well overdue. It’s amazing that there are not more studies like this considering so many of us share our lives with dogs. I suspect that they are such a familiar species to us that many scientists feel their research time/money would be better spent on another, more ‘intriguing’ animal.

      I feel that it is part of my job to read as much as I possibily can on dogs, canine behaviour, and dog training. My bookshelf (and bedside table) is filled with dog books and I take bits and pieces of information from many different sources, as well as my own experiences. I think, without me, Amazon would struggle to stay in business.

      It should be expected that any trainer can give you (the client) the most up to date information on your dog. Also, my whole method of dog training (using positive reinforcement) is based on the science of conditioning behaviours to a stimulus. It works like magic.

      I’m looking foward to working with you and Wilbur too.

  2. Ayshea says:

    So glad to have stumbled across your blog. We have a 16wk Maltese x Toy Poodle that has been with us now for 2wks. I have been doing lots of puppy research and have been reading lots about dominance, I love what you wrote about you and Ben, this makes much more sense to me and is refreshing to read. I have an issue with my pup in that he hates being left alone, barks the house down! I’ve tried to calm him and then go out inconspicuously whilst he’s calm but he soon cottons on. I have managed to desensitize him to my keys as they were a trigger. Even if I don’t go out and leave him in his den for even a couple of minutes he starts barking. Is this something you could help with? Thanks, Ayshea.

  3. Alina says:

    Hi Katarina,

    Thanks for your article. This research makes a lot of sense. It is ridiculous to believe that hundreds of years of human companionship would not have some impact on the behaviour of dogs.
    I could never figure out how the humans would be ever seen as the alpha when you have to clean up the poo in the backyard. I’m pretty sure that the alpha wolf never does that. It didn’t make sense.

    • katarina says:

      Hi Alina,
      You’re welcome, thank you for visiting my blog. Your comment made me laugh and reminded me of a Seinfield episode where Jerry talks about….
      If aliens were watching us they would think dogs ruled the world, here we are running around picking up their poo and carrying it in plastic bags- who’s the boss now?
      Very funny. Thanks again for commenting, and making me smile.


    The above comments seem to be at variance with the above article

    • katarina says:

      Hi Hamish. The comments below the article you linked were very interesting, yes, some of them were ‘at odds’ with my argument. The area of dominance in dog training is still highly controversial. You know my thoughts on it. Where do you stand? Thank you for sharing the link.

  5. Hamish Waters says:

    My attitude is more in line with that espoused by the RSPCA. I think Chris Foster from memory has an attitude at variance with yours. Only some dogs try and dominate their owner. I see no problems in having dogs in bed or on the sofa if that is what both dog and owner want. Uschi always has had her dogs in bed. I do not think there are hard and fast rules as to the place a dog should reside in your house other than the dog should not try and assert him or herself as boss.

    • katarina says:

      I knew an Akita, Khan. Khan was amazing, I will always remember him, he had a presence about him that surrounded him like an aura. Everyone, man or dog, that came in to contact with Khan was immediately quiet. Khan was never aggressive, always aloof. He would simply wander the park (off lead) with his owner (to whom he was very bonded with) doing his own thing. He was a sight to behold, so sure of himself without having to prove it. He is the only dog that I have ever met that I would call dominant and it had nothing to do with behaviours like jumping, not listening, humping, fighting, how he ate, or where he spent his time in the home. I think when we attribute dominance to ‘problems’ it confuses people in that it gives them something else to worry about- ‘oh no, my dog is dominant’. When, if all they did, was focus on the actual training issue it would be far less difficult.

  6. Ashlea Armstrong says:

    Great article Katarina!! Love the last paragraph! People need to let dogs be dogs :)
    Ps: my two dogs are sleeping either side of me on the couch (being so dominant they are…NOT!)

    • katarina says:

      Thanks Ashlea for commenting. You can get so much more out of your relationship when you are not pre occupied with thoughts of your dog trying to dominate you.

  7. Brydie says:

    Hi Katrina,
    This article has been so helpful. We have a 14 week old English staffy and she is very playful. However, a lot of people have been telling us she is dominant and we need to control her behavior before it is too late!

    We are having significant trouble with keeping her off the couch. We would love to cuddle her all the time but we think it is important she is comfortable on her mat as well.

    I am not sure if we are being too tough or if it will beneficial to get her learn now whilst she is still young.

    It’s nice to hear that you let your dogs on the couch with you though

    • katarina says:

      Hello Brydie,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment. Your Staffy sounds completely normal, for a Staffy that is :) Sometimes dogs that have a high intensity in play benefit from lots of movement during walks with other dogs. Try to avoid standing around allowing play to intensify, that’s often when trouble starts. When you move with her she will become distracted on walks and the play intensity will drop allowing you to work on developing some recall skills.

      Hmm yes couch skills, this can be tricky with energetic breeds. Stay consistent with only allowing her on the couch when invited, perhaps even using a blanket (removed it when she is not allowed on the couch) to signal that she can hop on to the couch. You can use the couch as a reward for good calm behaviour by only inviting her up when she is calm and relaxed.

      Mat time (or time at your feet on the floor) is very important for her to also get used to. Set her mat up and give her a long lasting chew or food stuffed toy to work on while on the floor. If she is calm you can even sit on the floor with her and hold the chew food while she is working at eating it. Do not forget to reward her with low-key praise and the occasional food treat (dropped in front of her nose) when she is sleeping or laying at your feet.

      She sounds like a dynamo who I’m sure will learn quickly if you remain consistent with your rules. Manners training can be tough with these kinds of dogs but it’s that same drive that makes them so quick to learn good skills. Stay on your toes with this one, I’m sure she’ll take you on a journey full of adventure and learning.


  8. Catherine says:

    Hi Katarina,

    I really enjoy your blogs and read them often. I think your views are wonderful and very progressive. I have owned many dogs in my life and have used the dominance type training. In some cases it was ok and maybe needed but for the most part un-needed.
    I have always used different training tactics with different types of dogs. Obviously what will work on a blue heeler will no necessarily work with a chihuahua. I find this true because like people each dog has his own personality and the training must be tuned toward each one individually. I also find this true in horse training.
    I currently own 8 dogs due to my need and desire to save unwanted dogs. I hate to see good dogs thrown away because of inconvenience. Anyway I do have a question or issue with an unaltered female blue heeler/ border collie mix. She likes to dominate the other dogs in my pack and sometimes hurts them. How can I stop this behavior before anyone else gets hurt?
    I respect you and your training and the idea that you are progressive and never stop learning. I feel the same way about all things in life. We should never stop learning and stay open minded because otherwise we die inside and cannot grow.

    Thank you so much for what you do.


    • katarina says:

      Hi Catherine,
      Thank you for taking the time to comment, it is great to hear from you. Wow, eight dogs? You would be very busy and it would be so interesting to watch the interaction between them all.

      Your questions is such an important one, thank you for asking. You have captured the biggest problem with the word dominance in your question, when you say that your female likes to dominate the other dogs and hurts them it’s really not giving the whole story. Rather than thinking about her ‘dominance’ as the issue I would love to hear about the specific behaviours you are seeing before I can offer any advice. Dominance can be interpreted in so many different ways and is a term that is your point of view, not necessarily your dogs.

      I actually believe there are dominant dogs out there, hierarchy exists, but these dogs rarely behave aggressively and are so sure and confident that they almost have an aura of calmness about them that everyone gravitates to. I have only ever come across one truly dominant dog in my life and I will never forget him.

      You may like to find a good dog trainer or behaviourist in your area. Any good trainer should ask you what behaviours you are seeing, rather than simply accepting the word ‘dominance’ and from that they can decide how best to approach a specific plan of action in relation to your situation.


  9. Fran says:

    Hi Catherine, just love your advice to everyone. Would you be kind enough to give me some advice on our one dog who (in my view) has a dominant attitude on initial meetings with other dogs. She wants to meet every dog we pass, her stance is usually stiff and she wants to smell them for ages both at the rear and the face :(. When the other dog becomes annoyed or uncomfortable she usually swings her quarters around into them. She also has this displeasing habit of running into bigger dogs and sometimes running over smaller ones (not as often). She just loves tug of war with ANY dog but is not possessive or dominant about the game and will give up the item on command. She can be very persistent and annoying in trying to get another dog to pull something with her, bumping other dogs with her nose while holding article. Any advice would be so greatly appreciated. Thanking you in advance Fran.

    • katarina says:

      Hi Fran,
      Thanks for commenting and describing your dogs behaviour so well. Stiffness is a sign of arousal, not necessarily dominance or aggression, and sniffing another dog either around the face or the rear is completely appropriate when two dogs are meeting. Also, when a dog swings their quarters around it is considered a ‘calming signal’ to settle a tense situation, which makes sense if the other dog is becoming agitated, she’s actually doing the right thing there. You may simply have to develop a little name recognition to have her ‘switch off’ the other dog sooner than what she seems to be doing on her own.

      Yes, some dogs do not like being ‘pestered’ by another dog to play so this is where your recall comes in to the mix, notice when she is making another dog uncomfortable and call her to you, reward her for coming back to you with a fun game of tug with you. By the way, I will be publishing a post soon on dogs playing and fighting and how you can tell the difference so this may help you learn appropriate times to call her to you.

      Check out some of my recall videos (my dog Nemo came to me exhibiting the exact same behaviours as your girl does)….

      All the best, she sounds like she has a wonderful zest for life.


  10. Antje Struthmann says:

    I do not agree with the comments made re dominance.
    eg.Never let your dog through a door before you

    Always move your dog if it is in your way, never go around them

    Never have your dog on the couch or on the bed with you, the best spaces and highest spaces, are reserved for the alpha.

    If your dog has their paw resting on you they are displaying dominant behaviour- don’t let this happen.

    You must always win a staring contest, even if you need to growl at your dog to make them turn away.

    Never loose a tug of war contest, in fact don’t even play tug.

    Your dog should always walk beside or behind you on a walk. You can let them stop twice only during the walk to smell a scent.

    If your dog challenges you, roll them on the ground and hold them down until they stop resisting, otherwise known as an alpha roll.

    If your dog challenges you, grab the scruff of their neck and give them a good shake, get in their face and say “NO!”. You may even like to use your hand to close their muzzle. I have owned dogs for most of my life. Unless you have a dogs that has a dominating gene I would think about it. It`s what we let our dogs away with . For the record my dogfs sleep on my bed! sleep on my sofa, rest in my chair and they are cerrtainly not dominating!. If I want them of my bed, chair , sofa, I tell them so.They do as they are told but the dogs are by no means dominant!

  11. When I initially left a comment I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me
    when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each
    time a comment is added I recieve four emails with the same comment.
    Is there an easy method you are able to remove me from that service?
    Thanks a lot!

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