Help! My Dog is Trying to Take Over the World!

I said don't sniff my arse, Kevin!

As a massive dog geek, walker and trainer, I have been in, and subsequently left, more dog focused groups on social media than I care to remember. They all have the same types of posts and mostly, the posts are nice and upbeat, with lovely pictures of dogs having fun on walks or chilling out at home. However there’s also a lot of posts asking for help for behavioural and training issues, and these are the ones which get me all riled up. It’s not the fact people are asking for help and advice (however that in itself can be problematic unless you’re asking a group of trainers and behaviourists), it’s the advice given from Joe Public. Sometimes it’s useful and is based on facts, whereas other times it’s wrong and sometimes downright dangerous.

Your Dog is Trying to Dominate You!

This is probably the most uttered words on posts where people are asking for help with their dogs behaviour. This all stems from the belief that dogs were exactly like wolves in the wild, vying for positions to be the ‘Alpha’, constantly in a state of friction, and wanting everyone else to be subordinate.

However there’s 2 major issues with this –

1 – Dogs are not wolves and

2 – Wolves rarely operate like that in the wild!

The whole dominance/alpha things goes backover half a century when wolf biologist Dr L David Mech published his book “The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species,” written in 1968, published in 1970, republished in paperback in 1981. It is still in print despite Mech asking for it to be withdrawn. A lot of the content is still accuarate, however a lot of it isn’t. Mech had studied unrelated wolves in captivity and had concluded they were always fighting for the top spot, which is true. However unrelate wolves in captivity don’t represent wolves living in the wild, any more than a prison population accurately represents humans living freely. 

Here’s a video of Dr Mech back in 2005 ish, talking about wolves and how he feels responsible for the term of Alpha and commenting on how much science has learned since then. 

Somehow, this misunderstanding was applied to our pet dogs and training back in the 1970s and 80s was based around ‘showing our dogs who’s boss’. In the name of training, we have done awful things to our dogs, using scare tactics, harsh punishments and pain to try and control our furry best mates.Breaks my heart to think how much I got wrong in the early days of owning dogs. I know I scared my girl Brenna so much at one point that she jumped a high wall and ran off. I hadn’t physically hurt her, but she was sensitive enough to feel scared by my harsh tone and manhandling. I still feel the shame now. 

The danger comes when someone tells you to pin down a scared dog to ‘show it who is boss’, only for that scared dog to react the only way a dog knows how – to bite. 

Dogs don’t go for the bite straight away, they often try to tell us in many different ways that they’re scared or worried about something, but we as humans don’t always listen, and our dogs are then forced to shout. 

But Aren't Dogs Closely Related to Wolves?

Indeed they are. It’s thought they share almost 99% of their DNA. However, so do humans and apes. 

Evolution is amazing and new species evolve to fit a niche. Dogs evolved to fit in around humans, by living off their scraps and being useful for hunting, guarding and companionship. Domestication changes an animals DNA, because they don’t often need the skills their wilder cousins have. Dogs no longer had to live in large packs because they no longer needed to hunt down large prey. They didn’t need a large pack to help raise the pups, because food was more abundant. They could be fertile earlier and breed more often because they weren’t restricted to following prey species. Domestication changed their brain size, their coats, their tails and how they interacted with humans. They stopped being wolves and became dogs.

If you want to delve further into domestication, have a look at the Silver Fox Experiment. It’s interesting to see how the wild silver foxes changed when breeding for tamer characteristics was introduced. It’s a landmark study and is important in understanding domestication in our dogs. 

Enough of the Science Stuff.
Are our Dogs Trying to be OUR Boss?

In short….. No. 

Now no one is saying dominance doesn’t exist, because it surely does. We all know someone in our lives who is more dominant in life, and they probably are good leaders and organisers. Or possibly massive bullies!

 Then you get the people who are more passive, who don’t like taking charge and who like to follow others instructions or get bullied. Dogs can be the same. In my own multidog household, it’s interesting to watch the dynamics between them and how they manage resources.

Generally, dogs just want good resources. They want food, water, comfy beds and good toys to play with. This is mainly how they operate. When we tionk of our dogs being dominant, we think of examples like “my dog growled at me when I told him to get off the sofa. He’s trying to tell me he’s boss” or “my dog went through the door before me, he’s trying to prove he’s Alpha!”

In reality, your dog just really wants his comfy spot or is excited to get out the door on a walk. Maybe he’s sore and getting down off the sofa is painful, or perhaps he was denied a bed when he was a pup and learned the best way to keep a sought-after resource is to growl. Dogs cannot tell us in words after all. It would be great if they could say “now now, old chap, the ole hips of mine aren’t feeling great so I’d appreciate it if you left me here in this spot. It hurts to get down, so please don’t make me”.  

With my dogs, my old girl Brenna is more dominant over food and toys. Not one of our other dogs, or the young collie who belongs to Shaun’s daughter, will take a toy or food from Brenna unless she allows it. She’s the oldest and definitely the ‘boss’ when it comes to the other dogs. However at no point does she try and tell humans that they can’t have the toy and if needed, I could take her food off her. I won’t though, because that would be a dick move. I’d get pretty arsey if someone kept taking my food off me!

Taryn growls at the other dogs if they go near her bowl, because as a puppy, she probably didn’t get enough to eat and she had to use other tactics to hold onto her grub. 

Dogs know you aren’t a dog. They don’t sit and plot in the darkeness like Pinky and the Brain, trying to find ways to overthrow you and rule the world. Dogs just want food, warmth, comfort, company, toys and to feel safe. Often when they are lacking in these things we find ourselves with ‘problem’ dogs. 

Understanding our dogs is key to a happier life with them. 

So if anyone tells you your dog is trying to dominate you and you need to ‘put them in their place’ or ‘show them who’s boss’ to train them, run in the opposite direction and don’t look back! 

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