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Understanding Dominance: Stopping The Alpha Fallacies

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Dr. James C. Ha, Ph.D., CAAB is a professor of applied animal behavior at the University of WA and a certified applied animal behavior with over 30 years of experience in animal behavior teaching, research, consulting, and expert witness services.

What is dominance?

The important thing to understand about dominance is that dominance happens because there are limited resources and ONLY when there are scarce resources. It is simply a form of aggression and social structure which decides who gets the access to the resources first, who gets access to the resources second and who gets access to the resources last. It is very much related to the limited resources and some mechanism to settle into a non-destructive nonfighting way to sort out limited resource.

What role does dominance play in our dogs? Do they have a need to be the alpha dog/pack leader?

Dominance applies to domesticated dogs because virtually all species of animals have to have some way to manage limited resources. The first thing to remember is that dominance is only going to happen when there are scarce resources. So in domestic dogs, to our pets, there are very rarely limited resources. They have plenty of food; they have plenty of attention; they have plenty of resources of resources that they need. So it is not necessary for dominance.

Do dogs feel the need to exert themselves as the alpha dog over people?

There are a few breeds of dogs that still have a very strong sense of social structure, limited resources and so on and in very VERY rare occasions, some members of those breeds may actually get into a social structure, a dominant situation over limited, what they perceive a limited resource with a human. In fact, most likely it is going to be with members of their social pack. Where I tend to see it in my clinical cases, most likely with owners.

But this behavior VERY rare. Very very very unusual. I can’t say it doesn’t happen, that dogs try to dominate a human but it is certainly very rare kind of behavior.

Are there breeds of dogs that are more dominant than others? Are “bully” breeds considered very dominant?

There is one group of breeds that have been described by the geneticist what called the ancient breeds. And those members, the breeds that are part of that group basically are indistinguishable from wolves in their genetics. And so they tend to be very wolf like tend to be more aggressive, tend to be very powerful hunters, tend to have much stronger dominance hierarchies and there are dominance issues. So when we see dominance issues which are very rare as behavior issues in dogs, but when we do see dominance issues either between two dogs or between dog and owner it tends to be in one of those ancient breeds.

Understanding the need to exert dominance and social structure over limited resources is only found in a few breeds. Many breeds of dogs, that behavior has been bred out completely. Dominance tends to be not very important in any of the terriers which is where the pit bulls and a lot of the bully breeds are. Another group another clearly genetically defined are the mastiffs and again it is very rare virtually unknown to have dominance behavior issues in those groups. Pretty much reserved to these ancient breeds and a couple of other breeds

Should a person try to “dominate” their dog? Is it good practice to try to be the alpha dog or pack leader over your dog?

The hovering over, the alpha rolling are not dominance signals. They are not part of dominance aggression. Wolves don’t do them. Wild dogs do not do them. So again it’s the individual expressing dominance trying to control the situation and then that wrong individual is doing it the wrong way. So it is even MORE likely to be simply interpreted as an attack by a human. And that results in all sort of other issues and problems and relationship issues and so on. So it’s most definitely not a good idea.

Hovering over him, interfering, alpha rolling, and rolling him over on his back and so on is NEVER a good idea. They are not expressing dominance toward the human, they are expressing dominance toward another dog. Any kind of action taken by the human, is going to be completely misinterpreted by the dog. It is going to be interpreted as an attack. “Hey, I’m over here dealing with this other dog and some limited resource of some kind and all of a sudden you attack me!”

That is never is a good thing for the relationship between humans and dogs.

If dominance is not the issue, then what would you say is the number one problem with dogs who have behavioral issues?

Probably 80% of the cases of aggression that I see has to do with anxiety. Anxiety is the major aggression problem in dogs and the one that we have to work on the most to fix. We need to research it. We need to find solutions for it. People need to recognize it better. Anxiety is the driver the cause almost all aggression in dogs.

I wish every dog owner had a better understanding of anxiety was able to see and understand anxiety in their dog. The biggest issue that we see is anxiety. What they need to do, is they need to understand when their dog is anxious and how to deal with that first.