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DOMINANCE

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HOW DOMINANCE PLAYS A ROLE IN DOG BEHAVIOR HOW DOMINANCE PLAYS A ROLE IN TRAINING
By Erik Hoffer

All dogs are the same species but breed by breed their differences are astounding in terms of dominance.
Your dog can go either way, from highly dominate to highly passive, but make no mistake every dog can run your home and make your life miserable if you let them.

Dogs inherently want to be led. They like the idea of someone caring for them and charting their life’s course. Many dog are born alpha’s and have some internal trigger that says “I’m the leader of this pack” which can contain both k-9s and people and even cats and other animals living in the home. What this article is designed to do is to enlighten you as to behaviors that can quickly become unsuitable, techniques to lead your own pack and ways to develop your dog into a great and loyal follower.

Dominance is a major problem that every dog owner faces; either you are dominate or they are, or will become dominate.
Let’s focus on German Shepherds, since this is where my personal expertise lies. Foo Foo dogs, Golden Retrievers, Aussie’s and each and every dog breed is prone to be a dominate leader if you are not going to assume that role. In GSD’s, since these are inherently working dogs, they need activity to quench their thirst to reduce their pent up energy. At times that activity need (if not fulfilled or vented) manifests itself in dominance since there is no other viable outlet for them to release that need.

Dominance in an animal can lead quickly to uncontrollability, biting by attacking you or someone you know or through intimidation of others in the home including but not limited to you, your kids and pets. It can take over your home and lead to physical injury of those you love or others entering your home. Dominance in a dog can quickly lead to him determining who enters and who leave the home (pack). It can be the condition that puts you in jail or in court. It is a condition that once it begins and is not immediately corrected becomes your worst nightmare and typically leads to the pet’s demise. No one wants an aggressive pet nor should any family have such an animal. There are times when your dog, for any number of reasons, has a screw loose and is aggressive because they are unstable. Regardless of the cause of the animal’s dominance, aggressive behavior typically follows, as that is the way your dog needs to control you or the situation. Dogs, who after a qualified determination, have a screw loose and are out of control should be put down. There are certain behaviors that cannot be modified and for that reason, those pets are unsuitable for a normal home. This is not as harsh as it is a practical reality.

Certain dogs have a tendency to herd and will nip you to get you in line. This is a form of dominance and even though some think it’s acceptable, it will lead to more major issues if the dog thinks that the behavior is what is expected. Some GSD’s are mouthy and use their mouth to lead you or to get your attention. This isn’t aggression but it is a behavior that is akin to dominance and will eventually have its own issues. These include a dog grabbing a child’s arm or shirt and when extracted gets scratched. That leads to the parents saying that your dog bit their kid and in days you’re in court. Any negative or inappropriate behavior that your animal exhibits at home or in public can be corrected if done properly. In most cases these behaviors can be put into prospective based on the dog and his particular home, environment or job.

Don’t ever tech your dog to bite for any reason other than if you are using him for protection, policing, guarding or where that is his main function. Teaching a house dog to bite is like walking around with a hand grenade 24/7. You just can’t be there al all times to control them and therefore unless it is a skill you require, should never be taught. Unlearning biting is impossible so be careful how you plan the training of your dog.

Dominance is not necessarily born into your pet but can be easily developed in any pack animal. Someone has to lead the pack and if you are too weak to step up, the dog will. Dogs, especially GSD’s recognize the need to lead and control and will simply bypass you and take over if you let them. Dogs always develop a pack mentality instinctively from the time they are born. The first step in their survival is to join the pack. Dog’s hunt together, fight and eat together and do most everything together in the pack setting during their entire lives. A pack is made up of everything in their domain. This includes you, your wife, your kids and grand kids, other dogs, your cat, your bird and whatever other critters you have in the home. A pack is undefined as it can shrink or grow based on circumstance. Even when dogs lose a member they are pragmatic enough to move on and assume whatever position is needed in the pack. This assimilation makes pack membership a major part of their life and allows them to move forward through most any positive or negative condition that may arise. The pecking order in the pack usually starts with a leader and if that leader isn’t you and your family, then expect problems right away.

Rescue dogs join a pack and need to be accepted. If you are the leader of the pack, don’t go hugging your new dog and welcome him by (what to him) is a subservient behavior. Wait until he comes to you for acceptance and await the same protocol for him to come to your kids. Once the dog sees that he can enter the pack by being accepted by all of you, then and only then, will he begin to assimilate into the fold. Pack leaders don’t seek out the attention of new members but rather await their request for acceptance. Once the ‘nose of acceptance’ is offered, then of course give him a hug and treats, affection and acceptance, but not before he asks for it.

Once the dog thinks you and the pack are weak he will begin a thought process of how he can help protect his pack members. He doesn’t show this outwardly but the behavior starts immediately. If you are not the top dog, he will be.

The traits to look for in aggressive behavior are things such as resource guarding. Protecting his food and toys from other pack members is a dominate characteristic and can lead to bites. If you control the food and you control the toys, you are then understood as his pack leader. Resource guarders have no place in a normal home as that can only lead to disaster. Determining who can enter is also a dominate trait. Make sure your dog knows to go lay down when someone new comes so that he sees you are in complete control and will call him if needed.

Rescue dogs that we put into homes have typically been tested for those traits and if they exhibit them, they are not accepted nor ever re-homed by me. If those behaviors begin, many times the reason is the weakness of the pack leader. Dominance in some cases therefore is a learned behavior.

Dominance is a subtle set of behaviors that collectively are easy to understand but separately need to be evaluated in context. In humans, standing in front of your dog, erect, confident and in control of your space, creates a situation that your dog interprets as leadership. Leaning down over your dog and (to him) cowering in front of him, is a sign of weakness. Chasing him around to hug him rather than demanding his presence in front of you, makes him understand that he is in control, not you. This also applies to your pack members (wife and kids) so make sure they understand the concept. If they are weak and you are strong, the dog will see himself under you but above them and act accordingly. That would mean that when you leave he is next in charge!

You create their limits and you create house rules. It is how you implement structure in the pack that will determine the success or failure of your leadership and control over the pack members. Dogs will always test your dominance. Case in point. You set the rule of no dogs on the couch. You implement the rule for the first 3 weeks your new rescue dog is in your home. In week 4 you are sitting alone watching TV, with your wife and kids at the mall. You say, “Fluffy come on up on the couch”. Fluffy looks at you like you have two heads because he can’t understand why you would change a rule. You have now effectively taught Fluffy the couch is OK to be on, regardless of the rule which is now totally negated. Your dominance in establishing the rule was tested and it failed by your own doing or undoing as the case may be. Rules crate and maintain dominance and without them you have chaos. By the way the same concept applies to your kids….I’m just say’n!

Dominance needs to be communicated in order to be effective. Since Fluffy doesn’t speak your language you need to correct him in a way he understands and is not detrimental to your relationship. Undermining his perception of your dominance by your inability to communicate the rules is something that you must understand before getting a dog. For example: Smacking him with a newspaper if he tries to get on the couch isn’t a reasonable approach to learning because it instills fear rather than setting a rule in motion. Baring him physically from the couch or demonstratively putting him back on the floor and saying NO COUCH, is one technique. Correcting him with a pinch collar lead during the first few months the rescue dog is in your home is also effective. For puppies, simply saying a gentle NO and barring them from the activity, regardless of what it is, works well as they are quick to absorb rules. Grabbing an older puppy by his scruff and offering a slight non violent shake saying NO COUCH is effective when the dog reaches that teenage testing stage in his life. All dogs will test your rules and leadership frequently and subtly.

There are a few techniques that help defuse dominate posturing by your dog. One such method is to fixate a laser lock stare into his eyes. He will back off and look away usually after a few seconds if he is passive, but if he is assertive and seeking leadership he will also stare back and whoever breaks the stare ‘wins’. You may have to do this more frequently than you would like to until the dog recognizes he cannot win. Dominance really translates into winning in a dogs mind. If you play tug of war with your puppy and he wins, he will always want to win. In this way when he plays with your 4 year old son he will violently grab the tug toy out of his hands and can cause an accident or injury. If you establish the rules, he can implement them as he sees fit as he is then the defacto leader. One way to do that is to play ‘give and take’. Put a ball or a toy he likes in his mouth and take it back. Do this 25 times and he will understand that what’s his is yours and what’s your is yours for the taking.

We recommend never letting your pet win at anything at all. They don’t care if they win or loose so long as they are playing with you. If you establish a pattern of them winning, don’t be surprised to see that behavior manifest itself in all behaviors.

Begging at the table is a form of dominate behavior. “I want your food”, is clearly what fluffy is saying. You have it up there and I need to get it down here. Counter surfing is also a ‘bad behavior’ but a dominate one, in that Fluffy sees what is yours as his and simply takes it because he is in control, and in his mind, the leader of the pack.

Not returning the ball during play is a dominant behavior as is peeing on you, stalking you, nipping you, growling at you and lack of response to your commands. If these are the conditions that exist at your home, then you are a weak ineffective leader. If you understand that these behaviors can be modified and possibly corrected then you have a lot of work to do. The tough love program in dog behavior modification is one possible answer, as is doggy boot camp. I will say that training in your home can be effective for dominance there, but inherently training on neutral ground proves the most effective form of behavior modification.

If the dog doesn’t understand your intentions or commands and does what he thinks you want, he is not necessarily being dominate but you certainly are being ambiguous, weak and lack dog training ability and leadership. Training makes for a dogs clear understanding of your intentions and instructions. It will enable you to curb bad behavior and for you to set the dog on a road to a great relationship. Failure to control the dog and establish working rules open the door to disaster, which is why we get 40% of our dogs turned-in at 1.5 years old and untrained.

One final remedy to establish a dominance between you and your dog is the doggy-down technique. This works and I have used it numerous times much to the dismay of the dogs I have used it on. Fluffy, be he 5 to 105 pounds, needs to understand you are bigger and badder than he is. In order to do that by sheer intimidation you simply stand up straight in front of him. Failing that you lay him down on his side and simply lay on him, holding him securely under you. He will tense up, muscles pulling and squirming but you are relentless in holding your position over him. You hold firm until he settles down and his muscles relax and his tension is negated. Only after that time can you relent and allow him up. Withholding food until he does a simple task such as sit also sets the stage for who’s in control of the food. The same applies to treats and hugs. Don’t reward bad behavior, make him do something for his reward. He will like that, because that is what happens in a pack. If your dog glares at you, glare back at him in a more forceful manner establishing that that behavior is not acceptable. Dogs read eyes very well and respond to the winner of the laser eye lock duel. Earning praise and rewards is a great way to train your pet. Becoming violent is not. Train by leadership and be in control. You will quickly see if your techniques are good or bad by watching the behavior of your pet. If he walks up to you and gives you a nose rub or kiss means he is happy to see you. Contrarily, if he walks around you it would indicate that he fears you because if he respected you he would inherently understand that he is welcome in your space all of the time. If his tail is tucked when he sees you or if it is waving like a flag will indicate how he perceives your leadership and friendship. If his ears are boxed or if he cowers he is clearly scared of you and whatever you are doing needs to be quickly undone because you have gone beyond dominance and into fear which is no way to live with your best friend.

Finally dominance is LIMITED TO YOUR OWN DOG AND PETS. Do not establish dominance with dogs you don’t know. Meeting a new dog properly requires respect in standing erect and allowing him to approach you. Dominate posturing is unnecessary with dogs you meet as you have no clue what they have been taught nor if your posturing will be returned with a bite.

Pet relationships are in many ways fragile. They can be built so as to withstand basically anything or any circumstance, but during the building process we all need to recognize that each training or correcting element and each rule and understanding between pet and owner is like a carefully placed glass block in a fragile glass house.

Love your dog and he will love you. Correct, teach and defend your pet as he would protect and defend you. Dogs are living breathing animals whose domestication has made them man’s best friend, don’t abuse that unguarded loyalty and fail to teach and train them to be good citizens and pack members.