The American Dog Trainers Network

Taming the Dominant Dog

by Robin Kovary

A dominant dog knows what he wants, and sets out to get it, any way he can.
He's got charm, lots of it. When that doesn't work, he's got persistence with a capital "P." And when all else fails him, he's got attitude. There is hope, however!

By following the suggestions below, you can help turn your hard-to handle pooch into a wonderful, responsive and loving canine.

Will The Real ALPHA Please Stand Up!

The term Alpha refers to the leader of any given pack (family or group). Dogs which fancy themselves as the Alpha are generally pushy, manipulative, demanding and dominant. They like to call the shots in any relationship, and expect others to follow their lead. If your dog acts like the dominant member of your pack, you'd be wise to begin taking steps to turn your relationship around. [NOTE: This is NOT meant to suggest that one should treat their dog harshly to accomplish this result!]

It's important to note that the terms dominant and aggressive are not synonymous, although the two traits often overlap. While a dominant dog likes to control their pack, the aggressive dog takes it one step further, using threats and/or actual aggression to gain and keep control.

Interestingly, a dog's dominance level may be high in relationship to people while quite low with other dogs, or visa-versa. Then there are those dogs who tend to be dominant (or submissive) with both people and other dogs.

Your Role As The Pack Leader

Hopefully, your dog sees you as his or her pack leader ("Alpha"). Being the "Alpha" does not mean acting like an ogre with your dog. In fact it's your responsibility as a pack leader to treat your dog humanely and fairly, and to protect him from physical and emotional harm. Being an effective pack leader means being authoritive without being harsh, gentle and kind without being over-permissive. Like a good parent, being "Alpha" means combining the best traits of a guardian, teacher, ally, friend and benevolent leader.

Eliminate Games Which Encourage Aggressive Behavior

If you are a novice dog owner with a dominant puppy or dog, games which encourage team work and are non-adversarial in nature, are usually best. Fetch is a good example of a game where your dog is taught, in play, to work with, and for, rather than against you.

Playing games (such as Tug-O-War) that pit a dominant puppy or dog's strength against yours may encourage rowdy or aggressive behavior, especially if the puppy initiates the game and frequently "wins" the game (ends up with the toy). Allowing this to happen can inadvertently teach your puppy some lessons he could do without, such as the power of his teeth, that he' s stronger than you, and in encounters against you that he's likely to win (i.e. when for example you are trying to remove chicken bones from his mouth).

NOTE: One can minimize the behavioral consequences of playing Tug-O-War by carefully following these steps:

    a) You should be the one to initiate the game.

    b) Make sure your puppy or dog earns the game by responding to a simple command (i.e.: "Sit", "Down":, "Look", etc.).

    c) Only use an appropriate intermediate object to play tug with (such as a tug toy).

    d) Never use your hands to rough-play with your puppy or dog.

    e) If your puppy or dog misses the toy and accidentally (or intentionally) nips your hand, say a firm "Oww!", and end the game abruptly (then put him in a one-minute Down-Stay).

    f) Teach your puppy/dog a verbal command and hand signal to stop the game instantly (and only consider playing TUG-O-WAR if you can stop the game "on a dime" at any time).

    g) You should "win" the game (end up with the toy, and put it away) most of the time.

Begin Training Early

If you've got a dominant puppy, begin functional obedience training early (ideally when he's around 10 to 14 weeks old), before bad habits have had a chance to take hold. Functional commands include: Sit-Stay, Down-Stay, Stand-Stay, Heel, Let's go, Wait, Come, Corner (in elevators), Go to place, Go to your room (crate), Say hello, Take it (treat or toy), Leave it (anything or anyone you don't want your puppy to approach at that moment), and Drop it.

One especially important exercise to teach a dominant puppy or dog is the Down-Stay, as it will help establish yourself as his leader. In most cases, I recommend teaching the Down command using a lure and reward method. Once your dog knows the command well, should he refuse to comply, gently place him into a down position and praise. [NOTE: If your dog is in any way aggressive do NOT try this yourself! Only an experienced trainer or behaviorist has the know-how necessary to train an aggressive dog safely.]

Using positive, motivational methods is essential, as a gentle training approach teaches the puppy trust -- an essential ingredient in any good relationship.

Keep Dominant Dogs Off Furniture

Territories carry great significance to a dog. If your dog is dominant or difficult to handle, it must be made clear to him that your furniture belongs to you, not your dog, which means he shouldn't be allowed on it. This is especially true of your bed.

Your puppy should consider his being allowed up on your sofa or bed a privilege not a right; and only responsive, well-behaved, mild-mannered (and of course fully housetrained) dogs should ever be allowed up on furniture, and then only if the owner approves.

Doorways and Thresholds

Pack leaders lead packs ! Literally and figuratively ! Doorways and other thresholds signify territories, which means that if you and your dog both come to a doorway simultaneously, you should enter or exit ahead of your dog. Allowing a dominant dog to dash through ahead of you sends him the wrong message.

Owners of dominant dogs should also prevent their dogs from blocking doorways. Dominant dogs frequently control access-ways (such as doorways) throughout the house by laying across them, and expecting household members to walk around them.

Another significant "territory" is you. If your dog attempts to mount you, or treats you like a human exercise mat when you're sitting or laying down, that doesn't say much for his respect for you. Neither "activity" should be permitted.

Make Sure He Receives Lots Of Outdoor Exercise

A well-exercised dog is a happier, healthier, better-behaved dog. A lack of active physical exercise and stimulation often leads to a hyperactive, destructive, difficult dog. City and suburban dogs who receive insufficient outlets for their energy are usually more needy of constant attention indoors (and therefore may resort to misbehaving to get that attention).

While your dog should not be allowed to show rough or rowdy behavior towards you (or other innocent people), assuming your dog isn't dog-aggressive, he should be allowed to "rough 'n' tumble" with other compatible dogs as long as this rowdy play doesn't overwhelm either dog, or escalate into aggressive behavior.

Hierarchy and Feeding Order

In the world of dogs and wolves, pack leaders eat first. Therefore, if your dog is dominant by nature, it is important that you control the order of who gets fed first.

If you and your dog eat around the same times of day, eat your meal prior to giving him his meal. (Generally speaking adult dogs should be fed two meals a day, while puppies should be fed 3-4 meals a day depending on their age).

Prior to feeding your dog, leash your dog, tell him to sit, fill his food bowl and place his bowl on the floor a few feet in front of him. Have him sit for about 10 to 30 seconds prior to releasing him to eat. This helps strengthen his sit-stay, and reinforces your position as the leader of the pack.

If your puppy or dog is especially dominant, do not offer him treats and tidbits freely throughout the day as a gesture of affection. Only offer him treats if your trainer or animal behaviorist recommends that you incorporate them when obedience training, doing food bowl aggression-proofing exercises, house training, or as part of a behavior modification program. In general, treats, praise and enjoyable interactive contact (petting, playing, affection) should be "earned" by teaching your dog what you want (by issuing basic commands such as "Sit" or "Down"), then using both treats and "life rewards" to reinforce desirable behaviors.

Handle and Groom Your Puppy Frequently

If you have a dominant puppy, teach him to accept being handled, gently restrained and groomed on a regular basis. Gently brush the undersides of his legs and tail, and around his head, ears and neck, rewarding him with praise and a treat during each successful grooming session.

Have Him Earn Your Affection and Attention

Dominant dogs can be especially insistent and pushy. If your dog usually initiates activities or physical interaction, insists that you pet or play with him regardless of what your doing at the time, and he won't take "No" for an answer, he's probably a dominant dog, or at least has tendencies in that direction.

If you have a dominant dog who frequently demands your attention by jumping up or pawing at you, have him earn your attention and affection by having him do a brief sit-stay or down-stay first. For example, a sit for a pat (or any pleasant physical contact, positive attention or interaction). This little exchange helps create and maintain a reciprocal relationship. This way your dog is getting the love and affection he craves, but on your terms.

Note: Most dogs enjoy (and certainly deserve) lots of affection and attention. If however, you have an especially dominant dog (or a dog who is aggressive towards you), it's important to note that lots of kissing, doting, petting, whining, and "baby talk", may be inadvertantly signaling to their dominant dog that they too believe that he's king of the household.

Final Note:

It is also important however, that in the process of being (or establishing oneself as) the leader of the pack, the whole issue of "dominance" is not overblown, because if misinterpreted, it can easily become an excuse for abuse. Unfortunately, some dog owners and trainers use the excuse of maintaining dominance as justification for acting like tyrants towards their dogs.

Recommended Books, Booklets & Videos

AlphaBetize Yourself (Booklet)
Author: Terry Ryan

The Dominant Dog (Video)
John Rogerson
Contact: Cheryl L. Trotter

How To Be The Leader Of The Pack
Author: Patricia B. McConnell, PhD
(Dog's Best Friend)

Recommended Links

 Attitude Adjustment Program
(Suzanne Clothier, Flying Dog Press)


Copyright 1995 - 1999,  Robin Kovary

Photo Credits











Robin Kovary is the American Dog Trainers Network helpline director
 and canine behavioral consultant.