Is there such a thing as a dominant dog?

(This question is from my coursework for the ISCP Diploma in Canine Psychology).

The term “dominant dog” is a mislabel at best, and ignorantly dangerous at worst. For some people, a dominant dog is regarded as aggressive, violent and needing to be controlled. The “old school” of thought regarding dominance would have owners doing the Alpha Roll on their dogs, to teach them who’s the boss. An Alpha Roll is where the dog is physically thrown onto his back and pinned down by the human, the premise being that the dog then knows who his “pack leader” is. To the human, the dog then looks and acts submissive, when in actual fact it has merely shut down and gone into withdrawal.

More “old school” techniques to counter canine “dominance” include the use of electric collars, prong collars, choke chains, scruffing (holding the dog up by the scruff of its neck), hitting the dog, prodding or even kicking it in the ribs. All these techniques do nothing to instil trust between human and canine, and only serve to teach the dog that humans are cruel and bring pain. Shelter dogs displaying fear-aggression at being approached or patted on the head, may have suffered at the receiving end of some or all of these inhumane techniques.

In a group of dogs, there are always extroverts and introverts. The extroverts are those showing off and trying to lead the games, while the introverts are quite happy to follow the leader. Having said that, leadership amongst a group of dogs meeting socially at a park is different from leadership in a wild wolf pack. For social dogs, the dynamism of who’s the Dominant or Alpha dog can change from one moment to the next. Each time a new dog joins a group of social dogs, butt-sniffing is the first order of the day, followed by posturing and calming signals, and the dogs decide if the newcomer is going to be the Alpha dog, or one of the crew. Sometimes, of course, dogs fight, but this is not so much jockeying for the position of pack leader, as a clash of personalities or a fight over high value resources.

Some dogs can be bullies, just like some people. Bullies like to throw their weight around, but in actual fact they are secretly insecure…some of the most “dominant” dogs I’ve come across are actually chihuahuas, who, being diminutive, try to make up for their size by letting you know that they possess a set of teeny tiny, razor sharp teeth, which they will use if provoked. And chihuahuas are famous for having short fuses. They can also be the sweetest little lap dogs, of course.

Dominant behaviours in dogs include non-sexual humping and placing one’s head over the neck and shoulder of another. My 2 dogs, Scruffy and Shelagh, get on famously, yet sometimes, when play has gotten a little too rough, Shelagh, the bigger but younger dog, will grab Scruffy round the waist and dry hump him. Sometimes Scruffy tries to mount Shelagh too, but a look, a lip-lift or a nip soon warns him off. Shelagh, being the taller of the two, finds it easy to show her dominance over Scruffy by putting her head over his neck and shoulder. I’ve never seen Scruffy try to do that to Shelagh, or indeed to any other dog. Scruffy is neither an extrovert nor an introvert, he’s just a happy-go-lucky dog and everyone’s friend.

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(Image source: Google Images)

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