Partnership, Leadership or Dominance – what does your dog need?

Have you heard: “You need to show your dog who’s boss.” Or what about “No, you need to be a good leader.” And then there is “No, dominance has “been debunked”, your dog doesn’t need a leader they need a partner.” I’ve even heard “while dogs have a hierarchy, humans are a different species and don’t see humans as dogs”

So many opinions. Which one is right?

I was once confused about this too. Here’s my research:

What does Science ACTUALLY say?

The thing is, many people have opinions. But where can we actually find more reliable answers? Seeing as the question is about dogs… dogs are the best source for answers. 

The other resource I like to refer to is Dr. Roger Abrantes, who is the only Canine Ethologist. The important thing to note is Ethology is science. It’s the scientific study of animals in their natural habitat and in captivity. 

Here’s his view on dominance: “Dominance exists in all species. Recent trends claim that “dominant behavior” does not exist in dogs, which poses some serious problems. There are two ways to argue in favor of such thinking. One is to dismiss “dominant behavior” downright, which is absurd since, for the reasons we saw above, the term exists, we know roughly what it means and we can have a meaningful conversation using it. It must, therefore, refer to a class of behaviors that we have observed.”

Does Dominance Exist? And does it actually matter?

Can dogs recognise humans as their leaders? Well, here’s the simple explanation. Dogs do attack and bite their owners? If they didn’t, then the argument that humans have no usable influence over a dog would be valid. But dogs bite people, and sometimes kill them! Even their owners. Yet, you can place those same dogs with another person, and those dogs would not put a foot wrong. Why? How?

Let’s look at why dogs listen to one person, but not another. One of Raven’s pups:, Alita is a good example. Alita had bit me on both wrists, and I decided to send her to one of my good friends (and my mentor) Guus Knopers. If leadership didn’t matter, then she would have had to be put to sleep over her biting. But Alita is not biting him (she tried once, and realised that that’s not such a wise choice). I have hundreds of these stories. Because I specialise in working with aggressive dogs.

OK, one more example. Let’s talk about Ella. With me, Ella behaved. With her male owner, she was a little bit on edge, but OK. But she bit someone when she was with her female owner. Why did Ella behave for me and her male owner, but she wanted to bite people when her female owner held the leash? Don’t worry, Ella’s mum has since taught Ella that she doesn’t need to bite anyone anymore.

So, is dominance debunked? 

Like people, dogs have different personality types. Some want to please you, others don’t care how you feel. Some people are arrogant and dominant, and others are people pleasers, dogs are the same. If you’re looking at a dog who is a people pleaser, they want you to be happy. So, generally, they will be less likely to show any kind of dominant behaviour.

So where did the Anti-Dominance stance come from? It started as anti-Cesar Milan backlash. The whole pinning the dog down, and pushing your dog onto their back is unnecessary and dangerous. No, you do not need to do this. Your timing will likely be off, and you might even make your dog scared and because they have nowhere to go, they’ll probably bite you (and the problem with that is, if you don’t handle that right, you’ll teach your dog to bite you!).

I also completely understand why many feel that they should be anti-dominance. Labelling a dog as dominant makes people afraid of their dogs. Many will then be mean to their dogs. That is unfair to your dog.

Does That Mean you Should Show Your Dog Who’s boss?

I like to say that if you need to “show your dog who’s boss” you’re not a very good leader. Let’s think about a teacher or a boss you had. 

I once had such a boss, who thought she had to show us who was boss. But you see, no one respected her. I even dragged her off to the HR department! No one liked her. No one respected her.

But how can you be a good leader? 

Check out our next blog: How Good Leadership can Help Your Dog!

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