No topic gets more muddled by myths than dominance. I recently had two different students ask me how to deal with a dominant dog because an established person in the field gave them questionable advice. One was advised by her vet that, “she better be alpha” and yell at her dog more to get training results. Another student was advised by a trainer that, “you must train commands without food in order to get the dog’s respect.” Are these accurate statements? Should you use different training techniques with a dominant dog?
For this discussion we will define a dominant dog as a confident personality type that prefers to be in control of situations and resources. This does not mean the dog is aggressive, it just means she prefers to control resources and make her own decisions rather than give up control and take direction from others. The opposite of this is a submissive-type dog that is happy to let others be in control and take resources from him at any time. The submissive-type dog readily responds to direction from others.
How does a dog get to be dominant?
A dominant dog may be that way by genetics (natural personality) and may also learn dominant behaviors based on what she was able to do with the other dogs or humans she grew up with. As you learn in our course, you cannot separate the nature (genetics) from the nurture (learned behaviors). Dominance would not come from poor socialization, but could come from a certain type of social environment (where the dog learns to be the boss and control resources).
Can I use reward-based training with a dominant dog?
Of course! I would train a dominant dog using reward-based techniques (including food), but I would never neglect good leadership and good handling. Good leadership means being consistent in your communication and rules. It means you don’t spoil the dog by giving everything away for free, but that you control rewards and give them out for great behavior. You set up situations so that the dog learns to see that “the best things in life happen to me when I am paying attention, exhibiting self-control, and showing good manners.” The dog must also learn that “no fun ever comes as a result of me being pushy or out-of-control.” When you are consistent with these rules, and sound in your handling techniques, even a dominant dog will respect you.
Good handling is using your body and/or leash to keep your dog under control and manage the physical space she occupies. In dog training speak, how well you “handle” dogs is a direct reflection of whether or not you are in control of the dog. Good handlers are well appreciated all over the dog world: in training, shelters, day care, vet offices, grooming, and public. Poor handlers have dogs “walk all over them” – literally and figuratively.
The relationship factor
The first key to training any personality is to find out their biggest motivators and use them as rewards. But, if you’re talking about training a dog to be a well-behaved family member (as opposed to just perform a set of obedience commands) then the RELATIONSHIP becomes a big factor. With a dominant dog, you have to be strict in the everyday interactions that form your relationship because if you give an inch she may take a mile. This simply means you stick to the leadership rules I described above. In other words, there are some “easy” submissive-type dogs that will be well-behaved even if you spoil them and let them walk all over you. But, with a dominant personality, more than other types, you may pay the price for poor leadership. Leadership, of course, should never be harmful, but it may have to be strict and should always be consistent.