Dog behaviour 101 (or should that just be 1?)

“When you stereotype a person you miss so much of who they are.”  

I don’t know where I read this, but it has stuck with me.

The same applies to dogs.

Dominance theory has encouraged people to stereotype dogs by sorting them into two groups; dominant and submissive. That’s it.


This misses so much of who that dog is, how that dog is and what that dog feels. Yet people fell for it; hook, line and sinker, perhaps because of its delicious simplicity.

Are dogs really that one dimensional?

I don’t think so.

Are you one dimensional?

Do you have different relationships with different people?

Do you sometimes feel confident and in control?

Do you sometimes feel overloaded and overwhelmed?

Do some situations make you feel upset or nervous?

Would you be upset if someone stole something you valued?

Do you ever feel afraid?

Do you ever feel misunderstood? Does that frustrate you?

Do you ever lose your temper?

Do you ever laugh until you cry?

Have you ever felt pushed around or bullied?

Have you ever acted in a mean way towards another person?

I suspect you’ve answered yes to everything here.

I did.

Would you like to be labelled according to one relationship, or one character trait, or one behaviour quirk, or one response to a situation? How accurate would that label be?

We are people with conscious thinking brains, able to reflect upon, and manage our behaviour, yet that behaviour constantly ebbs and flows according to moods, situations and learning.

Why on earth do we expect constant, predictable behaviour from the simpler thinking dog?

Is that why people are so ready to label dogs as either dominant or submissive? Because dogs think more simply? 

Maybe not, because there’s a twist.

Scientists use the term ‘dominance’ unemotionally and have their own understanding of what it means. Unfortunately an awful lot of the dominance thinking in dog owning circles  is emotionally fraught.

As Jean Donaldson points out in “Culture Clash”, in the dog world ‘dominance’ often involves labelling the dog’s behaviour as power plays or spite. This implies the dog is consciously plotting or deliberately mean spirited. That puts a whole lot of responsibility on the dog and its brain capacity. This interpretation sees a dog’s thinking as quite complex.

The Power Play

Dominance theory narrows a dog’s behaviour down to power seeking or not.

What do many humans do when they feel their power is at stake? They feel threatened and stand up for themselves.  If the human believes the dog is trying to assert his/ her authority, then the human must repel the challenge. 

This sometimes includes the use of varied levels of force. Techniques may be mild or more severe, ranging from verbal corrections and assertive body language through to scolding, jerking on the dog’s neck, slapping the dog under the chin, rolling the dog over and holding him/ her there, jabs with the hand, kicks, yelling, hitting, throw chains, and suspending the dog by the neck.

Tools which are designed to be uncomfortable when used, even painful, include choker, prong and shock collars. That said, most tools, even basic collars, head halters and harnesses, can be used to cause discomfort.

A lot of people who really love their kids still yell at them and smack them. I believe that people who really love their dogs may still choose to use some force in their training. The question is, in a world where wild animals are trained without force, is it really necessary to use force with dogs?

I’ve used it in my training in the past. Admittedly I used it badly because I didn’t know how to use it effectively. I also became frustrated and angry. It wasn’t much fun for me or my dog. However, even when used with perfect timing by a skilled handler, force carries risks which many handlers are unaware of.

When you remove the ‘dominance’ and ‘submission’ filters and learn about the many body language signals and sounds a dog uses to communicate, you uncover a rich emotional life. These signals can be missed or misunderstood when the focus is only on power shifts.

These days I have no use for dominance theory. I see my dog differently. I understand training and behaviour differently. I am motivated differently, and I have a different level of self control. I don’t want to use discomfort, pain or fear within my training method, so I constantly strive to avoid them. Mostly I succeed.

 “Leadership and Self Deception”  by the Arbinger Institute.

I recently read this book.

It pointed out that genuine considerate behaviour comes from genuine considerate feelings. When we truly feel concern for someone as a person, we will act out of that genuine concern. We can fake it, but it’s fake and it won’t change our underlying motivation (which is often to get our own way or be proved right).

When we feel like we ‘should’ do something and we don’t do it, we begin to justify our thoughts and behaviour. That leads to blaming the other person, inflating their faults and our own virtues and feeling a range of emotions including anger, frustration, challenge and self righteousness.

In our own way, we actually ‘want’ them to keep getting it ‘wrong’, so we can continue to feel those feelings, think those thoughts and behave as we always have. Then we won’t have to change because the problem is outside us.

Could this apply to how we see dogs too?

I think so.

Dominance (and its associated ‘disrespect’) seem to be a handy excuse for behaviour and training difficulties.

For example; “I ‘should’ walk and train my dog more”  might morph into… “but he’s so awful on leash and he lunges and barks at every other dog we see. If he didn’t do that I would take him more places. He just ruins walks for me when he drags me around and acts like a maniac. He knows how to behave himself because he’s good at home. I’m sick of being embarrassed and having my arm dragged off. He’s a total *%#@!,  so why on earth should I even bother to walk him when he shows such total disrespect for the effort I’m making. I go out to work in a job with long hours and high stress, so I can afford the best food, toys, collars and comfortable beds for him (one in every room for goodness sake). I’m tired at the end of the day. You’d think he’d show more appreciation! Instead he just wants to throw his weight around and do whatever he wants. ”

Not every handler who believes in dominance theory is going to tell themselves this story, but when the dog is labelled ‘dominant’; any non compliant, annoying or anti social behaviour seems to become the dog’s fault. In many cases it then seems to become entirely okay to dish out whatever level of force seems suitable because the dog has brought it on him/herself.

Even when the handler has control and the dog has ‘submitted’, somehow the ‘dominance’ remains inside the dog, waiting for the next opportunity to challenge. The handler must always be alert and ready to deflate the dog’s ego.

The object

At the moment when we launch into self justification, blame, inflation of the other’s faults and our own virtues, we have lost sight of the living being and we see a ‘thing’ instead.

The person or animal has become an object.

The opportunity

Look past the thing and see the person or animal. Act with a genuine intention to do the right thing for them and your relationship with them. You will make mistakes. Everyone does. Rethink, rebuild, learn and move on.

People have many dimensions and dogs do too.

Change your perspective to “What does the dog need to learn? That is what I need to train.” Look at the behaviour and the emotions you want changed and work to change those, rather than focusing on stopping the wrong stuff occurring as a result of the invisible ‘dominance’ you believe lurks within.

It will change your life … and theirs too! 

Further reading/ watching

Leadership and Self Deception

Leadership and Self Deception on Youtube

Life in the Box