With this post, I want to talk about myths surrounding the topic of dominance.
Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of truisms like “You can’t let your dog on the couch,” “You have to eat before your dog,” “You need to make sure your dog moves out of your way when you’re walking, rather than stepping around them,” or “You can’t play tug-of-war with your dog—and you definitely can’t lose.” You’ve probably heard some of these things too.
Many of those tips are actually just myths. If you’re doing the right things with your dogs—establishing a good relationship, teaching obedience, instilling impulse control—then there is a decent chance that inviting your dog onto the couch or losing at tug-of-war is perfectly fine. It’s not wrong to eat before your dog, but there are so many things that are far more right.
We give a social hierarchy checklist that we give for our clients, which outlines things like keeping your dog off the bed and making sure that you walk through doorways first. Those recommendations are absolutely true when they need to be, and there are two specific situations when they need to be true.
The first situation is an owner who isn’t following through on obedience training in the way that they should. They aren’t promoting the correct relationship with their dog, and as a result they need to use these little tips to keep their social hierarchy in the right place: owner as the leader, and dog as a happy follower.
However, some people need this checklist because their dog is, by nature, more dominant than most. “Dominant” is itself kind of an overused buzzword, but in this case it refers to a dog that’s willing to push to get their way. Most living creatures—including dogs—don’t want to upset the balance of a social situation. They realize that if they’re too pushy, things might not go their way. But some dogs are more dominant and will do whatever it takes to get their way. Those kinds of dogs need their owners to follow this checklist: stay off the couch, walk without pulling, wait at doors, don’t jump on people.
For the average dog, however, those checklists aren’t necessary. The whole reason that these myths have been spread is the idea that we need to be leaders of our dogs. That’s a solid idea. Our dogs live in a domesticated world that we’ve created for them and that they don’t know how to navigate. They don’t know what stoves and cars and doors are. This isn’t their world, so it’s important to have a leader that deciphers things for them. That’s where the dominance myths come from.
But the reality is that the best way to show leadership to our dogs is through things like obedience, structure, rules, and clear expectations. Create expectations and make sure your dog sticks to them. It’s not always easy to establish that “sit” means sit, and that “come” means come.
Can you play tug-of-war with your dog? Can you let him sit on the couch? More than likely you can, as long you’re doing everything else right. If you happen to own a dog who’s highly dominant, you might need a social hierarchy checklist to be sure that you have the right relationship with your dog.