Chris Shaughness

author, speaker, animal lover

Behavior Problems,  All Articles


A veterinarian tells a client that her dog is dominant because the dog would not lie down for an exam. The vet instructs the dog owner to do a “dominance down” on the dog to show him who is boss. The dog weighs 5 pounds and was frightened out of his mind at the vet’s office. Was this dog’s behavior a show of dominance or fear, and what would be accomplished by alpha rolling this little dog? The term “dominant” seems to be used a lot lately to refer to dogs’ behavior. It’s a general description that is all too frequently diagnosed. Some dogs are labeled as dominant just because they have learned to train their owners and are pushy. That’s what I call a smart dog, not a dominant one! Or dominance can be misdiagnosed when a dog won’t listen. That could be due to lack of proper training. Then there’s the dog who resists being handled, such as not wanting to roll on her side or back. Is that dominance or could it be fear? So, what is dominance and how do you work with it?

Dominance is defined as the ability to control access to one or more resources. A resource is anything desirable – food, toys, furniture, even a person. Dominance in this context is not a bad thing. A true leader controls resources, but in a fair manner. The problem arises when the dominance becomes aggression. One example is when the dog growls at her owner when the owner tells the dog to get off of the sofa. The dog thinks the resource is hers and is protecting it. This is abnormal behavior and the dog needs to be shown that the resource does not belong to her. How? The solution is not about physical force and intimidation.

There is a huge misunderstanding about dog behavior that is being perpetuated by people who truly do not understand dog behavior – some dog trainers, television personalities and other pet professionals. Several decades ago, someone was studying wolves and happened to observe one wolf who pinned down any other wolf who challenged him. The observers concluded that he was the leader of the pack and used this method to achieve the leader status. That move was called an alpha roll, or some call it the dominance down. Call it what you like, but more recent studies have shown this to be false. Sadly, the mistaken belief is still being disseminated. In reality, a true leader does not have to resort to physical means to show that he or she controls the resources. The real leader in an animal pack shows leadership by subtle movements and eye contact but rarely violence. In fact, violent displays demonstrate a lack of control and make the leader seem more vulnerable and less like a leader. Think of our own human leaders. We lose respect for them if they lose control. An insecure, lower ranking pack member is more likely to resort to displays of force, and that’s when the pack leader must fight back to defend himself.

If we try to show our dogs that we are leaders by doing a dominance down/alpha roll, we are really saying we are out of control. The action will not show leadership in your dog’s mind. More times than not, the dog will become fearful of us and will make the behavior you are trying to correct worse. Or if the dog has aggressive tendencies, doing an alpha roll on him will get you bitten.

If someone tells you that your dog is dominant, or if you encounter a dog that you suspect is dominant, a more thorough analysis is necessary. A good understanding of true dog behavior is required to make a qualified assessment. Back to the little 5 pound dog… After I evaluated him and watched his interactions with his owners, I determined that he is a very smart guy yet had some fears. He showed absolutely no aggression and no dominance displays. Doing a dominance down on this boy would have reinforced his fears, especially of the vet and her office, and may have lead to aggression. But not dominance aggression – fear aggression.

The only way to be a benevolent, effective leader to your dog is to fairly control all resources. You call the shots, not your dog. And no physical punishment.