What to Do About a Bossy Dog

Is it wise to encourage one of your dogs to boss around the others?

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
January 25, 2011
Episode #092

Anybody who’s got more than one dog has noticed that that sometimes Dog A will take the bone or the bed away from Dog B, or that Dog B will push out the door ahead of Dog A, or that Dog C will snap at Dog A and Dog B if they approach you while you’re patting Dog C. The common view is that this pushiness expresses pack leader status--Dog A is taking away Dog B’s bone because Dog A is the alpha. And, we’re often told, we should support the alpha dog in his or her alphaness. 

Not so fast! Issues of rank aren’t that clear cut in Dog Land. And the received wisdom about how we doggy guardians should respond turns out not to be so wise. 

Is a Bossy Dog an “Alpha” or a Bully--or Something Else?

First, the question of rank. It’s interesting that when one dog takes away another’s bone, or stares at her until she leaves the comfy bed, or shoves him away from you when you’re petting him, we think his behavior reflects alpha status. He’s the leader of the pack! Yet when a child behaves in exactly the same way--taking another kid’s lunch money or his window seat on the bus, or beating him up when the teacher has praised his work--we call it bullying. And we tend to think of bullies as insecure wannabes.

I do use the term “bullying” with my clients, as shorthand and because I want to offer a fresh perspective on behavior that many people have been led to believe is natural and inevitable among dogs. But the truth is we don’t know what’s going on in the dog’s head. If they’re sorting out their ranks, then why does it often happen that one dog always gets the comfy bed and the other dog always gets the rawhide chew? Is it the higher-ranking dog who goes out the door first, or the dog who spotted the squirrel and has faster reflexes? 

Is the Idea of Dog Ranks Bogus?

Also, like pretty much every other living thing on the planet, dogs will take the easy way to get what they want.

Suppose one morning middle-aged Dogalini has a particularly appealing bone and she’s also feeling a little bit under the weather. That same morning, young Zippy is feeling on top of the world and extra hungry. He starts nosing around Dogalini’s bone. She’d normally give him a hard stare to send him packing, but today she’s not up to even that little bit of conflict. She gives up the bone. Zippy starts taking away Dogalini’s bones regularly. Humans nod wisely and say, Ah yes, aging dog is losing rank in pack! But try a less speculative account of what’s going on. It’s quite likely that Zippy’s not playing King of the Castle--he’s just a normal, smart, opportunistic dog who likes bones and has found a new way to augment his supply. 

Life in the Wild versus Life in the Home

Why do we call it “alpha behavior” when dogs do it, but bullying when children do it?

Now, canid ethologists do generally see a relationship between an animal’s rank and the control he or she exercises over valuable resources.  But we’re putting the label of “rank” on a cluster of behaviors even though we have no direct information about what’s going on in the minds of the animals involved. Plus, whatever’s the case with free-living dogs, wolves, or coyotes, it’s not obvious how it applies to our dogs’ lives with us. Our companion dogs spend most of their time in our houses, for example, and that shuts out a lot of behavioral options--like hiding their bones or leaving to find a new home territory. 

What to Do About a Bossy Dog

To go back to Ziggy and his new bone-acquisition method, then, how should we respond? Well, my dogs live in my house, and we will not be acting out anybody’s version of Call of the Wild. I want my Dogalinis and Zippys to be able to enjoy their bones in peace and to leave each other alone for those all-important doggy naps. I want to moosh up Zippy without Dogalini shoving him away, and vice versa. I like orderly exits--no doggy charges at the door. 

If that sounds good to you, here’s a sketch of how to achieve it. Teach all your dogs basic good manners--a stay; waiting for permission to go out the door; a cue that means “Leave it alone.” Manage situations as needed to keep your dogs on the straight and narrow--if Ziggy frequently takes Dogalini’s bone away, then crate Ziggy or keep him behind a baby gate while the old lady enjoys her chew. Supply attention and affection to polite dogs and withdraw attention and affection from rude dogs. Say Dogalini always crowds out Zippy during ear-moosh time, make it a policy that Dogalini gets ear-mooshes only when Zippy is around and getting them too. 

My next article will cover in more detail how to handle mild jealousy between your dogs and teach your pushy dog that politeness and deference are the best route to get what he or she wants out of life. Meanwhile, check out a wonderful guide to living with multiple dogs--it’s “Feeling Outnumbered?,” by Karen London and Patricia McConnell. I’ve drawn on it extensively for this article and my admiration for it comes from personal experience. “Feeling Outnumbered?” was a huge help to me in defusing dangerous conflict that arose between my dogs Juniper and Isabella.

You and your peaceful household can follow The Dog Trainer on Twitter, where I’m Dogalini, as well as on Facebook, and write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and I may use them as the basis for future articles. That’s all for this week. Thank you for reading!


For a provocative discussion of “dominance” as a learned behavior, see John W. S. Bradshaw, Emily J. Blackwell, and Rachel A. Casey, “Dominance in Domestic Dogs -- Useful Construct or Bad Habit?,” Journal of Veterinary Behavior (2009) 4, pp. 135-144. 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock