Dog Myths About Rank and Dominance

Three myths about dog rank, and where they come from.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #116

Scientists have been studying animal learning and behavior for over a century. But only in the last couple of decades have we started to apply that knowledge to dogs. Also, until recently there has been little formal study specifically of dogs. Instead, dog trainers drew general conclusions from their personal experience – which is fine, except that they often didn’t test their observations carefully, the way scientists do. Even worse, dog trainers often based their conclusions on what they thought they knew about wolves. But there’s a problem with judging the behavior of one species on the basis of what you think you know about another. Many of the resulting myths are still around, making training harder and damaging our relationships with our dogs.

Here are 3 such myths:

Myth #1 -- If Your Dog Walks Ahead of You, He’s Dominating You

There’s no evidence at all that dogs see “walking ahead” as an assertion of rank.

There’s no evidence at all that dogs perceive “walking ahead” as an assertion of rank. Canid social life is not a series of marches with the general out in front. If you and your water-loving dog are on an off-leash hike and he runs ahead of you to jump in the creek on a hot day, is he asserting his rank over you, or does he just want to cool off? If you throw the ball for your dog to fetch and she runs after it, doesn’t that put her ahead of you? The palace coup must be coming next. Or not.

Some likelier explanations: If your dog walks ahead of you, it’s because his natural pace is faster than yours, or because something up ahead has caught his attention. Or he may be hurrying because he’s anxious. For instance, maybe he’s afraid of thunderstorms and you heard that first crack while taking your afternoon walk. Or you have never taught him to keep slack in the leash while he walks with you. He learned to pull when he was a young and zippy pup, and now, as far as he’s concerned, a taut leash is just a normal part of the walk.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).