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

It’s unlikely that either a wolf or a dog would forcibly roll another animal except in the context of a serious fight. And by “serious fight,” I don’t mean one of those loud, fast doggy arguments that end with saliva on the fur and nobody hurt. I mean a fight in which the combatants are trying to do damage. Many dogs respond to being alpha rolled by giving up; I believe they’re not so much trying to communicate that they accept your lordly rank, as trying to turn off your weirdo aggression. But some dogs will fight back, which makes the alpha roll not only scary to the dog but also dangerous to you.

People generally resort to the alpha roll and other physically confrontational techniques when their dog aggresses—barking and lunging at another dog on the street, for instance. This is not only risky but unproductive, because it increases stress and arousal in a dog who’s already experiencing more than enough of both.

Modern, science-based behavior modification never relies on physical confrontation. Programs are tailored to an individual dog’s history and circumstances, but the general principles stay the same. We manage the dog’s environment to keep everyone safe and comfortable. And we work with the dog patiently to teach appropriate responses, at first in the mildest possible form of the problem situation, and later in close approximations. We always set the dog up to succeed and be rewarded.

You should put on your skeptic hat pretty much any time someone talks about a dog’s behavior problems in terms of rank and dominance. These ideas come largely from problematic observations of wolves—observations made in artificial circumstances and then extrapolated to a different species, dogs. You’re good to go if you focus on teaching your dog manners that make her easy to live with, and leave the myths behind.

As always, send comments and questions to dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. And you can talk to me on Facebook, where, amazingly enough, I’m The Dog Trainer. Dogalini is me on Twitter. Thanks for reading, and have a great week.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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).