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.

If you want him to walk more or less next to you and keep the leash slack, by all means teach him that! Check out my tips on the subject and take a reward-based manners class. Just don’t waste your energy worrying that your authority is being undermined every time Dogalini speeds up to reach the next fire hydrant.

Myth #2 -- You Should Assert Your Rank by Eating First

Just picture the wolf pack around the kill, with the alpha male hitting the sirloin while Wolves Beta, Delta, Gamma, and Omega hang around all humble and hungry-like. Alas for this invigorating image, a normal, free-living wolf pack is not a war of all against all. It’s usually a family, with Mama and Papa Wolf taking care of the kids. If we take wolf behavior as a model for how we live with dogs, then we could assert our status by teaching our dogs that when they lick our faces, we regurgitate food for them. After all, that’s what Alpha Mama and Papa do.

Dogs, on the other hand, mostly scavenge. Animals’ mode of food-getting affects their social structure, so free-living scavenger dogs don’t generally form stable family groups or packs. Rank among dogs who do live in groups is poorly understood but seems to have something to do with affiliation. The more friendly encounters an animal has, the more likely the other dogs are to travel in the same direction as he does and spend time near him. And whoever finds the chicken carcass eats it, without troubling herself about her rank.

Teach your dog to wait patiently while you prepare and deliver her meal. Use food as a training reward. And don’t worry about how the dynamics of foraging at the garbage dump translate into “We’re going out for dinner now. Here’s your food-dispensing chew toy, and have a nice time.”

Myth #3 -- Alpha Roll Your Dog to Assert Your Dominance

This is another of those Wolves at War ideas. On closer observation, it turns out that what’s going on in an “alpha roll” is that one wolf offers deference to the other. He drops onto his side and exposes his neck and groin. The wolf who’s being deferred to sniffs the deferring wolf and walks away. If you’ve ever seen your dog roll onto his back when you approach, it’s basically the same behavior – still socially useful to dogs even though their lives are so different from those of their wolf ancestors.

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).