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
4-minute read
Episode #92

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. 

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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.


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).