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

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. 


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).