It is very understandable that people are led to believe that dogs are dominant. We hear it everywhere, magazines, television, trainers, etc... Just because something has been followed and believed for years does not necessarily make it so. Dogs are descendants of the wolf, yes, but dogs do differ in quite a many way and pack forming and dominance is one of them.
The problem with this belief is that all the research that was done studying pack formation and dominance was done with animals in captivity. They were never truly studied in the wild, which is where the real truth has emerged. Feral and free-ranging dogs in Romania, for example, have been studied extensively and, in the wild, they have been clearly seen to not form packs. What they do form is a type of group with a mother, father, and offspring. A family setup, so to speak.
The pack idea has certain "dominant" dogs being in charge and controlling the other dogs in terms of food, resources, etc. The problem occurs when this idea makes its way into the home.
When dogs enter your home as a new member of the family, they know nothing about how things work until they are shown how it works. They don't come in dominant. They come in doing what it takes to get what they need and want and it is our jobs as owners to teach them how things flow in our homes. There is a very simple phrase that it crucial to training your dog. Here it is...
DOGS DO WHAT WORKS. They will do whatever it takes and whatever has worked in the past to get what they want. Let's look at some behaviors that people generally lump into the "dominant dog" syndrome.
When a dog jumps, he is not being dominant, he is simply greeting you. Dogs are very social animals and what they want is to reach your face to say hi! Jumping will get them there easily. If this behavior is reinforced by anyone, the behavior will grow stronger and more frequent because it worked. The dog got attention for jumping. Again, it's not dominance, IT"S WHAT WORKS. It is our job to teach the dog that jumping will not work to get what he wants. Sitting will.
When a dog is pulling you down the street, is he being dominant? Absolutely not. Dogs LOVE to go for walks, especially if there's a dog park or some other fun activity awaiting them. That leash to them means fun. In their mind, they're thinking, "Yay, a walk, yay, new smells, new sights, yay!!!" Of course they want to pull to get there faster. Notice how after your dog has walked or run around at a park, he doesn't pull as much or at all? So is he only dominant on the way TO the park and not on the way back? No, it's because he is tired and had the fun that he couldn't contain himself from before. So again, the pulling is to get what the dog wants, not to exert dominance in any way. It is our job to teach the dog that pulling will not get him to where he wants to go faster. It will take longer because we will stop when he pulls.
How about nipping and growling at you? Many people think nipping and growling is a dog attempting to show control over you and keep you away from "his stuff". Nipping, and not safe nipping in puppies during play, is in many cases related to fear. Many dogs are not conditioned to enjoy body handling and have not come to see this as a good thing. They're either being grabbed by the collar to leave something fun, being pulled away from something that they're chewing, etc..If dogs aren't shown that body handling is a good thing, they will nip and growl to keep the hands off. It is a self-defense mechanism, in a way. But, if a dog is trained to like when people touch them, this behavior will start to decline and it is NOT because the dog becomes less dominant, but because the dog is shown and conditioned to see hands coming at them is a positive thing, not a scary one. It is our job to teach the dog that hands on them are good.
Another popular behavior usually labeled as dominant behavior is barking. Once again, if a dog has ever been reinforced when he barks at something, he will continue to do it. If your dog barks at you when he is hungry and you feed him, you have just reinforced the barking and it will continue. If your dog barks when he wants to go outside and you let him out before he is quiet, guess what? He will bark at you every time he wants to go out. It is our job to teach the dog that barking will not get his what he wants. Being quiet will. Remember, DOGS DO WHAT WORKS.
In conclusion, dogs come to us, in many cases, like children. Waiting to be molded. If we approach our dogs like they are dominant, "out to get us", or thinking "they don't listen!", we are setting ourselves up for failure. Dogs want to do whatever it takes to get what they want and if we show them the right way to do this, we will create the strong, trusting bond with our dogs that we all strive for.