Does my dog want to be the boss?

Author picture Katy  - updated: 06/08/2019

Raising a dog isn't always straight forward. Of course, you adore your dog, but sometimes they can do things that drive you crazy: barking at visitors or at people on the street, growling at other dogs, chewing your stuff or ignoring you when you call. Also as dog sitter, it can be challenging to work with a dog that won't listen to you. Does your dog just want to be the dominant one? Or is something else going on?

For a long time, dog trainers have worked according to the 'dominance theory'. This theory was based on the assumption that a dog naturally wants to be the leader of the pack and is therefore always trying to claim the alpha position in the family. A lot of undesirable behaviours, such as aggression or ignoring commands, was explained from this theory: the problems were supposedly caused by the desire to be 'top dog'. A dog owner (or dog sitter) would be advised to take a dominant leadership role and suppress unwanted behaviour with corrections or punishment. But evidence suggests dominance theory is arguably outdated and incorrect. And fortunately, there is a much kinder way to raise and train our dogs!

Harmony in the pack

At the time, research on dominance theory was based on wolves held in captivity. Wolves in nature, however, behave more harmoniously with each other. Their packs are not dissimilar to a human family. The domestic dog also behaves much more according to this 'harmony pack model'. This means that your dog just wants to be friends with every member of the family. Dogs don't seek to dominate you, but just want to feel a real connection with you and the other (human) friends of the household.

Wolves in the wild (and also domestic dogs) don't like to fight and compete with each other. Yes, there is a hierarchy in the pack but this can change according to the situation. The leader is the one who is best able to guide the group at that moment. But that role can change if necessary.

But why is my dog behaving badly then?

If your dog doesn't want to 'dominate' you, then why would there still be antisocial behaviour? Why does a dog bark, for example?  Or why do some dogs display aggression? There can be many reasons for this. Fortunately, dogs help us to understand through their body language.

Your dog will always give subtle warning signs in advance. For example, if your dog sees another dog sees approaching from a distance, pay close attention to your dog's body language, attitude and behaviour. Your dog may show immediate fear: tail down, licking lips, yawning: these are signs that your dog is uneasy and wants to be left alone. If dog owner or dog sitter misses these signals and allows or even forces the dogs to interact, things can go wrong: such as growling, snapping or fighting. Your dog's behaviour might be interpreted as attempting to dominate by being aggressive, while in reality your dog was afraid and had already shown warning signs of this.

The same applies to situations at home. Maybe things happen at home that creates stress or discomfort for your dog: loud children, other pets, not enough quiet time or too little activity and stimulus. Maybe your dog is simply shy or insecure and behaves 'tough' in compensation. Or maybe your dog is in pain and doesn't like to be touched. If in doubt, always consult the vet.

Get to know the body language of your dog so that you understand what they need to stay balanced and happy.

Does a dog need a strong leader?

By all means, a dog needs a committed and patient leader. That means you, as a dog owner or dog sitter, need to take the time to observe your dog's behaviour to understand what they are experiencing. If a dog continues to bark or does not listen when you call, there may be several reasons for this. Maybe your dog is scared, bored, stressed, has too much energy, is sick or is has experienced trauma. As such, your dog needs a partner and friend more than a boss.

Furthermore, the role of the pack leader is not to have all the 'power'. There's really no need for practices such as eating before your dog, or to walk through the door first to make clear that you are the boss. A dog simply won't understand this. Even dogs that walk in front of you during your walkies don't do this because they want to overpower you. It's rather the other way around. The alpha dog walks at the back of the pack and keeps an overview of the group. If your dog walks a few meters in front of you, they are actually doing that to 'explore' the area. Cute!  Read more about how to walk multiple dogs.

It is important though to be clear and consistent by clearly stating what you want from your dog. Dogs want nothing more than to please you, and your dog will happily try their best if you make it clear what you want. 

How should I raise and train my dog?

Of course, every house needs its rules, also in 'harmonious packs'. But rules are a means of living comfortably together, not for fighting for power. For example: you might not want your dog to jump on your bed. That's ok, just remember that your dog just wants to get on your bed because it's a comfy place and because they want to be close to you. The bed has that soothing smell of you! Therefore, don't punish your dog for jumping on the bed, but turn the behaviour around: take your dog to another comfortable spot where they are allowed to be and praise them there.

Why doesn't punishment work?

Correcting 'bad' behaviour can be effective in stopping the unwanted behaviour, but this approach can cause problems in the long term. You would have seen this on popular television programs where a short correction causes a dog to listen on the spot. The dog will obey, but only from the fear of punishment. If you keep doing this, the bond between owner and dog will be built on distrust and fear. Fortunately, there is a better way.

It's better to reward good behavior and to redirect unwanted behavior. Does your dog chew on your shoes? Move the shoes out of reach and give your dog something else to chew on. Do they bark at people passing by? Distract your dog with a ball game and reward them accordingly. Does your dog run towards other dogs? Catch your dog's attention with a treat and praise if they ignore or greet the other dog in a friendly manner. This approach takes a little longer to change unwanted behaviour and it requires more patience. But the reward is beautiful: you will develop a lifelong bond with your dog based on friendship and trust!

Talk to your dog sitter

Is your dog regularly walked by a dog sitter? Or does your dog sometimes stay at the dog sitter's home? Tell your dog sitter as much about your dog as possible so that your sitter knows what to expect from them in social situations. Tell the sitter what your dog is afraid of, what kind of dogs they like to play with, what they enjoy and what they don't like. Inform your sitter about your dog's body language and personality. By doing so, the dog sitter can help prevent problem behaviour and maintain harmony in the 'pack'.