When Dogs Challenge Authority

A white dog sitting outside with its had cocked looking at its owner.
by Monica Webb, Forum Moderator - DoItYourself.com/pets

Q. I have a lovely 2 Yr. old dog. He comes from a fine Pedigree Line and his mother was very "mild" mannered, docile dog. However, my dog is very dominant and continues to jump up on "Me" and my family members along with others. He puts his "paw" up when I attempt to attach his leash or when I try to change his regular collar to his "Training Collar" as if he's trying to stop me from putting the "Prong" type collar on him because he knows with the collar on I am in control of him. Once I'm able to finally get the "Special" collar on him "Rudy" is an obedient and well mannered dog.

He's been like this since he's a puppy. I'm the man of the house and show him that I'm "The Top Dog" however he still continues to be aggressive & dominant with myself & others a lot of the time. On the same token he can be very loving & affectionate and loves to be petted or have his belly rubbed. I've tried many different training techniques on him but I've yet to break him of these very dominant behaviors. We LOVE our dog and want to raise him to be the best companion he can be. Please offer your suggestions to help us achieve this goal?

A. For obedience training to proceed smoothly, your dog must consider you its alpha leader. This means that it considers YOU the boss. There are a number of exercises you can to to establish and maintain dominance over your dog. Individual dogs vary in submissiveness. If your dog is very submissive, you don't need to worry about establishing dominance (in fact, you may need to tone down your own dominating behavior to help bolster its confidence). Most dogs are happy to be submissive: just be sure to show approval at the occasional signs of submission, and assert dominance if it tries to test you (most dogs will, in adolescence). A very few dogs may be dominant and continually challenge you for dominance, in which case you will actively need to assert and establish your position, but this last is exceedingly rare.

More often, people will misinterpret adolescent high energy or bratty behavior as ploys for dominance when they are not. Think of a two year human child testing her parents. She's finding out what the limits are rather than actually "challenging" her parents for leadership. Puppies and young dogs do exactly the same thing. Correct them firmly, but don't go into an all out "dominance battle" -- it's inappropriate and your dog will begin to distrust you. Returning to the toddler analogy, the most you might do is a sharp word or a small swat on the rear. You would not pick her up, hold her against the wall and scream at her. Remember that most dogs are still "young" (in human terms, under 20 years of age) until they are two or three. In other words, don't confuse physical maturity with mental maturity.

Never mistake being alpha with punishment. An alpha leader is fair. An alpha leader deserves its position. An alpha leader does not use fear, punishment or brute force to achieve and maintain its position. An alpha leader, instead, makes it crystal clear what behaviors it approves of and which it does not. An alpha leader expects its subordinates to follow its lead, it does not force them to.

If you get mad at your dog, or angry or furious, you've lost the alpha position. Dogs do not understand fury. You have to be calm and focused.

Always show approval at signs of submission:

  • Praise your dog when it drops its eyes first.
  • Praise it when it licks you under the chin.
  • Give it an enthusiastic tummy rub when it rolls over on its back.
  • Be consistent and fair in your corrections
  • You must demonstrate to your dog that it can trust your orders.
  • Do not ever correct the dog after the fact. Such corrections appear to be arbitrary and unfair to the dog, because it has no associative memory the way people do.
  • If your dog is still a puppy, socializing it is a good way to gain its trust
  • .
  • If you decide that some action requires correction, *always* give a correction when you see that action.
    • For example, if you decide that your dog is not allowed on the sofa, then *always* correct it when you see it on the sofa.

Consistency can be a big challenge with a family: every family member must agree on the basic ground rules with the dog; when and for what it should be corrected, what commands to use and so on. Families must cooperate extensively to avoid confusing the dog. It is best if only one person actively trains the dog; thereafter if the commands are given the same way, everyone in the family can use them.

Finally, always use the minimum correction necessary. If a sharp AH-AH will do, use that rather than an alpha roll. If a pop under the chin will do, use that rather than a scruff shake.

Correct the Dog's Challenges

Especially during adolescence, your dog may test and/or challenge your position. Do not neglect to correct this behavior. You don't need to come down like a ton of bricks; just making it clear you don't tolerate the behavior is sufficient. For example, don't let your dog crowd you through the door, don't let him jump out of the car until you've given him permission, don't let him jump for food in your hand. Don't let him ignore commands that he knows.

Learn How to Display Alpha Behavior

You may not need to use all of these, but you should be familiar with them. They are listed in "escalating" order. Do not use any of these if you are angry or upset. The point is never to hurt the dog, but to show it who is alpha. They work best if you are calm, firm, and matter of fact. Again, always use the minimum correction necessary.

More important than knowing how to perform an alpha roll is learning to play the alpha role. That means having the attitude of "I am always right and I will never let my dog willfully disobey me" without ever becoming angry or giving up. Picture a small two-year old toddler, for example. You're not in a struggle over who's "Mom" but over what the child is allowed to do, and there's a crucial difference in the two.

Using an alpha roll on a dog who is already submissive but disobeys because it doesn't know what is expected of is destructive to the relationship between you and the dog. Likewise, using an alpha role on a dominant dog but not using any other positive reinforcements can alienate it. Most dogs never need to be alpha rolled in their lives.

Furthermore, alpha rolls are one of the strongest weapons in dominance arsenal. Save it for the gravest of infractions.

Being dominant is no substitute for learning to read and understand your dog. Proper obedience (which should be a part of any dog's life, even when "only" a pet) is a two way street and requires you to be as responsible to your dog as your dog is responsive to you.

There Are a Number of Ways to Demonstrate Dominance:

Timeouts: put the dog on a down stay or if not yet trained to do so, put it in its crate quietly and without fuss. Fifteen minutes is fine. No yelling is necessary, keep it all very quiet. This is often surprisingly effective, since dogs are such social creatures.

Eye contact: alphas "stare down" subordinates. If your dog does not back down in a stare contest, start a verbal correction. As soon as it backs down, praise it.

Taps under the chin: alpha dogs nip subordinates under the chin as corrections. You can use this by tapping (NEVER hitting) your dog under the chin with one or two fingers. Don't tap on top of the muzzle, not only can you risk injuring your dog's sense of smell, you may make him hand shy.

Grabbing under the ears: alpha dogs will chomp under subordinate dogs' ears and shake. You can mimic this by holding the skin under your dog's ears firmly and shaking. Again, do not use excessive force. Do this just enough to get the point across. DO NOT grab the top of the neck and shake. You may injure your dog this way.

Alpha roll: Pin the dog to ground on its side with feet away from you. Hold scruff/collar with one hand to pin head down (gently but firmly) with the other hand on hip/groin area (groin area contact will tend to cause the dog to submit to you.) Not recommended.

Insist On Decorous Behavior

Feed your dog after your own dinner. Make him lay down while you are eating rather than beg at your lap. Don't let it crowd through a doorway ahead of you. Don't let it hop out of the car until you say OK. There are a variety of small things you can do that assert your dominance in a non-traumatic way. If you're clever about it, you can use them to get a well-behaved dog (one that doesn't shoot out of the front door or scramble out of the car or beg at the table). In particular, putting a behavior that the dog wants to do on hold until you say OK is a very good way to be the alpha and keep the dog well behaved.

Make Sure Your Dog Obeys Everyone in Your Family

This is a fairly important point. If your dog seems to have trouble obeying a particular family member, you must make sure it does so, by always backing up the family member when he or she tells the dog to do something. If the family member seems to be afraid of the dog, or is very young, then you should supervise all interaction until the problem is resolved.