Is Every “Dominant” Dog Owner a Bully?

Want to see someone’s head explode? Use the terms “pack leader” or “dominant” at a clicker training convention.

But is every person who worries about his dog dominating him really a bully?

Mike is "dominated" by his dog.

C’mon Mike. What kind of pack leader lets his dog dominate him like that?


Teaching a Golden Retriever to be Submissive

Honey’s breeder taught us a lot.

We had long discussions about genetics and breeding for health and temperament. We learned about grooming. And we how important it was to raise Honey so she didn’t dominate us.

We had to teach Honey how to be a submissive pack member. The breeder showed us how.

Golden retriever puppies in a whelping box.

Mr. Breeder sleeps on the couch beside the whelping box for weeks in case anything goes wrong. Yep, sounds like a bully to me.

Mr. Breeder gently picked up one of Honey’s litter mates. He tickled and snuggled the puppy for a few moments. Then he gently rocked the pup back in the crook of his arm. The instant the puppy stopped wiggling, Mr. Breeder rubbed his tummy and loved him up before returning him to his sisters.

Yeah, that puppy looked really traumatized by his treatment.

Honey the golden retriever puppy stands on a table.

I’m not trying to dominate anyone. I’m just looking for a better view to find the treats you’ve hidden.


Actions Are More Important Than Words

I’ll admit it. The first time I heard Mr. and Mrs. Breeder talk about pack leadership and dominance, my teeth set on edge. I started spoiling for a fight.

But then I settled down and watched.

These people knew their dogs. They saw their soft temperament and knew that any rough treatment would damage these sweet spirits. And they knew that the best way to raise a happy dog was to provide a safe environment for her to explore new things as a puppy.

After a while, I figured that as long as the breeders were gentle trainers who cared appropriately for their dogs, I didn’t have much of an argument with their referencing outdated science and bad terminology.

The truth is, we rely on bad science every day. How recently have you heard the following:

  • Don’t go outside without a coat. You’ll catch a cold.
  •  Men think about sex every seven seconds.
  • You lose most of your body heat through your head.

It’s all bogus. But I can’t persuade my friend that her foster kids won’t die of pneumonia because they take off their jackets to play in the winter.

Mike sits on the couch with a golden retriever, chocolate lab, and Boston terrier.

Yep, we dogs have put Mike in his place. Now he’ll never move off the couch.


Have Your Response Match the Action

I know there are jerks who strangle their dogs and flip them over hard on their backs in an attempt to make them submissive. If I didn’t know it would end worse for the dog, I’d wish those owners would get bitten. Luckily, I don’t meet many of them.

But I see lots of loving dog people who spout crazy talk about eating before their dogs, walking through door ways first, and making their dog move off the couch in the name of being a strong pack leader.

And I don’t care. The dog certainly doesn’t care. He may think his person is being weird. But it probably won’t affect his behavior.

Alright, I do care. But I’m not going to fight about it. That just makes people defensive and stubborn.

I might, however, toss off a little remark about how the scientist who originally brought the pack leadership theory of wolves to our attention has updated his research. He believes wolf packs are more like families. And maybe that’s true for dogs too.

If my guess is right, that’s information a lot of “dominant” dog owners who love their dogs very much would be happy to know. Because I bet not every person who thinks they have to be a dominant pack leader wants to bully his dog.

Your Turn: Do believe it’s important to correct every dog training mistake? Or are you willing to judge actions before words?




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  1. Your dogs look adorable and the seconf pisture is wow

    Welcome to join my blog

  2. At our house, things are pretty lax. We know Mm is supposed to be the leader, but we don’t have harsh rules, occasionally I take over the pack leader role, we are all happy and healthy, friendly pups and that is all that matters in our pack.

  3. We are a pretty laid back pack over here. No one is really in charge, well maybe in charge of doling out food. Torrey likes to herd us sometimes when we are hiking, but that’s about it.

  4. I guess daddy is kinda the pack leader, but I don’t mind who’s in charge, just as long as I get fed:-)

  5. Julie Blackwelder says:

    I believe training has to be tailored to each individual dog. The only really dominant dog I have ever owned turned 11 yesterday. Pixie is a 15 pound, female 1/4 shihtzu, 1/4 peke, and we suspect 1/2 JRT. (Mom was a rescue/foster, 1/2 shih tzu and 1/2 peke, already PG when I got her.) Pixie was from a litter of 6. She was the third smallest in the litter, but she and the largest pup, also a female, would have killed the runt, a male, at less than 3 weeks old if I had not closely supervised, and often rescued him into my smock pocket for a peaceful nap.

    When I cleaned their puppy pen, I placed them all in a crate, large enough for a full grown medium sized dog. At three weeks old, the rest of the pups were peaceful, chewing on toys or each other, or taking a nap. She climbed to the top of the crate, screaming non-stop. She strained so hard that she partially herniated her rectum. (Treating that is a whole nother story, but it repaired its self as she matured and the muscles tightened up.) I had to pad the crate heavily because she would hang on at the top of the crate, bumping her nose on the top bars, until she was exhausted and fell to the floor of the crate. After a few moments rest, still screaming, she would again climb to the top and repeat that over and over for about 20 minutes until she finally was totally exhausted and would go to sleep.

    Before she was 3 weeks old, when playing with the other pups, if another pup got rough she would go into “killer mode”, growling, snarling, biting so viciously I would have to forcibly detach her from the other pup. She guarded the food, toys, and bedding like a male lion in a pride.

    Many times a day I picked her up, put her belly up in my arms and forcibly held her, my hand on her chest, until she would finally submit. The whole time I talked to her, soft “No.” and then cooed to her, stroked her chest, belly, feet, sides of face and then put her back into the puppy pen. I did that many times a day for months, even after all of the other pups had homes and she was the only one left.

    By the time she was 6 months old she was a well behaved, well trained, social, and happy member of my pack (two adult shah tzus). I have never seen her do more than a soft growl to a dog that was really being a pest. Other than rare bouts of stubbornness, I have seen none of the dominant behavior she exhibited until she was about 4 months old.

    I dread to think what she could have been if she had been a huge dog, or belonged to someone not willing to spend the time with her, or someone unaware of what she needed.

  6. We have training down to a tee here. The humans know I’m in charge *waggy tail*. Jokes aside, of course the humans still believe they are the pack leaders but who cares as long as I get fed, walked and played with *waggy tail*

  7. I had to laugh when you changed your mind and acknowledged you did care; it made me feel better for caring so much about silly things like word definitions. These words do bother me a great deal. There is an agility school close to where I now live that I would love to check out but their website uses some terminology I find troubling. As much as I want to get involved in dog sports again, and as much as Shiva needs it, I can only work with a coach who shares my values. It’s hard to know what questions to ask without offending.

    I will always inwardly cringe when I hear someone use the terms you described but I will work on not always assuming the worst as well.

  8. Great post! After the Facebook discussion last week, you inspired me to keep my fighting words to myself but offer some bits of helpful, non confrontational information instead. I already do this when I’m with individual people (“I read this great book that talked about how that science is outdated and they have a better understanding now.”), but I’m less inclined to do so in a group. I’d like to provide some information to people to get them thinking, but find a more informative way rather than combative way. I’m a reporter, I should be able to do that, right?

  9. As a person who used to use old school training techniques and who now only uses positive, I can say that, while i’m not a bully, that old school mindset made me feel like one.

  10. I like to think of myself as a team leader rather than a pack leader. Luckily I have dogs who are happy to be part of my team rather than wanting to lead it as well!

  11. We are a pretty laid back pack. I mostly rely on my dogs’ strong verbal skills to keep them in line.

    I also am influenced by my friendship and observations with our police K9 trainer who works once a month with all the dogs and handlers to reinforce the commands they have learned. He says if the dogs sense weakness or sloppiness from a handler, the dogs (Belgian Malinois) are eager to step in and take over. So the training is as much for the handlers as for the dogs.

    I don’t think Poodles or mutts are this eager to be in charge, but I do think on-going training is important.

  12. Thank you for this post! I confess I often have a knee-jerk reaction to people using certain words when talking about dog behavior/ training and I have become ridiculously sensitized to semantics. I don’t like the way I feel and react emotionally …even if I keep my mouth shut and pretend not to care so much, I know that I do care too much. I never think to refer to David Mech. Must remember this one :)