Studies of wolf behavior and the comparisons between wolves and dogs indicate that both species have numerous key social transactions in common for establishing and maintaining a pack hierarchy. Although I have moved toward a concept of leadership and "followership" (if you will), the concept of "dominance/submissiveness" is frequently used to describe such relationships among dogs or wolves. In fact, many trainers, behaviorists, and ethologists refer to dominance in dogs as a major contributing factor in many problems between dogs and their owners. Of course, some breeds tend to be more dominant than others, and some dogs within breeds may be more dominant than others since heredity and environment are two contributing factors.
Until we developed these Rapport Skills©, it was widely believed that the best way for an owner to deal with a dominant dog was to use punishment. However, having studied the experts' observations of wolf behavior and comparisons of the similarities between wolf and dog behavior, I have concluded there is a better way. Namely, to use human approximations of the same signals both dogs and wolves use to establish or maintain their status within the pack.
To define the relationship more clearly in human terms, I believe the concept of "leadership/ followership" is more appropriate than "dominance/submissiveness" as a way to understand what is needed to take charge of your dog's behavior. For ease of discussion, however, we will use the traditional terms here. In our use, they will refer only to pack ranking: Properly used in the academic context, these terms have nothing to do with using harsh methods to control a dog.
Of the more than 60 behaviors exhibited in common among dogs and wolves and noted by J.P. Scott, Ph.D., I have found approximately a dozen are highly relevant to maintaining a social order. I have also found that dogs respond to our human approximations of these signals much in the same way as they would to another dog's display of the same signals.
Take, for example, this comparable behavior among wolves and dogs: Wolves that are relatively high in the pecking order are more likely to eat first, to regurgitate food for pups, or to bring back food in their mouths for them. Consequently, the presence of saliva on food may signal that the one who had it first enjoys a higher status. Among dogs, some will eat anything even if it has another dog's saliva on it: Others will refuse to do so, unless, say, they have taken it from the other dog.
Testing the Concept
CAUTION: Do not attempt this with a dog that has already displayed aggression toward you -- particularly if it has "guarded" food or items in the past. I have seen dominant dogs that were also aggressive back up slightly, stand ground, growl, and bare their teeth at owners who tried to offer them a treat moistened with their (the owners') saliva.
To test this with your dog, moisten a treat and offer it to him. If the dog accepts it, he may not be the take-charge type or have a particularly strong drive toward dominance. Thus, the outcome may be of little concern. However, if you feel your dog tends toward a dominant personality (for example, if you believe he "refuses to listen," and so on), he may refuse the moistened treat. Keep in mind, however, that taken in isolation, a dog's willingness or refusal to accept a moistened treat does not "prove" anything. It is merely one possible indicator of how a dog perceives its own status.
Another way to determine whether a dog is the take-charge type is to carry out a behavior called "parading" -- which is something that wolves and dogs, alike, do to convey status. Hold one of your dog's chewbones or toys near your mouth and march around with it in a smug or arrogant manner. Observe your dog's reaction. It is passive, playful, or potentially aggressive? Again, I have seen Alpha (or leader) dogs react strongly to this display from owners who were not otherwise in charge of their dogs' behavior.
The same holds true for petting. We are all familiar with the terms "top dog" and "underdog" and know what these terms mean. Yet we seem to have forgotten that they stem from observations made about dogs' behavior, particularly with regard to status. The top dog may reinforce a lesser dog's submissive behavior by grasping its muzzle in its mouth from over top, by putting its paws on the lesser dog's body, or by mounting it. The submissive dog will crouch down, nudge or lick the leader dog under the chin, and so on.
The list goes on. Unfortunately, we can only observe these behaviors in situations that do not allow for controls or studies that will validate them. However, it is sufficient to say that when taken cumulatively, there are clear differences between what a top dog and an underdog will do or allow. To this we add another observation: Because dogs and humans are so closely bonded, dogs will -- and do -- accept and interpret human approximations of these behaviors much as they would among their own species.
Since all transactions form the rather complex makeup between dog and owner, I believe we need to observe how the two interact with one another in all aspects of their relationships before we can draw any specific conclusions. All rituals -- from feeding, to play, to sleeping or denning -- help to form the overall relationships and determine their outcomes.
If your dog has no dominance problems, is not a leader type, has no submissiveness problems, and is not overly timid, you probably stand a good chance of training him successfully without knowing much about leadership and followership. However, if you have any questions or concerns, it wouldn't hurt to read what I have concluded about the impact of owners' personalities upon their dogs' behaviors, or these Rapport Skills© exercises.
The concept for our Rapport Skills© has the endorsement of Dr. J. P. Scott, co-author of Dog Behavior: The Genetic Basis, (J. P. Scott & J. L. Fuller, Chicago University Press, 1965). Dr. Scott advised on this project, contributed to it, and helped edit it. We are grateful to him for his encouragement and support.
Before you begin training, ensure that you have established clear leadership over your dog in ways that dogs understand best. These steps will definitely help you do a better job, regardless of the dog's disposition. They are especially useful to those who wish to reduce the training time required by traditional methods.
Sleeping Habits -- Be sure the dog has at least one "safe" place such as a favorite corner of a room. When he is there, he must be free from all punishment or reprimands. "People" furniture does not make good "safe places" if you want to establish better control over your dog, however. From now on, do not allow him to sleep on the bed with you. While this may not lead to problems in many dogs, doing so may signal him that he has a higher status in the pack than he should have. To a dog, one bed is as good as another. Be sure he has his own.
Feeding -- If the dog knows "sit," give him that command just before you give him his dinner. If he sits, say "Good sit" and immediately feed him a few pellets of dry food directly from your hand. Then say "all right" to release him from the command and feed him the rest of the meal.
If he does not sit, or if he sits but refuses to eat from your hand, or does anything else, say nothing. Don't feed him. Instead, ignore him and walk away. Repeat the process in ten minutes. If he fails again to 1.) sit on command, 2.) remain still until you release him, and 3.) accept the kibble from your hand before you feed him, walk away again. Try one more time in an hour. If he refuses again, do not feed him until the next day.
Keep fresh water down for him, however. Some dogs may take three or four days before they will go through this ritual successfully, but they will not starve. After all, your request is a reasonable one, and his refusal or obedience is entirely under his control -- so far.
Moisten all treats with your saliva before giving them to him. Spit in his food bowl before he eats from now on. This simulates the regurgitation of food by an adult dog for a puppy, and his acceptance is also an acceptance of his lower status in the "pack."
Never leave his food bowl down for more than ten minutes. Fill the food bowl a quarter-full with water that is just a bit too hot for your wrist and put a small amount of food in the dish. As he approaches the pan, say "easy" in long, drawn-out tones. If he jumps in, just stand there. Repeat, "Eeeeasy" when he tries again. Soon he will lick around the edges and approach more gently. You now have used food in three ways to teach him that you give good advice.
"Parading" -- Periodically, walk past the dog carrying one of his toys, or anything that the dog likes, close to your face. Ignore the dog. You are doing a shortcut version of a pack leader behavior called "parading" that says you are in control. If the dog tries "parading," either ignore him or take the item away from him. Do not let him "make" you chase him, however.
Petting -- From now on, never pet him if he nudges you for attention. Pet him only on top of his head, back, or muzzle (similar to a handshake). This makes you the "top dog" in one more way. Petting him under the chin or belly makes you the "under dog."
If the dog is either overly timid, or, at the other extreme, an overly dominant, "take-charge" dog, start by petting beneath the dog's chin. Then throughout several contacts with him, gradually ease your hands to where you are petting him in the top-dog position.
With a dominant dog, stroke his ears back and his stroke his jaw muscles back so his mouth assumes a "smile." This is a submissive posture in dogs and you are reinforcing it by petting him at the same time.
Periodically, lay your hand, leg, foot, or arm over his back when he is lying down, sitting, or standing calmly. This is another way to establish your "top-dog" status. Never let him put his head or paws on you -- not even on your lap or your feet. Also, never let a "take-charge" dog lean on you. Leaning can be another form of dominant behavior among wolves and dogs.
Once you have progressed this far, from time to time stand over your dog, wrap your arms around his belly and lift his front end up toward you. This is a form of a behavior known as "mounting and clasping" and it also reinforces his submissiveness toward you. When he responds without struggle, praise him calmly by telling him he's a good dog.
"Marking" -- You may have a male dog whose habit is to "spritz" every tree, pole, and bush in sight when you walk him. Perhaps you have a female who marks territory. Some females even lift their leg much as a male does. However, it is more common for a dominant female to lift her leg off the ground under her body. Since this is not as readily noticed, most owners miss this signal of dominant behavior in their female dogs. This behavior serves many purposes -- one of which is to "advertise" their presence. Our position is that urinating and spritzing is acceptable to a degree. However, carrying it to the extreme of staking out "territory" is not.
If you feel your dog is an excessive "marker," here is what you can do: Walk the dog on a leash under your control, and allow him (or her) to urinate at the start of every session. During the walk, allow the dog to mark occasionally. If the behavior becomes excessive, though, and you have had difficulty getting your dog to obey in the past, do this: As soon as you see the behavior about to start, distract the dog and lure it away from the intended target place. You can do this by body language, sounds, and voice tones, or you can use a morsel of food. When the dog has abandoned the intention to "mark," praise it and give it the treat. Doing this on every walk will weaken the dog's marking behavior -- even as you work on root causes through these Rapport Skills© and elsewhere in the dog's training.
Eye Contact -- Periodically, train your dog that looking at you, or being looked at by you, is good. You can do this with luring, attention-getting, and other positive means. This is important, especially, with dogs that have shown dominance behaviors in the past. You may recall the old game in which the one who looks away first loses. In this case, teaching the dog to accept your stare is a useful way to establish or maintain your own "top-dog" status. In training, you should also teach the dog to watch your face, on command, for your signals.
With submissive, or timid dogs, you may want to do more of the opposites of the transactions described for establishing leadership over dominant dogs. Doing this in the early stages will help build the dog's confidence. Then over time you can gradually change over to interacting as you would with a bolder dog.
As you can see, the interactions are not difficult. In fact, you may have been doing some of them with your dog. The key is to do them all and to be consistent.
Stephen C. Rafe has been a canine-behavior practitioner since the early 1980s. His work in this field has been endorsed by leading professionals including Drs. M. Fox, D. Mech, R. Lore, and J. P. Scott. Trained at the college level with more than six years of study in psychology and sociology, he has contributed to the research in the field of animal behavior. His cure systems for dogs that fear gunfire, thunder or fireworks are considered by professionals and owners to be the most effective available. Steve is also the author of Your New Baby and Bowser, Training Your Dog for Birdwork, and numerous manuals and pamphlets on training and behavior.