wikiHow to Work With Dominant Dogs

Three Methods:Improving a Dog’s BehaviorReinforcing Your Dog’s TrainingUnderstanding Canine Behavior

Having a dominant dog can be challenging to a dog owner. The term “dominance” communicates a belief that the dog wishes to assert his authority. Old training theories would advocate the dog owner showing dominant behaviors, but an increased understanding about dog pack structure has led to updated training theories.[1] It is now believed that dogs that seem to display dominance really just need behavioral training.

Method 1
Improving a Dog’s Behavior

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    Provide adequate entertainment. A bored dog is often a destructive or naughty dog. A bored dog will investigate his environment and provide his own amusement, often by chewing or destroying household items. Destruction due to boredom is not an act of defiance.[2]
    • Stuff a hard rubber toy with a hole in it (such as a Kong) with treats for the dog to work out. You can try embedding several treats in a wad of peanut butter and smearing it inside the toy.
    • In hot weather, you can even freeze the treats inside the toy to make them harder to get out.[3]
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    Feed the dog a proper diet. Dog foods high in protein (such as those specifically formulated for puppies or very active dogs) provide the dog with increased energy. Ask your vet if it would be appropriate to switch your dog to a high-fiber diet or a regular adult food.
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    Allow your dog to exercise. Ensure that your dog gets plenty of exercise that is appropriate to his breed and size.[4] Most dogs show more appropriate behavior when taken for a brisk walk twice a day.
    • Dogs that are naturally more energetic or breeds that are accustomed to being working dogs may require more physical activity.
    • Some activities that will encourage your dog to exercise include playing fetch, hiking, jogging (use caution when attempting to acclimate your dog to long jogs), and swimming.[5] Allowing a dog to fetch a Frisbee or ball in a large (preferably fenced) open area where he can run can give him good exercise for both his body and his brain.
    • Talk to your vet about how to safely incorporate new exercise into your dog's routine, particularly if the dog has not had much exercise in the past.

Method 2
Reinforcing Your Dog’s Training

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    Do not bully your dog. Advocates of the more outdated pack theory believe that an owner should assert dominance over a dog using physical force and reprimands to communicate that the owner is the pack leader. However, what the dog really needs is discipline through effective training.[6]
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    Use clicker training. Clicker training is a reward-based training method that teaches a dog to associate the “click-clack” of a clicker with getting a reward.[7] The “click-clack” marks the exact moment of the good behavior, so the dog understands exactly what he has done right, and is rewarded with a treat.[8]
    • Begin with basic commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and “here,” then move on to commands like “fetch” and “give.”
    • Eventually, your dog will become habituated to looking to you for commands and guidance even without the clicker.[9]
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    Be vigilant in public situations. A dog often shows signs associated with dominance in public situations. This is often because the dog is under greater pressure, is being challenged by other dogs, or feels the need to protect himself or you. Maintaining control of your dog by reminding him of his obedience training can help you avoid unwanted situations.
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    Train your dog to stop acting aggressive toward other dogs. If your dog exhibits aggressive or inappropriate behavior when meeting another dog in public, you should neither reward nor punish his behavior. Petting your dog to comfort him rewards the behavior, while punishing him may increase his anxiety or confusion. Instead, you should retrain the habit by using a friend with an amiable dog.[10]
    • Have your friend stand with her dog at the end of your street, and gradually begin to walk towards them.
    • When your dog sees the other dog in the distance, have him sit and reward him for sitting nicely.
    • Signal for your friend to bring her dog a bit closer. Reward your dog for continuing to sit nicely. Repeat the signal and allow your friend’s dog to come closer and closer while your dog continues to sit. Work for 5-10 minutes, and then give your dog a rest for the day.
    • The next day, begin the 5-10 minute session at the distance that the previous day left off. Eventually, your dog should become desensitized to the closeness of other dogs.[11]
    • If your dog reacts to your friend’s dog inappropriately (by leaving the sit command and beginning to bark or growl, for instance), walk him the other direction and resume the training a little further apart.

Method 3
Understanding Canine Behavior

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    Stop thinking of dogs as “pack animals.” It is more accurate to think of dogs as group- or family- oriented. Individual members of a family often fill certain roles; similarly, dogs like to know their position in a group.[12]
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    Acknowledge individual personalities. Like humans, dogs’ personalities can vary widely among individuals. Some dogs are naturally easy-going, happy, and agreeable. These dogs are often labeled “submissive.” Other dogs are higher maintenance and often experiment to see what they can get away with. These dogs are often thought of as “dominant,” but they may be more accurately thought of as badly behaved and in need of training.[13]
    • Dogs who seem dominant are seeing what behavior they can get away with, not challenging the authority of their owner or pack leader.
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    Recognize effective training techniques. Older theories of dog training often advised an owner to punish or physically dominate a dog to teach him his place in the “pack.” More modern theories advocate reward-based training to reinforce good behavior. In most cases, rewarding good behavior is more effective than punishing bad behavior.[14][15][16]
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    Know when to chastise your dog. Your default position should be one of praising good behavior, not punishing bad behavior. However, if your dog is about to harm himself or another creature and it is happening right now, it may be appropriate to punish the dog.[17]
    • For example, if your dog jumps on your pet cat, you may want to give him a sharp “no!” rebuke accompanied with a loud clap to startle the dog.
    • Be aware of the limitations of this approach; your dog may learn to only attack the cat when you are not in the room.
    • Dogs do not understand punishment for behaviors that were performed in the past, even if it has only been a few minutes. Chastisement is only effective in the exact moment of the behavior.


  • It is unnecessary for you to eat meals before your dog to show that you are the pack leader. However, having your dog sit and patiently wait for his dinner can be a good training opportunity.[18]
  • It is unnecessary for you to pass through a doorway before your dog as an assertion of dominance. But again, it may be a good training habit for your dog to sit nicely and wait to be released before going in or out of a doorway.[19]

Sources and Citations

  1. In Defence of Dogs. John Bradshaw. Publisher: Penguin
  2. Reaching the Animal Mind. Karen Pryor. Publisher: Scribner Book Company
  3. Reaching the Animal Mind. Karen Pryor. Publisher: Scribner Book Company
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Article Info

Categories: Working with Dogs