How to Break Dominance in a Dog

Is Rover ruling your domain?

Is Rover ruling your domain?

You may have heard about dominant dogs ruling the house, taking possession of the bed, guarding the remote and choosing which television shows to watch, leaving the owner in a psychological state of helplessness. Thankfully, a better understanding of dogs provides a clearer picture on how to break "doggie dominance."

Determine which behaviors you are finding troublesome. Is Rover possessive over toys? Is he pulling on the leash and dragging you along for the ride of your life? Does your placid dog transform into Cujo when he is gnawing on his bone? Is it getting harder and harder to get your dog to relinquish the bed and are you seriously considering sleeping on the couch? Evaluating your dog's "dominant" behaviors will help provide a clearer picture of his problem behaviors, so you can effectively start working on them.

Consult with a veterinarian to rule out any medical problems and mention the troublesome behaviors you have been observing. At times, dogs labeled as dominant or aggressive are simply suffering from an unidentified medical problem. An abscessed tooth, ear infection or anything that can potentially make your dog irritable or uncomfortable, can lower his threshold for threats and aggression, according to Animal Behavior Associates. It would, therefore, be unfair to assume Rover is being "dominant" when a possible underlying medical condition is making him grumpy.

Determine the source of problematic behaviors. Labeling a dog as "dominant" is not only inaccurate, but also counterproductive. Dogs who tend to use aggression to "obtain what they want" are most likely displaying anxiety-based behaviors, according to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers. Assuming that Rover is acting out because of dominance is harmful to the dog and human relationship because it causes owners to think they must "show the dog who is boss” by delivering verbal and physical threats. This paves the path towards a stressful, adversarial relationship where the dog may develop anxiety and defensive aggression along with fear and antipathy of the owner.

Understand what triggers Rover's problem behaviors. Dogs behave in certain ways because such behaviors have a history of being inadvertently rewarded, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior. For instance, if Rover is jumping, he is likely not doing so because he is trying to assert dominance over you by becoming taller, but rather because he gets attention this way. It's ultimately your responsibility as a dog owner to teach your pooch which behaviors are appropriate by rewarding them as they unfold, while being careful not to inadvertently reward unwanted behaviors.

Employ the "Learn to Earn" training program. This non-confrontational training method will help Rover behave better because it teaches impulse control. For instance, ask Rover to "earn" the privilege of a petting session by sitting politely first, or have him "earn" the pass for moving forward on a walk by walking politely on a loose leash. With a better understanding of dog psychology and clear structure and directions, Rover should no longer feel left to fend for himself in a world without guidance and rules.


  • Prevent your dog from repeatedly rehearsing problem behaviors.
  • Make safety your top priority until you can get professional help.
  • Invest in crates, muzzles, baby gates, no-pull harnesses and other management tools as you work on the issues.
  • Interview potential trainers or behavioral consultants and inquire about their training methodologies before employing them.
  • Be patient; it takes time for behavior to change.


  • If your dog is acting aggressively, don't try to solve the issue on your own; consult with a professional.
  • Avoid alpha rolls, scruff shakes and other coercion-based training methods or tools.
  • Avoid punishing your dog for growling or you may end up with a dog who bites with no warning.

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About the Author

Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.

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