The Dominance Filter

Anyone who’s been involved in photography understands the concept of filters: apply one to a camera lens, and it changes the picture. You can give a village scene an old west feel by using a sepia filter; change a less-than-perfect model into the model of perfection with soft focus; and even change night into day. Just as photographic filters change what the eye sees, our emotional filters change the way we perceive the world and each other. Remember that thrill of first love? Like a lovely star filter, that emotional lens softened any rough edges and bathed your beloved in a magical glow. On the flip side, after an argument with an acquaintance, you might begin to perceive even benign things that person says or does through a filter that seems distorted.

We all develop filters based on our experiences and beliefs. These subjective screens affect not only the way we view other people, but the way we see dogs. Some people seem to have rose-tinted filters that make all dogs appear friendly. (That filter is, unfortunately, sometimes shattered in a most sudden and definitive way.) Other filters can be more troublesome. A particularly disturbing one is the Dominance Filter. Slap that old, traditional filter in place, and all you’ll see is a dog who wants to take over. That Labrador Retriever who’s jumping on visitors? He’s leaping for higher status. The beagle who dares to walk ahead of his owner is clearly relaying that he’s the boss. And that innocent-looking Bichon who piddles on the carpet is obviously planning to overthrow the kingdom, one puddle at a time. If all of that sounds ridiculous, well…that’s because it is.

Dominance and submission do exist in the animal world, and can be easily observed in social interactions between dogs. Just ask Sierra, who’s hovering over a bone and gives Bodhi the Elvis lip curl the moment he takes a step toward her. Bodhi’s quick deference means that Sierra maintains sole access to a prized resource—and that Bodhi maintains access to the air he breathes. But a dog acting in a dominant manner toward another dog has nothing to do with his behavior towards humans. There’s a saying by Abraham Maslow that goes, “When the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to resemble a nail.” And that’s the problem with what popular culture has done to our concept of dominance. If we view every unwanted canine interaction or behavior through the Dominance Filter, we are very likely to respond inappropriately.

There are dogs who display dominant behaviors toward their owners, but more often, potentially dominant-appearing behaviors stem from another source. Dogs may walk ahead of us or pull on leash because of lack of training, the opposition reflex, excitement, or because walking side by side is simply not a natural canine behavior. Your dog may jump on you because he’s happy to see you, because he’s anxious, or for a host of other reasons. And, by the way, if he was anxious, punishing him for being “dominant” would only exacerbate the problem by making him more anxious!

Of course, maintaining rules and guidelines for our dogs, just as we do for our children, is important. And dogs are smart; they’re quite capable of learning what’s expected, what’s allowed, and what’s forbidden. Besides, it’s in their best interests to cooperate with us, as we’re the ones with the opposable thumbs that grant access to all sorts of good things. The next time your dog performs a behavior that might be viewed as “dominant,” instead of reacting by putting him in his place, take a moment to figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. Once you do, you’ll know exactly how to respond and, if necessary, how to work on the underlying problem that’s causing the behavior.

If we understand canine body language and take the time to tune into our dog’s emotional states, our responses will be appropriate and won’t cause stress to either party. Perhaps as more and more of us learn to clear those dusty old notions off the lenses of our perception, we can eventually do away with distorted filters altogether.


9 Responses to The Dominance Filter

  1. leash lady says:

    Great post, Nicole!

  2. Malamute Mom says:

    Thank you, Nicole for another great post 🙂

  3. Kay says:

    Great article!
    One question do you know what kind of dog that is in the picture ? So cute !!!!!!

  4. Hazel says:

    Having 2 dogs, I have noticed that either one can be the dominate one on any given day or situation. There is no “pack leader” and they even let the cat be boss sometimes.
    Love the article.

  5. Chiara says:

    Great post as usual! One question though; i get a feeling modern trainers think that dog dog dominance and agression is always caused by fear. Can you give me your take on that? thx

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Chiara,
      I think most experienced, “modern” trainers understand that what is often called “dominance” can really be pushiness or lack of training. Aggression is another thing altogether, and while I can’t speak for others, I do believe that the vast majority of what we term “aggression” is caused by an underlying fear. For example, many dogs are reactive toward other dogs because they are uncomfortable around them; same with dogs around people. There is of course a segment of the canine population that has aggressive tendencies without fear being involved at all.
      Take care,

  6. Joe says:

    Very interesting article Nicole. This past weekend I was at a seminar hosted by Turid Rugaas. I mentioned to her a situation I have with my two dogs and asked her if it was a dominance issue or a stress issue. She said the only time a dog ever shows any kind of dominance is when a mother dog is raising a puppy. The mother dog has to sometimes show dominance towards her offspring in order to raise them in the manner she wants to. She went on to say that dominance issues are most likely stress issues and not dominance at all.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Joe, I’m sure Turid’s seminar was wonderful! As I am hearing the comment second-hand, I can only reply to what you’ve posted. While you could classify a mother dog’s status as “dominant” over her pup (just as a human mother is the one in charge of her child), there are certainly other situations in which one dog is dominant over another. If there weren’t an understanding of social status in various situations and an acceptance of dominance and submission as broadcast by the fluid stream of body language during communication, there would be a lot more fights between dogs.
      Take care,

  7. Great article. As a professional dog trainer I spend a lot of time undoing the misinformation about this subject found on popular ‘dog training’ television shows.

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