The dominance myth
Few words are so loaded with baggage as is dominance. From books to tv shows, it started as a word to describe a dynamic and has turned into a word that conjures up oppression, fear tactics, bullying etc. But the word isn’t its baggage. And it’s a word, like it or not, comfy with it or not, that describes a dynamic that IS necessary in a healthy relationship with your dog.
Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition: the fact or state of being dominant; a dominant position especially in a social hierarchy. (Btw, your home is a social hierarchy!)
There’s no talk of bullying, or oppression, or fear. It’s just a dynamic. A state of one (whoever or whatever that “one” might be) being more dominant than another.
Let’s cut to the chase. Whoever is making decisions, setting rules and boundaries, controlling resources, and issuing consequences, is the dominant one. The U.S. Government is dominant. The DMV is dominant. The police officer that pulls you over is dominant. The mother and father who sets the rules and enforces them is dominant over their kids. And even in romantic or friendship relationships, we often see someone who tends to make more of the decisions, sets the tone, controls things just a little (or a lot) more.
Dominance is synonymous with being in charge. It doesn’t mean everywhere. It doesn’t mean all the time. But in certain contexts, it does mean one is in a leadership position, while another is in a follower position. That’s not a bad thing. That relationship should produce positive results, if it’s a healthy relationship, and if the one in the dominant position has the follower’s best interests at heart. (We could definitely have a serious convo about the Gov’t and the DMV!!)
Why is this important to your relationship with your dog? Because we’ve become so emotionally uncomfortable with being in charge, with setting rules; we’ve been so conditioned to think that taking a leadership role (being dominant) means suppressing or oppressing or damaging another, that we shrink from sharing it. Instead we want to be our dog’s (and kids!) best friend, before we’ve become their recognized leader. We want to share just the fun, affectionate, loving stuff. We want our dogs to be unencumbered by our dominance – for fear they won’t like us, that we’ll break their spirit, or simply, because it’s not as comfortable and fun.
But if you really want your dog (or child) to feel comfortable, relaxed, safe, and familiar with how to best navigate the world, you’ll have to lead them. You can’t share rules that teach appropriate behavior without leading. You can’t create safety and comfort with no one in charge. And leading and being in charge is being dominant. Once again, the word has so much baggage that it’s even hard to type! Lol. But it’s the truth.
Every dog that comes through here is first shown the crate exercise (you go in and out on my permission), thresholds (you wait to exit until I release you), wait for food (you don’t eat until I release you), the structured walk (you walk where I ask you to, and you don’t pull or mark or sniff unless I release you), place (you sit on a mat or bed or cot until I release you). It’s all dominance. Every one of these preliminary “leadership” exercises are actually about creating a clear dynamic of dominance. Not harsh, painful, oppressive, ugliness, but clear, fair rules about what is and isn’t acceptable, and who is and isn’t in charge of the rules and resources. And it creates magic.
We can call it all kinds of other names. Names like leadership, training, relationship building etc., but if we’re really honest, it’s all about dominance. And it’s this dynamic that helps put everything in place for dogs to start to actually relax, chill, de-stress, let go of anxiety, and balance out. All this “spirit breaking” stuff is actually the stuff that allows the spirit to soar and show its true self.
And it’s precisely the absence of this dominance (leadership, training, guidance, whatever word you like best) that creates so many dogs (and yes, kids!) that are such a mess. Because we’ve become conditioned to be equals with everything, and everyone, we’ve lost touch with our natural ways. I’ve never seen a dog (or kid) with great structure, rules, accountability, and believable leadership (all dominance stuff) that has been a mess. Never.
Often, dog trainers are simply working to return dog and owner back to a natural state – a state of one being in charge and one following. That’s also almost always the macro reason for all the other “symptoms” we deal with. Dogs are a mess because no one is there to lead them. (And just so no one freaks out, that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun, play, be silly, have lap time, cuddle, and love the bejesus out of your dog – it just means you gotta do the other stuff jut as well.)
I think it’s time we all took a close look at how we’re interacting with our dogs. Whoever is making the rules, is dominant. Whoever is enforcing the rules, is dominant. And if you’re not doing either you’re just about guaranteed to have a dog (or kid) that is a mess on your hands. I think it’s time we got comfy with dominance, with leading, with occupying a space of being in-charge. It’s a good word that’s gotten a bad rap.