The words Dog Breed Info with the letter D inside of a black paw print

Recognizing Dominant Behaviors in Dogs

A tan dog is laying on the carpet with a bone showing its teeth to another dog walking by

List of dominant behaviors which can occur in dogs (this list is not yet complete)

Besides the obvious guarding, growling and biting, many dogs display a variety of dominant behaviors that commonly go unrecognized by their humans. Dogs very rarely display the highest level of dominance overnight. There are usually signs leading up to it over the years and dominant alpha dogs do not always growl and bite. If the owners are giving the dog what it wants, sometimes there is no reason for the dog to growl or bite unless it is challenged. Dogs understand that they exist in a human world. After all, who gives them food and opens the door for them to go potty? When humans perform these tasks on demand from the dog, though, why wouldn't the dog think it’s the leader? It is easy for dogs to get the impression they are alpha in their pack. Since many canine alpha behaviors are not acceptable in human society, for example, biting, it is important for humans to retain their leadership over their dogs.

Below are some common behaviors dogs display when they believe they are above humans. Keep in mind that a dog does not have to display all of these behaviors to be in a dominant frame of mind. Sometimes an alpha dog will only display a few of the behaviors at random times, depending on what the dog decides it feels like doing at any given moment. Smarter dogs tend to challenge the pack order more than dogs of average or below-average intelligence.

  • Stubborn
  • Headstrong and willful
  • Demanding
  • Pushy
  • Begging
  • Pushing a toy into you or pawing in order to get you to play with them
  • Nudging you to be petted
  • Sitting in high places, looking down on everything
  • Guarding a human from others approaching. People like to call it “protecting” but it's actually “claiming”—dog owns you.
  • Barking or whining at humans which many owners consider "talking" (without a command to do so).
  • High-pitched screams in protest of something dog does not wish to do.
  • Jumping or putting their paws on humans (without a command to do so).
  • Persistence about being on a particular piece of furniture when asked to stay off (dog owns it)
  • Persistence about going in and out of doorways before humans
  • Persistence about walking in front of humans while on a lead
  • Persistence about getting through the doorway first
  • Refusing to walk on a lead (excludes untrained puppies, dogs with injuries or illnesses)
  • Nipping at people's heels when they are leaving (dog did not give permission to leave)
  • Not listening to known commands
  • Dislikes people touching their food
  • Standing proud on a human lap
  • Persistence about being on top, be it a lap or stepping on your foot
  • Persistence about where they sleep, i.e. on your pillow
  • Annoyance if disturbed while sleeping
  • Likes to sleep on top of their humans
  • Licking (giving kisses) in a determined and focused manner
  • Carrying themselves with a proud gait, head held high
  • Not liking to be left alone and getting overly excited upon the human’s return (see Separation Anxiety in Dogs)
Dominant Stance
The front right side of a white and brown Chihuahua that is standing on grass with its paw in the air and it is looking to the right.

Just looking at a dog and the way he carries himself can tell you what frame of mind the dog is in. For example, a dominant dog will walk high and proud, puffing himself out as much as he can. He carries himself with what looks like dignity to the untrained human eye. The body is carried stiffly, tail is up and rigid, ears are on alert.

Submissive Stance
Two submissive dogs are walking with their head and tails low across a field of grass

Submissive dogs, on the other hand, carry themselves in quite the opposite way. They hold their heads low, shoulders down, tails down, slinking themselves smaller. To the untrained human eye it looks like a submissive dog is a sad dog. Not so, the posture of these submissive dogs is telling all around them that they do not wish to challenge anyone. They come in peace. Dogs are “fight” animals, which means their natural defense mechanism is to fight when they are threatened. That is why they make it so obvious when they do not wish to fight or when they do.

Since dominant dogs look so proud and, we all have to admit, cute, if you don't know what the dog is really saying, and submissive dogs kind of look sad since they hold their heads low and slink themselves down, it's no wonder so many people have dominant dogs. When their dog acts submissive they mistake that for a sad dog. When their dog acts dominant they mistake it for a happy, proud dog. Dominance tends to get rewarded.

Fear Aggression
The back left side of a Yellow Labrador with its tail between its legs

This yellow Labrador was growling and barking ferociously at a lady. The dog at one point trapped the lady in the corner of the garage until the owners were able to come and call her off. Most people would mistake this behavior as dominant-aggressive, but if you look at the dog's body language you will notice it is different than the Chihuahua shown above. The dog's tail is down and slightly tucked. The ears are back rather than forward. Notice how the dog is leaning slightly backward, rather than forward. This Labrador is insecure and fearful and she has learned to deal with these feelings by acting out aggressively. This dog may still bite a human out of fear, but the reasons for her behavior are not the same as a dog who is acting aggressive out of dominance.

The back of a tan and white dog is walking down the street with a boy in a blue shirt.

Eight-year-old Emiliano "mastering the walk" with Darley the Beagle mix

Dogs have an instinct to migrate and an instinct to be led by their leader. Teaching a dog to heel on a lead is the single most effective way to communicate who is the leader of your pack. Dogs are happiest when they can be secure about the pack order. Humans are happiest when their dogs are relaxed and respectful of their surroundings. When dogs are allowed to walk in front of the humans while on a lead, it is communicating to them that they are above the human in the order. When the pack order is not made clear it causes dogs a lot of stress and anxiety. Have you mastered the walk with your dog?

Written by Sharon Rose© Dog Breed Info Center® All Rights Reserved