Although dogs have been domesticated for centuries, they still possess genes and behavior traits in common with wolves, foxes, coyotes and other wild cousins. Understanding the natural instincts and behavior qualities of nondomesticated canids will help you understand your dog, especially in regard to dominance.
Why does your dog try to stand over you? You might think it's cute, but the dog is telling you he -- or she, as either gender can be alpha -- is higher ranking than you. Canines naturally rank everyone they interact with as either higher ranking or lower ranking than themselves. In the wild, high-ranking dogs have certain privileges: They eat first, they walk at the head of the line, and they get to mate more frequently than other members of the pack. In your home, a dominant dog thinks he rules the roost.
Dominant Behaviors in Dogs
Dominant dogs can be annoying or even dangerous. If a dog thinks he's in charge, the dog will tend to ignore your commands. The dog may not respond to your signals to come, sit or lie down. The dog is likely to pull on the lead while walking -- forging ahead, leading the way. A dominant dog may mark territory constantly. A dominant dog could put himself in danger by refusing to come when called, especially in a high-traffic area; and could become aggressive with other dogs, children or adults.
Submissive dogs are great companions. They are easy to train, and they are pleasant to be around. Submissive dogs are less likely to fight you during grooming sessions and tend to be less antsy at the vet's. Submissive dogs are generally more social with other dogs, and they are friendly with your guests. Submissive dogs are less likely to become problem barkers or biters. Some breeds, such as terriers, are naturally more dominant than others; but training and behavior adjustment exercises can help owners establish themselves as leaders.
If you suspect your dog needs an attitude adjustment, don't over-react with aggression, which could make the situation worse. Being an effective pack leader means being assertive, not aggressive, and being kind without being permissive. Your veterinarian or the local animal shelter may be able to provide you with references for animal behaviorists in your area. "If your dog becomes growly, snappy, or otherwise dangerous when you try to remove him from a human, you are dealing with serious challenge and control behavior. You would be wise to work with a good behavior consultant who can help you stay safe while you modify this behavior," recommends Pat Miller on the Whole Dog Journal website. Don't ignore the signs of dominance; correct the problem before it gets worse -- better yet, take a puppy kindergarten class when you get your pup to avoid problems in his adulthood.
Connie Jankowski began writing in 1987. She has published articles in "Dog Fancy" and "The Orange County Register," among others. Areas of expertise include education, health care and pets. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from the University of Pittsburgh.