Your dog may be completely at home in your comfortable world, but not so many centuries ago, her ancestors probably belonged to a pack of wild, wooly canines living in the forest or out on the plains. From that world, she has inherited behaviors, such as submissive urination and rolling over belly up on the ground that she still displays. These relate to her establishing her place in the pack pecking order, and to generally understanding and getting along in a world where the going was usually tough.
Dogs need a social structure with a leader and a clear pecking order. Every dog will act either a submissive or dominant in relation to another dog or human. “Dogs can also be submissive around one person or dog and dominant around another,” says Mary Burch, Ph.D., an animal behaviorist in Tallahassee, Florida, and author of volunteering with your pet and the Border collie. For example, your dog may obey your every command but choose to ignore those that are given by your teenage child.
Although the same dog is perfectly capable of being dominant in one situation and submissive in another, most dogs are born followers, says John Loomis, owner – instructor of Alibi obedience and agility training school in Jacksonville, Arkansas. They don’t really want to be boss. In fact, they don’t really want to be boss. In fact, they are usually quite content to please their human family so that they can always get heaps of positive attention.
“While extremely submissive behavior involves shrinking and contracting, most well behaved pets are submissive to some degree, although not to the extent such postures show,” says Loomis. Your happy, submissive dog may follow you from room to room, stay fairly close to you when turned loose, and dote on your children. But if she’s well socialized and has been consistently complimented during training, she’ll also be brave if your family is threatened, provided being protective is part of her nature.
If your dog greets you happily but with a hint of shyness, while squatting and dribbling several drops of urine, don’t assume that you have a housebreaking problem. “What you have is an anxiety problem.” Explains Loomis, and it’s known as submissive urination. Be careful not to mistake if for something else.
Submissive behavior may be inherited, or it could have been caused by corrections that were to frequent or too harsh, or even by abuse that your dog suffered before you got her.
Among wolves in the wild, such submissive urination means, “Hi boss. I hope I didn’t do anything to upset you, but if I did, I’m sorry.” Though most common during a greeting, your pup may urinate in this way when you bend over to pick her up or when you chastise her. It’s a conditioned reflex to dominant treatment and she isn’t doing it on purpose. In fact, says Loomis, she’s absolutely unaware of it.
Don’t be upset with her because that will make things worse. Instead, make homecomings low – key. Silently toss a treat for your pup as soon as you come home, and then ignore her until she approaches you. When she does, don’t reach over her head to pet her. A very submissive dog will read this as an intimidating gesture. Instead kneel down and give her a chest rub.
Better still, teach your puppy a few easy commands so she learns how to please you and earn praise, advises Loomis. Use a command such as “stand, stay” when she greets you, so she can express her devotion to you in a non-submissive posture and earn your praise.
Who’s going to be Boss?
A dominant dog may test her human family to see how high she can rise. A few actually reach the top and may aggressively demonstrate their dominance, says Dr. Burch. You can recognize them by their behavior. It’s the dog that settles into her favorite spot on the sofa and growls if anyone to shift her. She’s possessive of her toys or food bowl, and doesn’t like it if anyone comes close. She barges through doors first even steps on people to be first out to the car. Most dogs are born followers, but they need a social structure. So if no one in the human family takes the role of leader, the dog will fill the vacancy.
Demonstrating dominance isn’t always a bad thing when it’s in relation to another dog. If a friend visits with his dog, your dog will probably assert dominance. It’s her house, her toys and her territory. It’s normal for her to mount the other dog by standing over that dog’s shoulders – that’s how she lets her visitor know who is in charge, it’s not unusual for the situation to be reversed when you take her to visit the other dog.
Leaving Urine Messages:
“Urine, or scent, marking is a characteristic of wolves and dogs and is often used to declare ownership of a territory,” according to Carol Hopwood, a psychotherapist and the owner – instructor at Grizzly Dog obedience school in Whitefish, Montana. When dogs are walked, especially males that haven’t been neutered, they sniff every tree, post and fireplug, looking for the scent marking of other dogs. And when they find one, they cover or add to the scent by urinating on it, to stake their claim. That’s why a male dog leaves small spurts here and there instead of one big puddle – he keeps a little urine in reserve in case he wants to leave his signature on yet another upright object.
Not every dog that marks outdoors does it to establish territory or declare dominance. Many do it to get and leave information. “Marking is like leaving a calling card,” Hopwood says. “It’s how dogs read the newspaper.” From what they sniff, they learn who was there before them, and by leaving their mark, they become headline news for the next dog passing by.
“Although it’s usually considered a male trait, some female dogs also mark,” Explains Hopwood. “After all, they want to get in on the daily gossip, too.”
Urine markings can be a bit annoying but it’s nothing to worry about, unless it starts happening indoors. Then, it’s out of order. When male puppies stop squatting to urinate and begin lifting their legs like grown dogs, at anywhere between 6 to 12 or even 14 months of age, depending on the breed, they may decide to test their dominance by urinating on table legs, drapes or indoor walls. “These adolescent have not suddenly developed a housebreaking problem,” explains Hopwood. “Dogs that urinate indoors are probably signaling they are boss and the area marked by their scent is their territory.”
However, sometimes there may be a medical problem, such as a bladder infection, so have your dog checked by the vet right away. If you have him neutered, it will lessen his desire to dominate and his leg-lifting tendencies. Alternatively, work at giving him an attitude adjustment. There is no better way to handle a dominant dog than through obedience training, says Dr. Burch
Signs of Aggression:
You should never, ever, be afraid of your dog. Not for a minute. Not even for a heartbeat. Don’t excuse or ignore any behavior that is threatening, not even if it ended quickly and without incident. Next time, her threat will probably be more forceful. And unless you do something about it, says Dr. Burch, there will always be a next time.
Some dogs display aggression as they reach puberty and try to establish their rank in the pack – your family. For example, your dog may recognize you as leader because you taught her to obey commands, yet still try to assert herself by growling at your spouse. That’s the type of aggression that takes many people by surprise. The first time their dog growls a challenge at them, most owners are startled, but they try to rationalize their pet’s behavior by saying, “She never did anything like that before.” The truth is, she did challenge them before, says Dr. Burch. They just didn’t notice the signs.
According to Dr. Burch, the first sign that your dog is vying for the position of pack leader or second – in – command is when she simply ignores a command. For example, you and your spouse are setting out chips and dips in preparation for a party and your dog is underfoot and begging. One of you commands “Down,” but she leaves the room instead. She’s out of the way, which is what you wanted, so you don’t bother to enforce the command and soon forget all about her minor disobedience. But she doesn’t, explain Dr. Burch. After a few more unenforced commands, she’ll test you at a higher level.
The next incident may occur a few days later. In a hurry to leave for a meeting, you reach down to pick up your dog’s dish before she’s eaten the last morsel. But you change your mind when she stands over the dish, her body rigid, her mouth closed and her eyes glaring into yours. “Okay, hurry up and finish it,” you say, never realizing that you have just lost round tow.
Round three will probably be a growl, says Dr. Burch. Startled and momentarily fearful, you’ll finally realize that there’s a problem.
Prevention is the best way to keep aggression from escalating, so socialize your dog well, and never urge her to be aggressive towards humans. While she’s still a puppy, teach her to respond to commands, whether they come from you or anyone else in the family, and use the commands during everyday activities: “Down” for petting, “Sit” for a treat, “Come” when it’s time for dinner. And never give a command unless you are prepared to enforce it.
Your dog may be well-behaved for you but dominant or even aggressive with other dogs or strangers. Keep your eyes on her if she suddenly becomes alert and tries to make eye contact with an animal or a person. Defuse aggression by being confident, relaxed and softly spoken.
Stop your dog from concentrating on the object of her aggression by giving her a command, covering her eyes, or removing her from the situation. If she doesn’t obey you, no matter what, obedience school is the answer. But why wait? Obedience school is also the best way to learn to train your dog and keep problems from occurring in the first place.
In a frightening situation, any dog may bite, whether she’s dominant or submissive, says Loomis. This usually results from mishandling a terrified dog. She’s nervous and is trying to stop you from making her do something she is too scared to do. For example, if your dog cowers under the bed after a particularly loud thunder clap and you try to drag her out, she might snap. Instead, wait for her to calm down and emerge by herself. Don’t punish a fear biter, advises Loomis. All you’ll do is add to her terror. And check with your vet in case there’s a serious reason for it.