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How to lead a dominant dog

It’s been interesting living with a dominant pitbull. I’m used to my mutt Ace – a.k.a. the boy who pees like a girl and lets cats corner him. I always stress how important it is for me to be a leader to Ace, but it’s even more important to be a leader to Vixen, our foster dog.

In the last two weeks, Vixen and Ace have gotten into some minor scuffles. That’s to be expected. Vixen was stressed from living in different environments with little structure, and Ace’s home was being invaded by a new dog.

The good thing is, growling, barking, lunging or snapping look and sound worse than they are. Usually it’s over in a second. On the other hand, it only takes a second for a serious injury to happen. That’s why it’s so important to catch and prevent fights.

When Ace and Vixen first met, there were no issues. I had them meet at the kennel where Vixen was temporary living. This was a mutual ground for the two dogs. Ace was not threatened, neither was Vixen.

We were careful not to let them meet head on so they wouldn’t feel challenged or scared. We kept both dogs leashed and allowed them to smell each other.

Once I brought Vixen home, the most important thing I knew to do for both dogs was to take them for a walk together. That was the one way I could be certain to be their leader from the start. Even though it was below zero, the three of us migrated around our neighborhood and back.

Had it been summer, I would’ve walked the dogs for a good hour. Since Vixen was shaking, I brought them in pretty quickly but made sure to take them out for another walk later in the evening and every day after that no matter how cold it gets (-28 with a -46 wind chill as I write this Jan. 13).

When the three of us walk, I am in front, Ace is at my side and Vixen voluntarily trails behind. This was the perfect way to put her in a following position. She knew right away that I decide where we go, no dogs walk in front of me and she is expected to stay calm. On walks, Vixen and Ace are in a focused, working mode. They walk with their heads and tails down and relaxed. They focus on moving forward, not on each other.

Pitbull with tennis ball

Vixen has growled or snapped at Ace about five times in the last two weeks, but she has never made contact or hurt Ace.

Each time Vixen showed aggression, it was because myself or another person near her was not in control of the situation. Vixen is a dominant dog, and a pitbull is a very strong breed. If I step down from my leadership role for a second, she takes over. That’s why I need to be in charge at all times.

I love pitbulls, but I take even Vixen’s tiniest aggression issues very seriously. She needs to find a home, and because of her breed she will be judged even more than an average rescue dog whether it is fair or not.

Here are some tips for showing leadership over a dominant dog:

1. Always consider your body language.

When I am with Vixen, and especially when I am with both dogs, I make sure to keep my head up and shoulders back. I purposely move into Vixen’s space and nudge her gently but firmly out of the way (like dogs do to each other). She always steps back like she would if I were the dominant dog. Instead of pulling her back when her excitement escalates, I step into her so she has to choose to retreat. I often step between her and Ace and bump one of them back.

2. Be aware of the dog’s body language.

A dog’s body language is easy to read if you pay attention. The second I notice Vixen with a high tail or ears, a waving tail, raised lips, staring eyes or excited movements towards Ace, I distract her. Usually a light “hey!” or “look here!” is all that’s necessary. Now that she knows what I want, I just snap my fingers. She immediately relaxes and sits or lies down. If I don’t catch it, the energy or tension could escalate.

3. Never overreact.

Even when Ace and Vixen got into small fights, I tried not to yell or freak out. It was best to stand, move towards them and give a firm verbal correction, “No!” This was all it ever took to get both dogs to calmly sit or walk away from each other. I never separated them right away. In every instance, both dogs had gotten over the incident within seconds. I was the one worked up and did my best not to let them know it. There was no point in turning something into a bigger deal than it was. It was important for the two dogs to learn to act calm around each other. By separating them or screaming at them, they wouldn’t learn anything. They would probably be more excited and confused.

4. Enter through doors first.

A dominant dog will always barge ahead through doorways. Vixen never had an issue with this because she is respectful of humans. But to enforce my role as their leader, I walk through doors ahead of the dogs. Sometimes I make them sit and stay until I release them.

If for some reason you want the dogs to go through the door ahead of you, do it in a controlled way so you are directing them through. Don’t let them push each other and you out of the way and convince yourself it’s OK because you wanted them to go first. You didn’t want to be knocked over!

5. You decide when a dog can approach you.

Sometimes a dog is possessive of its owner. Vixen is not allowed to sit between Ace and I unless I invite her. Her growling and snapping instances all occurred when someone was petting her while Ace tried to approach.

To prevent this from happening again, I have to decide who approaches me. When I want to pet Ace, Vixen is not allowed to come over and nudge me or push Ace away.

When I am petting Vixen, Ace is not allowed to sneak up or crawl over to us. The second I see a dog approaching me, all I have to do is snap my fingers or say, “hey,” and the dog stops or retreats.

If I’m working at my desk and notice one dog has claimed the space at my feet, I don’t pull the dog out of the way. Instead, I stand and move into the dog’s space so he or she has to back away. Sometimes I will let one of them sleep by my desk, but only on my terms.

6. You can take away food and toys at any time.

Vixen shows no food aggression towards humans. But when she first got here, I had no idea if she was food aggressive or not. Because she is a strange dog, I made sure she knew I was in control of the food.

I fed some kibble to Vixen by hand, which she ate gently. Before every meal, both dogs have to sit and stay.

Sometimes I put them in their kennels to eat, sometimes not. Vixen learned very quickly that she does not get to eat until I release her. She has never shown any aggression around food.

The first couple meals she ate here, I made sure to touch her and take her food away several times while she was eating. She had no problem with this, but was always happy to have her food back. Good girl!

Use positive reinforcement training by giving food or attention to the dog as a reward only when the dog is calm.

7. Don’t act too excited or get the dog excited.

Vixen’s aggression issues came out while she was between Ace and a person, however in almost every instance, the person was talking in an excited voice to one or both dogs.

This is a disaster waiting to happen, and it is so hard for people to remember to stay calm and relaxed around dogs. The more excited we act, the more excited they get and the more likely a bite will occur.

Even my dog bit my boyfriend one time when we were all play fighting. This was totally our fault, not Ace’s. People just never learn (myself included).

8. Don’t let the dog push you around or bump into you.

Vixen is good at this because she does it in cute, subtle ways. She puts her paws on me or nudges her face into my lap. She tries to sneak in between Ace and I and push him out of the way. Instead of giving her the attention she wants, I make sure to direct her back and not allow her to touch me.

All I have to do is say “uh” or “no” and sometimes snap my fingers and she always backs off and sits or lies down. This is the behavior I want. When she is calm, she gets my praise.

9. Get that dog tired!

If people would run their dogs for even a half-hour each day, so many behavioral issues would be totally gone. Vixen is not much of a runner, so I have been walking her with Ace and I every day no matter how cold it is. I see big changes in both dogs if I have slacked on their time for exercise.

Ace is part lab and needs to run, period. Vixen is a strong, smart dog and can’t be kept pent-up all day. Walking or running is very important for them physically and mentally. No matter what a dog’s issues are, if she is tired, she will find less trouble.

Is your dog dominant? How do you deal with that?

Update: Vixen was adopted.

Why Do Dogs Lean On People? |

Monday 23rd of February 2015

[…] us. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be about (dare I say it?) dominance. Simply, the dog wants attention, so he leans into […]


Thursday 24th of January 2013

If your dog is possessive of toys & balls with other dogs, do not take him to a dog park.

Robin Armstrong

Monday 21st of January 2013

Thanks for your response. Actually Rex's obedience skills are quite good. We've been able to let him off leash almost from the first day and he listens 99% of the time. He pulled a bit on a leash at first, but learned quickly that he wasn't going to get away with that with me. Now if he tries to inch his way past my leg, a simple "hey!' or gentle snap on the leash is an effective reminder. He does come when called in the dog park and it is a temporary distraction. Like you say, maybe smaller groups are better for now, especially since we don't know his background.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 21st of January 2013

Oh I'm glad to hear he is so obedient! I'm hoping as you get to know him better, this issue will work itself out.

Robin Armstrong

Monday 21st of January 2013 your stories and advice. We recently adopted a male golden who is around 8 years old, and is the first dominant (alpha?) dog we've owned. He is good with me and my husband and after being shown, is fine with waiting for food, us going through door first, etc. He's pretty willing to please, though it's obvious he would take control if allowed. My question is the dog park...we're new to that as well. But it almost seems that rather than being there to play, he takes on the roll of policeman, breaking up disagreements with other dogs, breaking it up if two dogs are even play-wrestling, and he'll actually sit in the middle of the park "on alert" watching for someone to misbehave. The one time a dog accidentally ran into my husbands leg, our Rex REALLY got upset. He's also ball possessive, which we've been working on...he won't drop it, but will release it when we try to take it and say "give". The other day my husband took Rex to the dog park and there was a sweet 6 month old lab puppy who wanted to be friends. People were throwing balls, and when Rex got one, the puppy playfully tried to lick Rex's mouth and the ball. (I wasn't there, but can bet there was a resulting growl from Rex) Then another ball got thrown, which the puppy got to first...what happened next terrified and mortified my husband. Rex let out a roar and put the puppy on it's back and "stood over him like a wolf with teeth bared". The owner was closest and shoved Rex off the puppy, and my husband got him out of the dog park and we haven't been back. Any suggestions or thoughts on these behaviors? I will say my daughter has a lab guide dog...after putting her in her place, Rex is fine with her and even let her have his rawhide the other day. And he's ok with many dogs as long as they don't try to be dominant (he puts them in their place) or misbehave (in his eyes). We can certainly avoid the dog park and do other activities ( his favorite is running in the desert and flushing birds) but would love to hear anything you might suggest. Thanks in advance.

Lindsay Stordahl

Monday 21st of January 2013

Hi Robin, congrats on adopting your new dog!

I suggest you get very serious about teaching him some solid obedience skills - heel, sit, down, stay, come - so he will respond 99 percent of the time on leash. Then work so he will respond on leash with more and more distractions. And then off leash. If you can get him to be obedient that way, he will naturally respect you and your husband and see the two of you as leaders. Obedience classes are a good place for practicing these skills around other dogs and distractions, even if you know how to train the dog yourself.

Maybe hold off on the dog park for a few months while you build a better relationship with the dog and socialize him more in smaller groups. Then perhaps the dog park will be a better experience for you all. When you do go to the park, make sure to enforce rules like making him sit before entering the park and staying until you release him. Also, practice calling him back to you at the park and so on. If he doesn't obey you, then he shouldn't be at an off-leash park anyway. But I'm sure you can get to that point where he does obey.

If you see him staring at a dog or showing dominant posture, it's typically better to distract him by making a noise - "look here!" rather than jerking his leash away. Or, try putting your body between him and the other dog to break eye contact for even a second. That will defuse much of the tension.

Best of luck to you, and I hope you find something helpful in my response!


Tuesday 10th of January 2012

Great advice~ I have been rescuing and fostering dogs for over 20 years. I usually get the large aggressive dogs everyone else is afraid to deal with. I recently fostered a lab/pit mix (45 lbs) who is only 1yr old and has attacked my 5 year old mastiff/boxer (100+ lbs) 3 times now. Once resulted in severe leg wounds of my boxer that required antibiotics and vet care. My boxer definately knows I am alpha dog and responded as such, the pit did not know that at the time of this incident. I was able to halt the scuffle quickly, but it is alarming that my large boxer did not defend himself by "obeying" me. I felt as if he expected me to protect him since I was saying "OFF" and even under attack, he would not protect himself from the smaller pit. The dogs are never left together unattended, they usually play great together now. I obviously can quicly act on the situation I just fear I have done something wrong in my training that my sweety would not defend himself against a full on attack (but listened to my "off" command to the point of being hurt :o( Is this OK???

Lindsay Stordahl

Tuesday 10th of January 2012

This probably doesn't answer your question, but here are my thoughts:

More submissive dogs do not always fight back. My dog is submissive, and I can't say exactly how he would respond if another dog actually attacked him. It's my job not to put him in that situation.

Still, I know that things happen no matter how responsible you are. A great dane lunged at my dog (my dog is about 70 pounds) during an obedience class over the summer. My dog snapped back under that circumstance. The other owner intervened and we both were able to almost instantly pull our dogs away. They were both fine.

There have been a few other times where dogs will bark aggressively at my dog and get close to him, and my dog just rolls over onto his side. This is what he does if I am stressed out and raise my voice with him, too.

And one thing I want to add is that sometimes getting defensive will actually make the situation worse. I'm sure you know that most dogs will not attack a dog that is in a submissive position. But the attack can intensify if the other dog responds with defensive energy.