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?

If you are interested in adopting Vixen, send me an email at Lindsay@thatmutt.com. 02/20/09 update: Vixen was adopted last month.

36 thoughts on “How to lead a dominant dog”

  1. Very good advice (as usual) from you.

    Adequate exercise is so often overlooked and then people wonder why their Dogs have issues!
    #7 is also a very important point. Dogs react almost instantly to changes in energy levels. If you are calm it is a lot easier to keep the Dog in a more docile state.
    Excellent post as always.

  2. My poor Gus is entirely too mellow to be dominant. He somehow brings it out in other dogs, though. It doesn’t matter where we go, another dog will try to mount him. I’m guessing that his gigantic size makes other dogs nervous and they feel they need to show that they are the alpha. He is very laid back and gives me a pleading look like, “Hey, can you tell this dog that I’m a dude and not down for this please?” It doesn’t matter if we are at a play date, daycare, dog park, or hiking trail…a dog of about 45-70 lbs will do their best to show my 120 lb Gus that they are the boss.

    You bring up some very great points! Exercise, structure, and your own attitude are so important.

  3. Lindsay Stordahl

    Ace gets humped no matter where we go too. Haha. I think in his case, other dogs pick up on his submissiveness and lack of social skills (Ace just doesn’t know how to play with other dogs). They immediately try to dominate him because of his insecurity.

    Every so often Ace will try to hump a puppy or an extremely submissive dog. That sounds so bad but it’s true. Haha.

  4. I’ve just found your blog today as I was searching for information on fostering and your post today has been incredibly helpful and informative.

    What your post really says to me, though, is that I need to work with my two dogs more before I even think about bringing a foster in.

    While Allie is dominant to Zorro in our household, Zorro is the one who gets aggressive on leash. At the dog park, he’s often one of the more dominant dogs (and he’s an 8 lb chihuahua).

    I’m sure that Zorro’s on leash aggression has everything to do with me and how I initially (and maybe even now) reacted to other dogs or situations when we first brought Zorro home (these are my first dogs). My problem now is that I don’t really know how to correct my mistakes so that I can appropriately modify Zorro’s behavior.

    Anyway – I am thrilled to have found your blog!

  5. I’ve never owned a dominant dog with all the dogs I’ve had, but I get questions from people about them. This is a good post to refer them to.

  6. Lindsay Stordahl

    Thanks Jan!

    Hi Elisa, thank you for stopping by. Don’t worry, you aren’t the only one with a dominant chihuahua! People tend to let little dogs get away with more than we should and then bad behaviors become a habit. I do recommend you work out any issues with your own dogs before thinking about fostering.

  7. Very informative post.
    My dog isn’t food aggressive if I take away her food bowl but, she is aggressive when you give her a treat and try and take it from her. I can’t seem to break her of this.

  8. I wonder who would get mounted if Ace and Gus met? Maybe there would be none and they could play like normal dogs?

    Gus did snap at one dog for bothering him too long. The animal kept trying to mount him and then was chewing on the folds of his neck. He finally, after about 15 minutes, snapped and gave a deep growl. Since the dog’s whole head could easily fit in Gussie’s mouth, he finally got the picture. Gus has never tried to mount another dog though. I think he’s too lazy for that!

  9. Another great post as usual. These are all things I do with Biggie – it’s interesting, other than a few times when he challenged me (Tub Time) I don’t feel that he is “aggressive” or “dominant” but now that you mention it, he probably is. (He certainly climbed the ladder at day care if the people would let him.)

    I have almost never seen him hump another dog with the exception of a young female who had recently had her 1st heat, and when he plays with other dogs, all usually smaller than he is, he is super gentle and almost encourages them to jump on him and hump him. But – now that you mention it, if the humping is really a dominance humping as opposed to play humping (and yes, I can tell), he will just shake the other dog off and, if they don’t get the message, all he has to do is look at the other dog.

  10. I meant, he probably IS a dominant dog, but not an aggressive one. But he is very protective. If I’m not hypervigilant about who’s nearby, Biggie will be, and he will decide that he needs to take care of me and assess threat. Needless to say, being a strong leader takes the burden of being protective off of him once in a while. I never understood just how strong the working dog breeds’ need to work was until we got Biggie.

    He will literally put himself on duty unless and until his “boss” tells him to stop. And he only listens to bosses he respects!

  11. Lindsay Stordahl

    Yeah, you said it well. It’s not that a dominant dog is a bad dog (which I didn’t really clarify in my post). It’s just that a dominant dog needs to respect his or her human leader. I don’t care if Vixen is dominant over Ace, for example. But she needs to know all the humans in our house are in charge, not her. And aggression is not OK. Obviously Biggie is not aggressive.

    Do you think dominant, friendly, playful dogs like Biggie intentionally allow and encourage the more submissive dogs to bite, tackle and hump them just to get them to play? Haha. I think they do! That would explain Biggie lying on his back all the time and letting little dogs bite him.

  12. Oh my … good for you. I can’t handle fostering a dog anymore. Nor would hubby allow us to foster a pit bull. We already have two dominant dogs. 🙂 It can definitely be an issue. We’re still working on Timber’s issues.

    Great post!

  13. Great post Lindsay (Vixen is a cutie) I think how we are so effects our dogs. Im laid back, calm, nothing fazes… which is reflected in Chelsea…she looks to me on how to react… and sees Im cool so she is….

  14. Excellent information and well written. Appreciate your efforts too. I would like to add in addition to your fine comments; When walking a male dog, do not allow him to mark “HIS” territory by peeing on every bush and rock.

    If you were to have two pit bulls and they were to fight, yelling at them does nothing. If you are by yourself, you could be in for a challenge to stop them. Best thing is to stay away from their teeth so you don’t get caught by accident. Determine which dog has the dominant position, approach from behind and grab the two back legs and lift up. This will usually result in the dog letting go. From that point you need to have a leash with you to tie of that dog and then proceed to do the same to the other since they may continue.

    I will sometimes have as many as 20 dogs in my yard at a time without a problem once I have them trained of course. I highly recommend the Videos on dog train at leerburg.com.

  15. Lindsay Stordahl

    Good point about not letting the dog pee everywhere. I didn’t even think of that because my dog never does that. When I walk or run with dogs, they get time to go to the bathroom on my terms. They are not allowed to pee on every tree and every corner.

  16. We have fostered so much over the last fifteen years that we are pretty lax about the rules. 🙂 However, we also foster mostly collies and they are quite different than pits.

    However, I am their leader, they know that, and I am a good strong leader. The dogs don’t challenge me. Pits and other dogs like them do need strong leaders and direction. Though if you read Jean Donaldson, she thinks the whole pack-hierarchy thing has been overrated, like making sure you walk out the door first. I do that only because I don’t like my dogs charging the door. I’m not sure it’s really related to a dominance issue.

  17. Lindsay Stordahl

    I’ll have to check out Jean Donaldson’s Dogs are from Neptune. Is that what you were referring to?

    I see the doorways as a good way to enforce respect. I don’t have patience for a dog pushing me out of the way. He’s also large enough to hurt someone like a grandparent or child. So with Ace it’s not as much about enforcing leadership. With Vixen, it was.

  18. Very informative!
    I think one important thing i’ve learned with my doggies is that body language can speak louder than words! I put more effort in showing them how i feel by the way I carry myself and act towards them and it seems to be highly effective, even though Jakey is pretty much like Ace and Walter can’t be taken seriously!

  19. I defnitely think Biggie encourages the smaller dogs to jump on him and hump him! It’s so very funny because you can tell by the look on his face that he’s just having fun.

    I agree with you on the doorway thing – I don’t *always* have to be first on everything (in fact due to our schedules, Biggie usually eats first), but I think he gets it that if he gets to go first it’s because I’m letting him, and not just because. It’s a very subtle difference, but one worth noting.

  20. Yep – the issues with my dogs definitely need to be addressed before we bring an already stressed dog into our house. And I agree with you wholeheartedly about people letting small dogs get away with things that they wouldn’t allow big dogs to do.

    My rule of thumb is that when either of my dogs exhibits an unwanted behavior, I think “If Allie weighed 80 lbs, would I still think this was cute?” The answer is always no, and then I work to correct the behavior.

  21. Always interesting to consider others viewpoints when it comes to the do’s, the don’t and the why’s. Leerburgs has some of the best info I have found on dog training.

  22. Hope I’m not too late on this one! I have just recently started fostering an 8 month, 40 pound male pitbull, Chino. We already have Gus, a 3 yr old, 60 pound mutt. Gus is more aggressive than Chino (chino has been through temperament testing and passed with excellent scores), but I am having trouble figuring out which one of them is dominant over the other. They are both dominant by nature, and I don’t think they have figured out who is where in the pack yet. Although Gus likes to try and boss Chino around, he definitely knows my boyfriend and I are alpha around here. Chino, on the other hand we are still working on. It’s only been about two weeks since we’ve had him, and since he is a puppy we are really having to start with the basics. He does not like getting scolded though and always puts his ears back and kind of sulks when he does. If the dogs get into any sort of squabble or are starting to play too rough it usually only takes me to say “Hey! Sit!” and they both stop and sit and look, so I’m not totally worried that they think they’re dominant over me. The part I don’t understand though, is Gus always wins wrestling matches and any small arguments they’ve had (Chino literally just falls down and lays on his back), but Chino is ALWAYS in charge of the toys. They always take turns who gets to eat first and who goes out the door first when we just let them out to go pee. I am just nervous about the “bully” in Chino, I don’t want him to be sneaking his way into dominance around here!

  23. Lindsay Stordahl

    The most important thing to do is make sure you and your boyfriend are in charge, not either of the dogs. And it sounds like that is what you’re doing. if they both know you are in charge, then they will not try to take over.

    Some people make the mistake of focusing too much on the new dog when their other dog causes more of the problems. So watch and make sure you are catching unwanted behaviors from both dogs.

    My guess is Chino is just trying to find his place. He is still out of control at times, being a puppy and new to the environment, etc. Gus is trying to step up and control Chino when he thinks you aren’t. That’s why he still listens to you when you step in and “take over.” I think you are doing the right things, just stay consistent. If you haven’t already, start walking them together side by side. That really helped when we fostered Vixen. She had to see me as her leader and Ace as her pack member.

  24. Wonderful article. I have a submissive female German Shepherd and we just adopted a 2 year old male German Shepherd mix. He is definitely dominant. Our household sounds just like yours did. You gave great tips! I am glad Vixen found a good home.

  25. 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???

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      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.

  26. Robin Armstrong

    Hi…love 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.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      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!

  27. Robin Armstrong

    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.

    1. Lindsay Stordahl

      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.

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