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Understanding the difference between dominant behaviour and stubborn behaviour in the dog
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Understanding the difference between dominant behaviour and stubborn behaviour in the dog

If your dog seems to be fighting against you in everything, is reluctant to obey commands and is territorial or short-tempered about getting onto your furniture or beds, the chances are that you are either dealing with a bout of stubbornness, or a dog that sees themselves in the dominant role. However, stubbornness and dominance have rather different causes, resolutions and manifestations, and learning to identify which is which gives you the key to being able to tackle the issue with your own dog.

If you’re not sure what your dog’s behaviour means or how to go about sorting out the problems it may pose, you are not alone! Read on to learn more about the difference between stubbornness and dominant behaviour in the dog.

The correct use of the term “dominant”

“Dominant” is one of the most overused titles when it comes to referring to dogs, and it is often used to explain away a great many different types of behaviour that are possibly not dominance at all.

Dominance is not a personality trait in the same way that stubbornness is, but when used correctly, the term can be used to describe a behavioural relationship between the dog in question and either other dogs or people. In this way, dominant behaviour may be manifested in some situations/ with some people, but not others, as the dynamic of dominance is fluid, and dependent on the dog’s interaction with others.

Dominance can be pictured as a hierarchy, with the top dog, dominant dog or alpha getting first pick of the available food, the best sleeping spot and everything else, with the chain of command going down through a pecking order. This allows packs and canine groups to work together for the benefit of the group as the whole, without constant fighting or battles for priority. In order for a dominant chain of command to work effectively, the lower animals in the pecking order will naturally become subordinate to the top dog, out of choice and benefit to them, rather than being bullied into it by a stronger, more aggressive animal.

What is true stubbornness?

If your dog is not responsive or obedient to you, this is often described as being a stubborn personality trait, but this is not necessarily the case. If your dog does not respond to a command, before you write off their behaviour as a stubborn personality trait, look at the big picture and try to work out if there is anything else going on there.

Does your dog understand your commands, and know that their compliance is expected? Can they hear you, and are they alert and listening, or are other things distracting them?

There are a great many other reasons for perceived stubbornness too, for instance if your dog is stressed, confused or feeling unwell, they will not find it easy to respond to commands in the appropriate manner. True stubbornness in the dog is seen when the dogs is listening, knows what is being asked of them, and simply decides that they are not interested in obeying.

Stubbornness and dominant behaviour debunked

If your dog pushes past you through doors, refuses to get off the sofa or is always trying to drag you around when they are on the lead, the chances are that your exasperation will lead you to either call your dog out for stubbornness or dominance.

However, the chances are that your dog does not see it in that way, or process the thoughts surrounding their actions in that way. Generally, behaviours that can be perceived to be inappropriate, disobedient or otherwise bad are not perceived that way by your dog. If he pushes past you through a doorway, he is unlikely to be viewing that as his first step in the quest for world domination, but is just excited and keen to see what is on the other side of the door! Similarly, if he seems attached to a particular spot on the sofa that is also your favourite, he is much more likely to simply find it comfortable there than he is to think “I will assert my dominance over these people by sitting on the sofa!”

All canine behaviours can be curbed or encouraged by feedback reinforcement for their actions; to give positive feedback means praise or acceptance for what your dog is doing (such as letting them stay on the sofa) and feedback that curbs behaviour involves telling your dog to get down, and making them comply.

Consistency is the key to dealing with either dominance or stubbornness in the dog; if your dog wishes to be dominant, consistent feedback to the contrary from you will teach them that they gain more rewards through submission. Also with stubbornness, persist with your dog and never simply cave in to their refusal to move or obey, and in time, they will simply view stubbornness as a battle they are not going to win, and so not worth the hassle!

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