Vets are asked every day how to help with behaviour issues in pets. Behaviour problems are the biggest health problem facing pets and their owners. These problems tarnish the relationship with your pet and often indicate that a pet is living a relatively unhappy life. The decision to put a pet to sleep because of a behaviour problem is the hardest one any pet owner and vet have to make. But sometimes there is no option – particularly when a dog has bitten or there is a risk to a child.
One of the most common dog myths I see continued is the dominance theory. So many new pet owners proudly declare that they take their dog’s bones and food away while they are eating – just to show them who’s boss. They believe that by demonstrating dominance over their dog that their dog will submit to them permanently and they will all live happily ever after.
But it’s not that simple.
A dominance relationship is not a hard and fast vertical ladder with “boss” on the top rung and “minions” on the lower. This visual makes it seem logical that all members of the lower rungs are hell bent on climbing the ladder and that you have to keep knocking them down if you want to stay on top.
But true dog and family relationships are just not like that.
Dominance relationships are always dynamic and relative to the situation at any given time. One dog may be “dominant” when it comes to a favourite toy and will put up a good fight to anyone who tries to take it away from her. Another dog may be dominant when it comes to choosing a sleeping position. And yet another dog may be dominant in an interaction when it comes to food.
The dominance relationship depends on the members present and the situation or the resource being considered at that time.
It depends on just how much each dog wants that thing!
So, in the case of removing the bone from the dog happily chewing it. You may find that the first few times this works OK as your dog sits up and wonders why you are stealing their food.
But then comes the moment when they think “Hang on, that’s mine and I really want it” The only way they have to fight for it is to growl and bite.
And suddenly you’ve got a food aggressive dog that has learnt accurately that the luxury of food is inconsistent and can be taken away from them. They are then more likely to be anxious around food and be protective. We call this resource guarding.
Good leadership does not require you to bully your dog into submission. It is leading by example. You already decide what, when and where to feed your dog. They already know you are the leader here. If you choose to offer your dog a meal, don’t renege on the deal and steal it back from them. Don’t make them fear that they have to fight for it. You are setting them up for behavioural failure.
Respect them by allowing them to eat in peace and be secure in the knowledge that their bone is theirs, they don’t have to fear losing it. Good leadership is providing your family with the resources they need with enough for everybody in a secure environment. Dogs just need a stable leader to provide food, shelter, comfort, love. This is good leadership in the eyes of a dog and if you provide this – they will follow you anywhere.