Dominant & Submissive: Deciphering 2 of the most MISUSED terms in the dog world!

We've all heard it, and perhaps some of us have even said it. Someone at the park explains "Well, my dog is dominant, so that's why he's such a bully" as their dog rudely pounces on yours. Or that little old lady who says about her shy dog, "She's just so submissive, that's why she's afraid of strangers and new dogs."

As a certified professional dog trainer, I hear the terms "dominant" and "submissive" misused on the daily. So let's clarify what they really mean, and put them into the appropriate context. This will not only help you better understand the dynamics of our dogs' social interactions, but it will also help quell all those common misinterpretations and excuses so many owners make.

First and foremost, dominant and submissive are NOT personality traits! Dominance and submission are RELATIONSHIPS between 2 or more individuals. Period. No dog will be "dominant" or "submissive" in every interaction. It simply means a dog will exhibit different traits and behaviors, dependent solely on what kind of RELATIONSHIP it has which that particular individual.

I was at the dog park one day with my Springer, when 4 dogs swarmed him like a pack of sharks. All 4 dogs tried to go after him, and thankfully I had a large piece of driftwood we had been playing fetch with, to help keep the dogs at a distance from him. When the owners finally showed up, the owner of the beautiful brindle female Boxer was shocked her dog tried to attack mine. She said, "She's so submissive, she's always belly up with the other 3 dogs." Little did she understand that submission is a relationship, and once she had 3 of her buddies backing her up, the Boxer suddenly had the confidence to be a bully to my dog.

With that being said, though your dog may be "acting dominant" with others at the park, it does not mean your pooch IS dominant. It's more of an indication your dog is confident with it's surroundings, or perhaps a more pushy, demanding play buddy. Conversely, your dog is not "submissive", but rather showing appeasement behaviors, or perhaps is telling you they feel shy and fearful. 

There is so much more behind these loaded terms. Saying your dog is "dominant" is not an excuse to allow your dog to be a bully. Play deficit disorders in pushy dogs must be well-managed and diligently worked with, to prevent altercations with others. Saying your dog is "submissive" is not an excuse to never let your pup interact with others either. Shy dogs need to be taught confidence building skills, and properly socialized to lead a healthy, happy life.

By understanding the misconception that "dominant" and "submissive" are not permanent temperaments, owners are more likely to take responsibility for their dog's behavior, and do something to help their canine. With the guidance of a professional dog trainer, pups with socially inappropriate behavioral challenges CAN be helped!

I used to cringe every time someone would misuse these terms, but now I take it as an opportunity to educate the general dog owning public. I hope you can now do the same!