Feb 26

Dominance in Miniature Pinschers: Does Your Dog Walk All Over You?

Dominance in MIniature Pinschers

Miniature Pinscher standing on human.

Does your dog walk all over you?

Although dominant behavior is not breed specific and any dog can display dominant behavior, some breeds, such as the Miniature Pinscher, have a propensity for trying to assert dominance. This is due, in part, to the breeding of the Min Pin. Min Pins were bred to catch vermin on farms, and thus were left to their own devices much of the time. This led not only to independent thinking, but also the idea that the Min Pin was his own boss.

Dominance vs. Fear-Based Aggression

Before you commit to a training course designed to modify dominant behavior, you want to make sure that dominance is actually the problem with your dog. Fear-based aggression is often confused with dominant behavior. When our first dog, Zeus, was young, he began displaying aggressive behavior. We immediately enrolled him in obedience classes, where we were told that he was displaying dominant behavior and we needed to “take charge.” Because dominance was not the problem with our Miniature Pinscher, the suggested training didn’t work. The trainers went to the extent to tell us that he was too dominant to handle and that we should have him euthanized and start over with a new dog. After that, we looked elsewhere for training advice.

Through our own research, we determined that he was actually fearful when he displayed aggressive behaviors. Thus, we “desensitized” him to certain situations. For example, to ease his fear of other people and dogs, we took him to a local park every day. First, we kept our distance from other people and dogs. We gradually moved closer as he became more comfortable around strangers. I don’t think he ever enjoyed other people or dogs, but he did learn to tolerate them.

For more information about training aggressive dogs, see Is Your Dog Dominant? on the ASPCA web site.

The Role of Dominance in the Dog Pack

Establishing Pack Order

When it comes to dominance, a dog’s emotional reaction is different than that of a human. Whereas a human might be unhappy at the bottom of the pack, a dog can be perfectly happy as a subordinate. The important thing to dogs is that they know where they stand in pack order. If a dog has any question about pack order, it is terribly upsetting to the dog. Some reactions a dog may have to an ambiguous pack order are anxiety and depression, which, in humans at least, are terribly uncomfortable and reduce quality of life if those emotions last for a long time. Fortunately, the question of dog pack order is usually settled fairly quickly.

Dog Language

Displays of Dominance

Soon after we adopted our youngest dog, Nano, we noticed him displaying signs of dominance toward our other Miniature Pinscher, Athena, and us. These displays were very different than aggression. One such display, for example, was Nano putting his teeth on my face. It wasn’t a bite or even a nip. He just put his teeth on my face playfully. However, I knew that this gesture had significance. We had a “discussion” about that particular behavior. I put him in an alpha roll (see below) and spoke gruffly. This worked very well. I did not have to hit or yell at him, but he got the message. Common displays of dominance include the following;

  • The dog laying teeth on you, especially on your face (discussed above).
  • Leaning on you. The dog may be trying to move you out of your spot.
  • Dominance stare. This is often seen at the dinner table and interpreted as a “hopeful” look.
  • The dog going in or out of doorways before humans.
  • Selective hearing when given a command.
  • The dog trying to “cute” its way out of trouble. This type of behavior includes head and ears held high. The dog also does not act apologetic in any way. In fact, its actions are quite the opposite. The dog is happy and proud of what it has done.

Notice that the gestures listed above do not seem overtly aggressive. More dominant behaviors are listed at Dog Breed Info.com.

Displays of Submission

It is also imperative that you know when your dog is being submissive. Scolding or punishing past the point where the dog has submitted to you is not useful and may harm your relationship with your dog. The following are some submissive behaviors:

  • Rolling on its back to expose the belly. The dog may also release a small amount of urine. This is one of the most submissive gestures a dog can give. The translation is, “I’m just a small puppy. Please don’t hurt me.”
  • Looking away. I see this most often with my dogs when potty training. When I take the dog to the scene of the crime and point out the evidence left behind, I know that I have gotten my point across when the dog looks away. Looking away also shows the dog’s acceptance when you give an alpha roll and dominance stare.
  • Vacating the vicinity and hiding out. The dog does not want to stay and discuss the situation.
  • Head held low. The dog tries to look small. This is actually quite funny when my 8.5 lb dog tries to look smaller than he actually is. He puts his front and back feet close together, and his head and ears down.

These are just a few submissive behaviors. For a guide to canine body language, check out Canine Body Language at the ASPCA web site.

Never Scold too Harshly

I read a newspaper column once in which a reader thought his dog was acting out of spite. He had a small puppy and was trying to potty train it. Whenever the owner would scold the dog for having an accident, the dog would immediately urinate. The owner thought that the dog was urinating in the house out of spite. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. Dogs do not act out of spite, especially toward their owners. This is not the dog mindset. The dog was actually displaying a submissive behavior in response to what the dog thought was a harsh scolding. As stated above, the translation is, “I’m just a small puppy. Please don’t hurt me.” The scolding was too harsh in the dog’s eyes. This can be difficult for a dog owner to understand because humans don’t always understand dog language. Thus, the dog may get mixed signals, or even worse, interpret the owner’s actions as aggressive. Thus, a gentler scolding would have sufficed, and one should never scold more harshly than necessary. It will hurt your relationship with your dog.

Disrupting the Pack Order

Pack order can be disrupted in several ways. For example, a subordinate dog can challenge a higher ranking dog, a pack member (human or canine) may pass away, or there might be a new addition to the pack. Regardless of the cause, the disruption of pack order is extremely upsetting to all dogs in a pack. Indeed, changes in pack order can distress a dog to the point that it is emotionally depressed. See the post, Your Dog’s Mental Health: Depression in Dogs.

However, if your dog sees itself as higher ranking than you, it is imperative that you correct the situation immediately. There will be a period of adjustment, but the result will be a more well behaved dog, and you will get more enjoyment out of your relationship with your dog.

Assert Yourself

Show Your Dog Who Is Boss

Your dog is looking for leadership, and if there is no leader, the dog will assert itself. Thus, as soon as you get your dog, you should assert your dominance. To do this, you need to learn to think like a dog. Several of the displays of dominance listed above can be used by humans to display their dominance in the pack.

There is an exception: You should never lay your teeth on a dog. It would be difficult for a human to correctly display all the correct nuances of dog language, and your actions could be interpreted as aggression. Thus, the dog may bite in self defense. This would put your face in a perilous place, and a bite on the face from even a small dog is unacceptable. Plus, you making an aggressive move, even inadvertently, will send the dog mixed signals.

What can you do to assert your dominance?

  1. Always choose your spot and never yield to your dog. If you are on the couch and your dog leans on you, don’t budge. Better yet, put the dog in a submissive place, like its crate.
  2. Stare. If you notice them staring at you when you’re eating, stare back until the dog looks down or away. Never feed your dog from the table. In addition to the dog thinking that it is above you in the pack order, you will also train your dog to be a pest at dinner time. (See “How to Train Your Min Pin to Be a Pest” to avoid this and other common training mistakes.) Again, a dog’s crate is a great place for your dog during your dinner time.
  3. Be the leader. Always be first through the doorway, on walks, and any time an order might be perceived by your dog.
  4. Insist that your commands be carried out. Dogs need only follow orders from higher-ranking pack members, and if your dog ignores you, it may think that it outranks you. I enforce my commands with a water gun. Here is one example of how I use this form of negative reinforcement. This winter was particularly cold for our area, and thus, my dogs did not want to go outside. In fact, one of our dogs, Athena, began ignoring my commands to go outside. I decided that remedial training was necessary. I got out the water gun, and when she would ignore me, I would squirt her. The second she started following the command, the water torture stopped. By the third trip outside, she was sprinting to the door. This may take longer for a dog who was not trained this way initially, but in my experience, results have always been swift.
  5. Be a disciplinarian. This does not necessarily mean that you must be harsh. Instead, it means that the rules must be enforced no matter how cute or funny the dog is. If your dog knows that what it did is wrong and does it anyway, you must not reinforce that behavior because your dog is not being “cute.” It is actually being defiant.

Alpha Roll

One technique to assert dominance is called an “alpha roll.” In this technique, the dominant dog (you) roll the dog over onto its back and place a hand on its chest. With Zeus, we went a step further and taught him to play dead (roll onto his back on command). Then, we just put a hand on his chest, and he was in a very submissive position. It was impossible, because of the dog mindset, for him to be either dominant or aggressive in this position. This often calmed the situation whereas physical punishment (even a gentle swat) will just inflame it.

To train Zeus to play dead, we worked with him 5 minutes per day for a year. Thus, the command was so ingrained that he would roll on his back without thinking–he thought he had no choice. Him rolling onto his back himself is much better than the owner flipping the dog on his back. It is not as scary for the dog but gets your point across. See the video below for a demonstration.

Zeus did not struggle while my hand was on his chest and did not get up until I removed my hand. This technique would put an end to his growling whether it was from either aggression or dominance. The key is repeating the command to play dead enough times that the dog thinks it has no choice but to obey.

Further Reading

ASPCA Articles

Is Your Dog Dominant?
“Should you worry that your best friend yearns to achieve “top dog” status? Read on to find out.”

Dog Bite Prevention
Learn about dog bite prevention and responsible dog ownership.

Canine Body Language
“Once you learn how to “read” a dog’s postures and signals, you’ll better understand his feelings and motivations and be better able to predict what he’s likely to do.”

Dog Breed Info.com

Recognizing Dominant Behavior in Dogs
“Common behaviors dogs display when they believe they are above humans”

Alpha Humans: What Does it Take to be Domnant?
“[Being dominant] means you must communicate to the dog who the leader is going to be….Pack leaders are not dominant-aggressive, they are calm-assertive.”



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