Hi Chad!  

I read your article on dominance and aggression which I really enjoyed reading and feel it is consistent with what I am experiencing in my home currently. I am a trainer in the midwest and really just beginning to explore dominant dog theory. I don’t offer training for aggression, however, I have a rottweiler that I adopted from a shelter that has some resource guarding, food aggression and other aggressive behavior that I think is dominance related but I’m not sure? 

I have found a few books on dominance but on the positive side. Ian Dunbar and Jean Donaldson are 2 of my go to trainers for info but I don’t believe they support dominance as a trait. I would like a reference book to support balanced trainers and dominance theory.  

I have made progress with resource guarding, I can now put my hand in his bowl and feed him. We play treat games and train with food. I add high value items to his food while he’s eating. I do every one of these everyday. He has his CGC and knows all his commands. We do proofing in public. He now will not work if there’s no food involved.

He’s complicated. I work with this dog every day. He guarded an ice pack yesterday. There are no warning signs and what he finds valuable is beyond me. We had the most wonderful day yesterday, training, walking, and play time. He is so wonderful then…bam he does something crazy with no warning.

If I sit next to him on his dog bed, he corrects me. He will approach me for attention, or that’s what I think, then he will snap at me if I move after petting him. He looks really angry sometimes and I don’t even want to go in the room.  

I would ask for assistance from a local more experienced trainer, except I can not find one here. I have had a long phone conversation with a well known behaviorist who told me he is mentally ill. I was willing to travel to see her in person but she declined and offered me an online course. I have found other online sources that have recommended e-collar blast. I also believe that now he’s thinking I am his and he’s treating me as a resource. I am interested in reading more about dominance theory. I am also going to a seminar with Larry Krohn which I hope will help.  

Thank you, 

Conflicted Dog Trainer 


Thanks for reaching out and I’m glad you enjoyed my article! There is a lot going on in this email but I believe your question is simply that you want my recommendation for a reference book or some recommended reading materials on the topic of dominance, right? No problem, I have answered that in question #1. However, for those interested in deeper learning, I have compiled a total of 10 questions that could be pulled from the information shared in this email:  

  1. Can You Recommend Dominance Theory or Balanced Training Reference Materials? 
  2. Is My Relationship With My Dog Out of Balance? 
  3. Have I Been Following The Wrong Experts? 
  4. How Can I Fix My Dog’s Resource Guarding and Food Aggression?
  5. Should I E-collar Blast My Dog For Resource Guarding?
  6. Is My Dog Dominant? 
  7. Why Is My Dog’s Aggression So Unpredictable? 
  8. Does My Aggressive Dog Have a Mental Illness?
  9. Does my Ego Want My Dog To Have A Mental Illness? 
  10. How Can I Use Positive Reinforcement Without Creating Food Dependency?  

So, for the short answer, you only need to read #1, which is coming right up but, for all you groovy cats who dig deep learning, you might wanna grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair, it’ll take a minute to get through all 10. (Dig…deep, see what I did there?) 

#1: Can You Recommend Dominance Theory or Balanced Training Reference Materials? 

I have studied a lot of dog training and wolf material over the years. I honestly can’t remember all of the sources for the information in my head but, if I had to recommend one book to put some academic merit behind dominance and balance, it would be Steven R. Lindsay’s Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training, starting with volume 1. It’s basically a college textbook on dog training and behavior; highly academic and detailed. I felt it was objective and unbiased, which is rare, but it’s quite an undertaking to read the whole thing. It also has tons of references within it, so you could research forever, if that’s your thing. 

You might also want to check out my article Dog Psychology Part 4: Dogs Are Descendants of Wolves which includes several references that you can look up for yourself. 

I personally don’t have a lot of time to read studies but here are a few that I can remember having actually read completely that you might be interested in: 

  • Age-graded dominance hierarchies and social tolerance in packs of free-ranging dogs – Behavioral Ecology 
  • Canine dominance-associated aggression: concepts, incidence, and treatment in a private behavior practice – D.B. Cameron
  • Comparison of stress and learning effects of three different training methods in dogs (Ecollar, Prong, Quitting Signal) – E. Schalke, Y. Salgirli, I. Böhm, S. Ott, H. Hackbarth
  • Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit? – Journal of Veterinary Behavior
  • Dominance relationships in a group of domestic dogs – Rebecca K. Trisko and Barbara B. Smuts
  • David L. Mech 
  • Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs
  • Leadership behavior in relation to dominance and reproductive status in gray wolves, Canis lupus
  • Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, 
  • Expression Studies On Wolves – Rudolph Schenkel 
  • Factors Associated With Bites to a Child From a Dog Living in the Same Home: A Bi-National Comparison
  • Leadership and Path Characteristics during Walks Are Linked to Dominance Order and Individual Traits in Dogs – Zsuzsa A ́kos1.*, Ro ́bert Beck1., Ma ́te ́ Nagy1,2,3., Tama ́s Vicsek1,2, Eniko ̋ Kubinyi2,4
  • Training pair-housed Rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) using a combination of negative and positive reinforcement – Eva-Marie Wergårda,b,∗, Hans Temrinb, Björn Forkmanc, Mats Spångberga, Hélène Fredlunda, Karolina Westlunda

I have found that most studies are not as “conclusive” as people think. I often find that there are flaws or limitations with how they were done and I don’t always agree with the conclusions the authors come to. I also find that it’s imperative to actually read the whole study for yourself, not just the cherry picked quotes used by bloggers who may or may not have even read the whole thing themselves. It’s easy to read the abstract and then scroll to the bottom and read the conclusion but I know you’re better than that.   

Someday I’ll gather and post a more complete listing of all my references or at least the ones I can remember. Until then, the above sources should be a good start. 

#2: Is My Relationship With My Dog Out of Balance? 

Based on the information given in this email, I would say with a fair amount of certainty that the human-dog relationship is out of balance and deep down I think you already know it, which is why you are looking into the topic of dominance. That being said, I think I have a secret solution that could flip the script on your relationship, it’s what I call The Play Hard To Get Rule. 

The Play Hard To Get Rule

Following The Play Hard To Get Rule means that you only pay attention to the dog on your terms. More specifically, you only engage with the dog when you are the one who initiates the interaction. In other words, you don’t even look at the dog when they are attempting to get your attention. You don’t look at them, you don’t say “off” or “no” or “go away” or anything, you simply ignore them…until it’s time to initiate an interaction by inviting them to you for some sort of interaction. Please note; I said invite them, not go to them, which means you must call the dog to you, which means the dog must be at least a few feet away from you and not already paying attention to you. 

Oh wait, one more detail, you also must not invite the dog if they are misbehaving or in the wrong mental-emotional state. Most of the time, for a household pet, this means you wait until the dog is calm before inviting them over for some attention. 

There you go, now you know the secret that helps with virtually every dog behavior problem under the sun. Seriously, it’s so powerful you will be amazed at the results…if you can actually do it with consistency. Just FYI, most people cannot or will not do it. It’s harder than it sounds, plus most people can’t imagine that it actually works so they simply don’t do it. I could go on and on explaining how and why it works and share stories of how it has cured everything from aggression to disobedience to separation anxiety but this article would be a million pages long. Just do it and see for yourself. 

#3: Have I Been Following The Wrong Experts? 

I would definitely suggest finding a broader range of influences because it sounds as though, at least up till now, you have been following primarily a lot of “positive” or “force-free” dog trainers. It also sounds like you are running into plateaus that you can’t move past with a strictly positive paradigm. This is common, almost everyone who attempts to follow those methods plateaus at an unsatisfactory level. Not that positive training doesn’t work, it can work for many things, but it takes a long time and requires massive amounts of management and patience, so it’s simply not realistic for most pet dog owners. Half my business comes from clients who have already tried “positive” trainers and did not get the results they needed. Remember, it’s not just the results that people need, most people also need those results within a reasonable time frame. 

#4: How Can I Fix My Dog’s Resource Guarding and Food Aggression?

First of all, when it comes to resource guarding, I would not take a “dominance theory” approach. I would focus on NOT taking anything from the dog. Instead of taking, I would focus on GIVING and SHARING. I would do “upgrades” with the food, meaning you add something better to the food while the dog is eating, to the extent that you can do this without getting bit. You may need to use a long spoon or something if you can’t get close enough to use your hand. I would also do a lot of training with food rewards, feeding by hand, playing “food fetch”, etc. I would also do a lot of tug and fetch with toys and balls, which would include teaching the “bring” and “out” commands. I would also teach a solid “Leave It” command. I would focus on things of that nature and not worry all that much about dominance theory and definitely would not do anything involving taking things from the dog or putting your hand in his bowl.  

The general theme is to relax and teach the dog that you are a giver, not a taker. Don’t make yourself a nuisance by constantly messing with the dog while he’s eating or chewing on things.

Teach the dog to give you things and to leave things alone on command. There is a huge difference between taking something and telling the dog to give or leave something. 

There is also a casualness to what I am saying, so don’t make such a big thing out of it, just relax about it. There is no need to do every one of these things every day. Also, please reference The Play Hard To Get Rule mentioned previously, it’s all connected. If you are doing all of these food exercises without also playing hard to get, you will continue to have problems. 

#5: Should I E-collar Blast My Dog For Resource Guarding?

The short answer is no. The e-collar is not a tool to use carelessly and it can easily do more harm than good. Do everything I said in the previous sections to resolve resource guarding issues. If that’s not enough, one of two things are happening, you are not consistently doing everything I said or you have an extreme or unusual case. 

It may be beneficial to do some proper e-collar training with your dog for all the same reasons it can be helpful with any dog…more off-leash control equals more safety which leads to the dog having more freedom which gives the dog a more fulfilling life which leads to a better relationship with a more well behaved, well mannered dog. But, as for resource guarding, I already gave my suggestions in the previous section, which can all be done without an e-collar. 

That being said, using the e-collar to build a highly reliable, advanced “Leave It” command could certainly help BUT that’s a far cry from simply blasting the dog for resource guarding. 

#6: Is My Dog Dominant? 

The short answer is, I don’t know. Dominance is a relative term, so around some people or dogs he could be dominant and around others he could be submissive. I believe the real question is, does the dog have a tendency to behave in a dominant or controlling manner in relation to the owner? 

By the sound of the email: “If I sit next to him on his dog bed, he corrects me. He will approach me for attention, or that’s what I think, then he will snap at me if I move after petting him. He looks really angry sometimes and I don’t even want to go in the room.” That quote makes me think that, yes, the dog has probably been allowed to hold a dominant position in the relationship. Another way of saying it is that there has been a lack of leadership or control coming from the owner. 

Even though she “works with the dog everyday”, what she is doing is dog training and what we are talking about here is dog psychology. All the little “training” exercises such as running through basic commands and playing food games will not remedy an imbalanced relationship. 

(Reference Question #2 to review The Play Hard To Get Rule.) 

Playing hard to get is the most subtle, gentle, non-confrontational way to lay a foundation for dominance and leadership that I know of. Read it again and you will see that “If I sit next to him on his bed” doesn’t fit the rule and neither does “He will approach me for attention” because, in both cases, the dog was not invited, the human did not initiate the interaction. The dog has been allowed to initiate interactions, which has led to him thinking he is in control, which has led to him thinking he can tell the person off if they do anything he deems unwanted. If the dog can tell you to pet him, he can also tell you not to pet him. He can tell you to stop petting him whenever he’s not in the mood or has had enough. Or, maybe just to not pet him in a certain spot or to simply not move from the bed because you are disturbing the comfort or the King. All of that, in my opinion, sounds like dominance but I can’t say for sure because I haven’t seen this particular case with my own eyes.

The fact that the dog has only been trained with positive reinforcement and has become a “show me the money dog” that will “only work for food” is just more evidence that there is probably a dominance related issue going on here.  

Again, please reference #2 and see if you can’t get with me on the importance of playing hard to get. It can literally be a lifesaver and even the most radical, extremist version of force-free, positive, reward-based, dog friendly, whatever you want to call it, dog trainers should not have an issue with simply ignoring the dog until he’s in the proper mental-emotional state and then inviting him to come to you for some attention. That said, they may have a problem with the fact that I’m using the word dominance, which is fine, they don’t have to agree with my use of language. I have already shared plenty of resources on the topic of dominance in dogs in question #1. 

#7: Why Is My Dog’s Aggression So Unpredictable? 

Is it? Is it really unpredictable? There is a difference between “unpredictable” and what people judge to be “unjustified” or “unwarranted” or “unreasonable” acts of aggression, so let’s be ultra clear about our choice of words here.  

When dogs have aggression that is truly unpredictable, it is very dangerous and difficult to remedy. A diagnosis of unpredictable aggression will lead many trainers and behaviorists to recommend medications or euthanasia, so please be very careful not to make such claims unless it is actually true. 

People love to say their dog’s aggressive behavior is unpredictable but I rarely find a dog with truly unpredictable aggression, as in literally almost never, and it doesn’t sound to me like this particular case is one of those rare ones. Of course, I can’t say anything with certainty because I have not worked with the dog in person. By the description, however, the dog is not becoming aggressive “out of nowhere” or anything that would make me say he’s unstable or unpredictable. He guards resources, he guards his personal space and he controls his owner’s movements around the house, that’s pretty predictable. 

Sure, maybe he doesn’t always do it and maybe you don’t know exactly how to read his mood but he isn’t just having random bursts of rage or anything bizarre like that. In other words, you know, without question, that there are certain situations where he is likely to act aggressively, so those situations simply need to be treated accordingly. 

Ultimately, what this dog needs is leadership and balanced obedience training. What he is doing is fairly common, especially when dogs that tend to be dominant live with humans who attempt to train them with nothing but kindness and cookies. They mean well but what people need to realize is that “positive” dog training, as valuable and important as it is for many things, simply fails to provide leadership or control. 

Mark my words; With certain types of dogs, attempts at attaining “friendly cooperation” without establishing a high level of leadership and control will lead to catastrophe, it just will and there is nothing unpredictable about it.  

#8: Does My Aggressive Dog Have a Mental Illness?


The short answer is, probably not. The longer answer is that I can’t say anything with certainty without working with the dog in person. 

The email claims that a “well known behaviorist” diagnosed the dog with “mental illness” but I am shocked that someone would give such an extreme diagnosis based on nothing more than a telephone consultation. I genuinely hope that there was some sort of misinterpretation of what the behaviorist actually said. Perhaps she used some qualifying words such as “may” or “might” regarding a “potential” mental illness? One can only hope.

While I am shocked that they would make such a serious diagnosis without ever actually seeing the dog, I am not all that surprised with the diagnosis itself. In my article on dominance and aggression, I discuss how “positive” dog trainers and behaviorists commonly mis-diagnose dominance as a mental illness due to the fact that they don’t believe it exists. I’m sure some readers do not believe what I wrote but this email is an example of exactly what I was talking about. You see, I’m not making this stuff up! 

To be clear; I’m not saying for sure that what you are dealing with is dominance but I am about 90% sure that at least part of the issues are dominance-based and it doesn’t sound to me like your dog has a mental illness but, of course, I could be wrong. That being said, what the email is describing sounds like behaviors I have seen many times and always, without fail, lack of leadership was at the root of the problem and establishing leadership was a major part of the rehab recipe. So, let me just say it one more time, dominance is real and it is not a mental illness. 

PS: I’m not saying that mental illness is not a real thing, I’m sure that some dogs do have it, but what I can say with confidence is that it is a very rare thing. 

#9: Does My Ego Want My Dog To Have A Mental Illness? 

Sometimes it’s easier on the ego to believe that the dog is just “broken” because it takes the blame and responsibility off of our shoulders. If mental illness is the answer you are looking for, you will find it. If, on the other hand, you are actually looking for solutions to your dog’s aggressive behavior, you will find that as well. So, all you need to do is know what you want. Seek and ye shall find. 

#10: How Can I Use Positive Reinforcement Without Food Dependency?  

Balanced dog training uses food as lures and rewards in combination with more traditional tactics, such as using physical pressure and petting, to create higher levels of control and reliability as well as to avoid food dependency. That being said, even in a “force-free” model, the key is to understand the difference between a lure, a reward and a bribe. You can avoid bribery by putting food rewards on some sort of variable reinforcement schedule, meaning you don’t give a treat every time. Most likely, the first step would be to fade the lure, meaning you get the food out of your hand and move to a hand signal, then give the dog the treat after they have performed the behavior. Then you would move to giving the treat after some performances of the behavior and not others. Sometimes you give a treat, sometimes just a pet, sometimes a game of tug or fetch, sometimes just verbal praise…you simply need to mix it up. 

The biggest mistake people make when trying to be “positive” is that they have the erroneous mindset that the dog needs to be “paid” for everything rather than having a mindset that working together can be naturally reinforcing. In other words, the focus tends to be on extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. The purpose of positive reinforcement should be to create a positive association with the training so that the behaviors and interactions themselves become self reinforcing and the need for food becomes secondary or unnecessary. Put some charm and personality into your dog training, be fun and don’t just stand there handing out cookies.

Chad Culp – Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

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