Jack Russell Terrier Club of America - JRTCA Preserve, Protect and Work the Jack Russell Terrier

Dominant or Assertive?

Peggy Swager, CO - December 2007 True Grit

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One of the most confusing characteristics of the Jack Russell Terrier is the assertiveness of the dog. This is mistakenly tagged as canine dominance, even by experienced dog trainers. This error can create training disasters in a Jack Russell for several reasons, including situations with dogs of lower pack status and with dogs who are very sensitive. When a trainer resorts to bullying dogs they see as dominant, but who are actually highly assertive, dogs of lower pack or dogs who are highly sensitive will not only fail to reform, the bullying can create new behavior problems. By learning the difference between canine dominance and an assertive nature, dog owners can better choose the correct training for their dog. This is a two-part article. Part one covers the dominant dog and part two explains more about the assertive trait.

Dominance is often associated with pack status. The dog at or near the top of the pack will have dominant traits. The dog at the very top of pack hierarchy is called the alpha dog. An alpha dog is a dog who is born to the status of the leader of the pack. This dog has a demeanor and presence other dogs easily sense. However, there are not that many alpha dogs. For example, if you own five dogs, there is a good chance that none of them are an alpha dog. Typically, the dogs will be scattered in pack order. The dogs close to the top of the pack hierarchy will often put an effort into controlling some of the privileges that, by nature, belongs to the alpha dog. The dogs near the middle or the lower end of the pack hierarchy are usually more willing to submit, or will not put a large effort into controlling privileges.

If you do have an alpha dog, you will find that the alpha dog typically has two very strong traits. The first is dominance and the second is assertiveness. Dominance can be thought of as an attitude of authority, whereas assertiveness is the insistence of getting ones way. Alpha dogs are dominant and they typically use their assertiveness to carry out their authority. However, a dog with a dominant nature or an assertive nature is not always an alpha dog. Basically, dominance and assertiveness are tools which are used by an alpha dog. If an alpha dog fails to take a dominant role and assertively keep control of the pack, the pack will fall into disorder. A pack in disorder will suffer because more squabbles will occur among other dog members.

The alpha dog has a presence that other dogs can sense. This kind of power aura sets this dog apart from all other dogs. People can also have this kind of a power aura. Cesar Millan, a.k.a. the dog whisperer, has this kind of aura and dogs immediately sense this man's power.

An alpha dog is born to expect to be in charge. That is why you can get into canine conflict if you own two alpha dogs. Seldom do two "bosses" see eye-to-eye on how to run things and both want to have the last word. Both alpha dogs will think they should be the one in charge. This "in charge" state of mind is hardwired into the dog and can't be changed. However, the alpha dog can learn to accept leadership from his owner. This is accomplished by strategically taking control of the areas which the alpha dog normally controls. Instead of fighting with your dog about who is in charge, or trying to bully the dog into compliance, you can take control by training the dog. Teach the dog he must move out of your way on command, teach him to let you take away food, and teach him to heel along side of you instead of letting him take the lead. Once the dog learns to accept that you control these and other privileges, which are typically controlled by the top dog, even the alpha dog will relinquish power to you. This kind of training puts you in a leadership role.

Although an alpha dog may employ an alpha roll to keep subordinates in line in the pack, typically an alpha roll is not a good way to keep your alpha dog in line. I realized that Cesar Millan uses an alpha roll quite often and with a lot of success, however, unless you have an acute understanding of canine behavior and can pick up on subtle dog cues, you are best never to use this technique. Few people can use it as well as a dog, and misuse can result in a dog owner being bit or a dog being traumatized by too harsh of a reprimand. Most people will find that training is their best way to succeed.

Although alpha dogs are dominant, dominance is also a trait that is found in certain breeds. If you own a Rottweiler, or a bulldog (even those cute little French Bulldogs), or a pit bull, you are dealing with a breed that has dominance as a trait. What that means is that no matter what the dog's pack status, the dog will readily step into a decision making/take charge role which mimic that of an alpha dog. This kind of a take-charge attitude can also be seen in dog breeds who are not as dominant in nature if that individual is high in pack status.

A dominant dog will not want to take guidance from an owner who shows poor leadership. Making the dog all the more challenging, is that if the owner fails to take charge in the leadership areas, no matter what the dominant dog's pack hierarchy is, the dog will step in to take charge of that unmanned leadership role. Once the dog decides to take charge, the dog may use aggression to keep charge. These dogs are not being bad by nature, but seem to almost fret if all the leadership issues are not in control. Rather than worry, the dog will take charge. However, by keeping control of these areas, you can maintain control of your dog and often curb unwanted aggression from the dog.

Now that you've decided that your dog is an alpha dog or in the least dominant, let me stress you out. Jack Russell Terriers are not a breed with a dominant nature. What most people confuse for dominance is the dog's highly assertive nature. The good news is that understanding the assertive trait will help when working to train your dog. The bad news is that the assertive trait is much more difficult to deal with than the dominant trait. The next section will talk about the assertive trait.

Understanding the Assertive Nature

Perhaps one of the best ways to understand the assertive nature of a dog is to look at how that nature is used by the dogs. Herding dogs are typically assertive. Take for example a Border Collie. The dog faces off with a sheep or other animal. The dog employs his assertive and tenacious nature to win his will over that of the sheep. Since this dog was bred to work with people when doing his job, these kind of dogs will take guidance from a dog owner if the dog is trained to do so. The assertive nature of the dog does cause the dog to want to do things his way from time to time, but since the dog was also bred to comply, the dog can be trained to accept the guidance of his owner over his drive to do things his way.

Jack Russell Terriers were bred to be assertive. This allows the dog to go into a den and persist until the dog gets his way and the quarry is forced out of the den. If you think about this job, the dog is literally entering another animal's home and telling that fox he must leave. That is really taking charge, because the Jack Russell doesn't hesitate to go into another animal's home and has no qualms bossing around that home owner. Pain or physical punishment will not deter many Jack Russells from their mission. These dogs will endless work until they get their way. This breed was developed with a drive in the dog to assert themselves and get their task done with little disregard for pain and at times, self-preservation. And…(this is the big "and")…these dogs were not bred to do their work with any coaching from their owners. These dogs were bred to work independently.

So how does this trait play out in your household? That depends on how assertive of a trait your dog has and how independent your dog is. Typically the higher in pack status the dog is, the more tendency towards independence your dog will be, however, this trait can be bred into dogs at all levels of pack status. Independent dogs do not automatically think about checking in with their owners before the dog takes action. Making Jack Russells all the more challenging is the dog is quite intelligent and quite creative. Let's look at an example. Alexis is a female Jack Russell. She will roll onto her back when you approach, because she is a more submissive dog by nature. With most breeds, the more submissive dogs will only want to follow a leader, and will even follow a poor leader rather than take charge themselves. That is more typical of a dog of lower pack status. However, with a Jack Russell, even those of lower pack status can have a highly assertive nature. Here is how that plays out with Alexis. Alexis' highly assertive nature gives her the ability to go into a culvert and take on a forty-pound raccoon. That raccoon, who easily outweighs her, may growl and may even take a swipe at Alexis, but she won't stop her mission. Alexis will persist no matter what the risk or punishment until she has her way with the raccoon. And trust me, this dog is clever enough that so far two raccoons have lost and Alexis has won, and the dog was clever and quick enough not to get hurt.

Alexis has almost never had the opportunity to vent her excess energy by hunting, instead, she has me to focus all the creativity, high-drive, and strong will that was bred into her for hunting. Yes, she will readily submit when I approach because she is lower in pack status, but her assertive nature messes up normal dog behavior for dogs low in pack status. For example, I can be sitting happily typing away at this article and the dog will come up and put her paws on my leg. I get up and head towards the back door so I can let Alexis out to answer "the call of nature." All the way down the hall, Alexis trots excitedly, every so often glancing back at me. However, just before we get to the exit, the dog makes a sharp turn to the right and instead of halting at the door to the yard, she stops at a cabinet where I keep her food and her treats. Alexis wants a treat. Alexis will not care how many times I tell her "no." When that raccoon took a swipe at her, he was in a way telling her he was not going to do things her way. But, Alexis didn't listen to him either. If I yell at her for bugging me about getting a treat, she will be shattered. That is because many of these dogs are also highly sensitive. Instead of the dog complying when I get harsh, she would begin to cower. If I try to punish her with a swat, she may begin to submissively pee when I approach. Then I would be very unhappy.

So what is the solution? If Alexis were merely a more dominant dog, I'd simply do obedience training. However, Alexis will readily sit on command, come when called (even if distracted), heels great, and has several agility titles. Many other dog owners have absolutely admired how well this dog follows commands. If you did half that much work with a dominant breed of dog, you'd have a dog that behaved quite well and would understand that "no treat' means "don't bug me, okay." A more dominate dog would merely give up and lay at your feet, accepting the idea that since you are the boss, that you have the right to say "no," and that "no" is final. On the other hand, highly assertive dogs, like Jack Russell, are hard-wired to insist on getting their way. They may see you as the boss, but if you think about it, a fox in his own den is actually the boss in that house. That never stops a Jack Russell Terrier from bossing around the fox.

What this means is that there is no easy, one-time action you can use on a Jack Russell Terrier that will win you compliance like it might with a Rottweiler or a dog who is higher in pack hierarchy. Although most dominant dogs will fall in line with obedience training, getting a Jack Russell to comply will be at times a hit and miss proposition. Even if you take the time to train the dog on all the leadership issues, the dog's assertive nature will constantly urge the dog to try things his or her way instead or yours. Adding to the challenge is that if the dog doesn't have enough exercise or mental challenges, then the dog will only have you to focus his or her assertive and creative energy on, which can cause a rise in unwanted behaviors.

As for what I did with Alexis? I knew she wanted a treat, but I put her outside anyway. That was my way of communicating to her that paws on my leg are for trips outside, not for her to get a treat. I left her outside for a while, even though she barked and complained. I'll deal with the complaining issue next time, if she tries the same idea again. What I want her to learn with my putting outside where she doesn't want to be at the moment, is to stop pestering me for treats. If Alexis were merely a dominant dog, her previous training would have quickly resolved this issue. However since she is highly-assertive, I will need to continue to enforce my will over hers. And unfortunately, since she is also quite creative, I can bet she will come up with another ploy for getting a treat when she wants it. The dominant trait is so much easier to deal with.

Bio: Peggy Swager writes novels, dog training books and articles. For people who like to mix fiction with dogs, her Jack Russell Terrier, Cookie, is characterized in her new novel "Murder Was a Stranger." Peggy's website is www.peggyswager.com where additional dog training articles can be found. You will find more information on dealing training problems in her book “Training the Hard to Train Dog.”

Article from December 2007 True Grit

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