Dog Gone Problems is a weekly advice column by David Codr, a dog behaviorist in Omaha. David answers dog behavior questions sent in by our readers. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Dog Gone Problems,
I have a 5-year-old female dog, Abbey, and a 1-year-old male, Oliver. Both are fixed. Abbey is being dominated by Oliver, and I am working on showing him she is the alpha. She goes in and out first, is fed first and so on.
She is shy and recently stopped eating her food unless it is doctored up. I stopped that and she was eating, but not much. Now she only wants to drink and eat from his water and food bowl. It is the same food. Her bowls will stay untouched. I tried warm water to make a it gravy-like, and she still will go to his bowl.
I really would appreciate any suggestions. Thank you!
To start, there is no such thing as alpha when it comes to dogs. That term is based on a faulty study of wolves in captivity from nine years ago. The author of the study later recanted his findings because the fact is wolves live together in a family structure. Typically, it is a male and female who have offspring twice a year, and the pups stay with their parents until they are 3 years old.
So the natural living dynamic is based on the parents being the oldest, most mature and the ones who are teaching and nurturing the other pups. The pups don’t listen because they’re dominated; they listen because they’re their parents.
Many people think they need to try to orchestrate a hierarchy among their dogs. While you can certainly provide a safe environment, discourage unwanted behaviors and provide structure, you can’t tell the dogs that a follower is a leader or that a shy dog is confident.
That’s not to say that there is no such thing as dominance in dogs or wolves. It’s just that we don’t want the dogs to decide what goes on based on dominance, which is essentially a control of resources.
Instead of focusing on trying to make your female into something she is not — and doesn’t exist — I would try to make sure you are interrupting any sort of dominating or bullying behavior. This video includes an example of a pair of dogs where one is trying to dominate the other.
It’s important your interruption of dominant behavior be done dispassionately. There should be no chastising or punishment for displays of dominance. A better method is to redirect the dogs towards something else or provide them with an activity that preoccupies them.
In the example of the dominance video linked above, I discussed doing some paired treating, which is one thing you can do that may help. Ideally, what you want to do is find a number of activities the dogs can do together. Other options include going for a walk together, giving them lick mats on opposite ends of the room and encouraging play done in an appropriate manner (where are the dogs take turns being on top and the bottom or being the one to chase or be chased).
It’s very normal for a 1-year-old male dog to try to jockey for position. Don’t punish him dog for trying to do so. A much more effective method is to redirect them towards a more appropriate activity.
When it comes to eating, dogs eat in the order of status. Based on what you wrote, it appears that, out of the two dogs, your female appears to be more comfortable in a passive role. There is nothing wrong with that. Trying to make her eat or go outdoors first is not going to change how he behaves with her, but it can create anxiety in your female and frustration in your male.
My advice would be to feed the male first and, when he is done, have him leave the area. Then invite your female over to eat out of his bowl. If your female seems uncomfortable eating while your male dog is in the room, you may need to have your male dog somewhere else for her feeding time. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
After your female gets done and walks away, dump any leftover food back into the food bin and put the empty bowl back on the floor. However, if you notice your male dog is getting in the way of the female when she tries to walk over towards where the food bowl is, I would remove the bowl completely so there is nothing for your male dog to guard. If he does this with the water bowl, add a second or third water bowl in different locations.
Also, make sure your dogs are getting a sufficient amount of exercise, especially your male. Young dogs have a surplus of energy multiple times throughout the day so often they need a couple of shorter walks instead of one long one.
You may also want to enlist the help of a positive reinforcement dog trainer. Teaching your male some self-control exercises can help, while teaching the female some new cues can help build her self-esteem and confidence.
Good luck and remember — everything you do trains your dog. Only sometimes you mean it.