What is dominance?

It is not accurate to describe a dog as having a dominant personality. The word should only ever be used to describe a single interaction between two individuals competing for a resource such as a piece of food or a toy. One dog will usually give up the contest and leave the resource for the other. In that situation, the individual who wins is dominant. Different resources motivate different dogs at different times. This means the relationship can change – just like you might argue with your partner occasionally about what channel on TV to watch, but at other times be quite happy to let them watch their choice.

How did we get so mixed up?

From the 1940s to the 1980s, studies of captive wolf packs suggested they used aggression to establish a pecking order, a rank, with the dominant wolf called the alpha dog, or top dog. As dogs descended from wolves it was assumed that the social behaviour of dogs followed these rules. However, these studies were flawed. We now know that wolves in the wild rarely show aggression within their family pack.

Your dog is not a wolf, nor is it a human

Our domestic dogs and wolves evolved from a common ancestor more than 15,000 years ago and do retain some similarities. However, dogs have also developed some major behavioural and physical differences to become the valued friends they are today; they play throughout their lives, are usually friendly to unfamiliar dogs and other species and can read human body language. They even look to us to solve their problems. Through sharing our homes and lives, we have learnt to communicate remarkably well considering we speak different languages and have a completely different sensory perception of the world. It is in their interests that we communicate with dogs in a way that gives them the best possible chance of understanding us.

So, why is my dog behaving this way?

If your dog is growling, baring its teeth or snapping at you or others, it is not because they’re trying to dominate you. Often anxiety and insecurity are the primary contributors to aggressive behaviour. Dogs with medical conditions or those in pain are also more likely to be irritable or react defensively. A lot of unwanted behaviour is actually normal behaviour for dogs, they may just not have been taught what we expect from them or want them to do. In certain situations involving conflict, a dog may show controlling behaviour. For example, your dog may growl if another animal approaches their food bowl, or if multiple dogs are trying to squeeze through a doorway together.

If your dog growls at you while its on the couch and has you all tip-toeing around, it may be that they are feeling anxious that you’re going to force them off or punish them for being there.

Do I need to show them who’s the boss?

Anyone with a ‘pushy’, ‘rude’ or ‘demanding’ dog has probably been told at some stage to ‘show them who’s boss’ or to ‘make them submit’. The advice usually involves physically punishing the dog by forcing it onto its side (the ‘alpha roll’), or to hold eye contact whilst growling at the dog. These confrontational techniques are a bad idea. They are very risky and may result in escalation of aggression. Punishment will not calm an agitated dog. Punishment will increase both fear and excitability, and a growl may then escalate into a bite. Punishing your dog for growling may also inadvertently teach it to suppress the warning growl and bite with no warning. If your dog is anxious, punishment will make the anxiety worse. Punishment also fails to teach your dog how you want it to behave, and can ruin your dog’s trust in you and other people.

What to do

  1. Keep safe. If your dog is showing aggression to you by growling, showing its teeth or snapping, do not confront it. Avoid or prevent the situation until you have consulted with someone qualified to advise you on safe strategies to help you and your dog.

  2. Be proactive, not reactive. All dogs need predictability in their life and need to be taught how you want them to behave. You need to establish clear rules and be consistent in rewarding desirable behaviour. The golden rule is to reward the behaviour you do want and ignore or redirect the behaviour you don’t want. Remember, the only way to do this is to find the right way to communicate with your dog so it is happy to listen to you!
  3. Get the right help. The best place to start is to ask for advice from your veterinarian. Your vet can check for any contributing medical problems and if necessary will refer you to a veterinary behaviour specialist, qualified veterinary behaviourist or a qualified trainer. You can also contact the Australian Veterinary Behaviour Interest Group (AVBIG) at avbigsecretary@gmail.com for advice. We recommend seeking expert help to ensure you are getting the best advice for the happiest possible outcome for you and your pet.

Source from The Australian Veterinary Association


The first step to stop nuisance barking is to listen.

Dogs bark – it’s part of their normal and natural communication and behaviour. Dogs can bark for appropriate reasons such as when strangers approach our house, hear a noise or herding sheep. Most people want dogs to be “watch dogs” and alert us to anything unusual. But dogs can also bark inappropriately or to excess. Genetics, past experiences and learning, and present situation all have an impact on why your dog is barking. We also need to understand why they are barking to be able to manage this normal but nuisance behaviour.

Types of canine vocal communication

Dogs use many types of vocalisations to communicate and this communication starts very early in life. Young puppies make crying sounds when they are searching for food or warmth. Louder crying sounds are heard if the puppy is hurt or frustrated. As an adult dog, they will use different classes of sounds in different situations. The sounds are:

Howling a means of long-range communication to signify territorial boundaries, locate other family members, coordinate activities such as hunting or attract other dogs for mating. Dogs may also howl as a reaction to certain stimuli such as sirens.

Growling occur in different activities and used to threaten, warn, defend and or aggression. Growling is also used in play, by looking at the body posture we should be able to tell the difference and understand the motivation to growl. Growls during aggression are mostly accompanied by a stare or snarl and the dog often remains stationary. Play-growls occur in combination with a happy tail, jumping and a play bow to signal willingness to play.

Grunts the equivalent of contented sighs in people. They can also be heard when dogs are greeting each other or people.

Whines -whimpers are short or medium-range modes of communication. Dogs may whine when they greet each other, showing submissiveness, frustration, pain, to obtain attention and sometimes in defence. It can be encouraged by owners especially as a puppy as the first sound you may hear from a new puppy is the whine at night when he finds himself alone. We often are guilty of unintentionally reinforcing this whining by giving the puppy attention after the whine.

Barking is the most common mode of communication and when used to excess, it is socially unacceptable. Some excess barking can be the result of human encouragement or certain breeds have been bred to bark as part of their watchdog or herding duties. Barking is used to alert or warn others and defend a territory, to seek attention or play, to identify oneself to another dog, a response to boredom, excitement, being startled, lonely, anxious or teased.

Why they bark

Alert/warning – tend to become more rapid as the ‘intruder’ approaches. Most owners want or encourage this bark so their to alert them to the presence of a danger or suspicious stranger. It can become frustrating when the ‘intruder’ your dog barks at are birds, people walking by or sounds from far away.

Aggression – low in pitch and may be combined with growling. This may be to real fear like a stranger in your yard or pursieved fear like a vacuum cleaner. When dogs are barking aggressively frequently then an behaviour problem may be considered.

Attention-seeking are high pitched, directed at its target and can continue for some time. This is used by puppies to get you to focus your attention on them. They can become very insistent and hard to ignore, but ignore them we must.

Play/excitement – are short and sharp, and occur if dogs get too excited with the game or target. A break from the stimulus will help in this situation.

Self-identification – is when your dog seems to be answering other dogs he hears barking in the neighbourhood, it a way of saying, “I am over here.”

Bored barkers – can bark frequently and at a range of stimulus. These dogs need an outlet for their energy and a more stimulating environment.

Lonely/anxious – barking occurs if your dog is experiencing separation anxiety. The barking can become self-reinforcing as he becomes more stimulated and anxious. Anxious barks tend to get higher in pitch as the dog becomes more upset. This type of barking can be especially annoying to your neighbours and very upsetting for your dog experiencing fear without you present.

Startle barking – occurs in response to an unfamiliar, sudden sound or movement. Do not to encourage this bark and consider boredom a factor as bored dogs can become reactive to small noises.

There are many reasons for a dog to and most barking is normal behaviour. In some instances, barking may be the result of a compulsive behaviour or a symptom of a behaviour related disorder.


Once you have an idea of why they are barking, you can then change a few factors to reduce the need to bark. Listed below is advice for different categories:

Alert/warning barkers

Dogs that bark at mail delivery people or people walking by your house have their barking behaviour reinforced – They see the mail carrier then bark, then the mail carrier leaves, which rewards this behaviour. The only way to control this is to stop them having access to the street – which can be very difficult. Another option is to bring them inside during peak activity such as school kids walking past or block visual access. In some situations for ‘Alert/warning’ barkers teaching them to bark and report can help (advice at bottom of handout). Do not inadvertently reinforce barking by giving verbal or physical reassurance to a barking dog (loudly asking your dog to be quiet).

Fear barkers

Some dogs may start with an alert/warning bark, then it may progress to a bark that is associated with fear. One of the more common examples of this is those dogs that bark at approaching strangers. If your dog is barking out of fear, then we need to either remove them from the situation or desensitise them to the perceived threat. In some cases, a highly stressed, fearful or aggressive dog may suffer from an anxiety problem and requires further attention. Please talk to the staff if you think this may be your pet.

Aggression is a result of fearful behaviour, do not encourage your puppy or dog to bark at people. You may set a bad habit in motion and he may become suspicious and even fearful of people.

Attention-seeking barkers

Young puppies and adults learn that barking may incite attention from us, if we encourage it. If we respond to their barking by looking or talking to them, then the barking will continue as a form of communication or way to get attention, even if it’s not our intention. It is best to just ignore this type of barking, as hard as that may be.

Play/excitement barkers

Some dogs get very excited during play and then can bark as of a result. At that time, stop the play and settle the dog, if this doesnt work then avoid games that encourage out of control barking or take away the stimulus. At the start, the barking may be short and not frustrating, but generally play behaviour gets more excited and stimulated meaning the barking will eventually get worse.

Self-identification barkers

This type of barking is can be difficult to control, especially in a household of multiple dogs. Often there is an instigator dog and all other dogs join in. This type of barking may be controlled using a similar approach to alert/warning barks, i.e., obedience and relaxation methods with a substitute behaviour offered, like playing with a toy. If they are barking in the backyard to test a response, boredom may be the cause of this.

Bored barkers

Dogs who bark when they are bored may be similar to dogs seeking attention or those that are lonely. Dogs who are bored need something to do besides barking which means we need to give them a more stimulating environment and usually a lot more exercise. A tired dog is less likely to be bored.

Lonely/anxious barkers

Dogs who bark alone may be showing a symptom of separation anxiety. The more anxious/worried they are, the more they bark, the more anxious/worried they get, the more they bark. If your dog barks and destroys things while you are gone, this is also a sign of separation anxiety. Never punish your dog when you come home and find something chewed or torn. Dogs who suffer from separation anxiety will not get better on their own. Seek veterinary help if you pet may suffer.

Startled barkers

Dog’s can be easily startled for a few reasons, they can be bored and more reactive to noises outside their environment; They can become more worried or anxious from changes in the home, and become more reactive and worried about noises that don’t normally startle them. Keeping them locked up at night, having a radio on to dull out outside noise, giving them more environmental enrichment will help. Teaching ‘bark and report’ can help with these barkers too.

Tips to help

+ Shouting “No” is only going to make matters worse since you are responding to the dog’s barking.

+ Be patient with your dog and yourself. Changing behaviour takes a lot of time, and you need to take it slowly, one step at a time. If you become angry at your dog, the chance to correctly modify the behaviour will be gone.

+ Reward the dog for good behaviour. Positive reinforcement is much more powerful than punishment. Physical punishment will do nothing but make your dog fearful of you and break down the bond you wish to have with her.

+ Food treats are fine to use as a reward at first as it gives your pet motivation to listen and learn. Once the behaviour is constant, it’s important to phase out food reward (but always reward intermittently).

+ Do not give attention (talk) or play into your dog’s barking, this may make them believe there really is something to be alarmed, afraid or anxious about. This reinforces the behaviour and will increase the alarm or the frequency of the bark.

+ As much as possible set up situations to use as training, these should be short, frequent sessions and generally 5-10 minutes each.

+ Try to change the behaviour or substitute barking for another behaviour eg sit and drop.

+ Teach them to bark and report – that once they have barked a few times call them to return to you to inform you of the current situation. Reward and praise is used to train them to report to you.

+ Give them lots to do, take for regular walks and provide more enrichment so they don’t fill their day with barking.

+ Do not reward barking by shouting at them to stop, this unfortunately gives attention and can increase the frequency of the behaviour – especially if they are bored.

+ Place a radio in the area the spend their most time in or sleep in to reduce their reaction to noise from far away.

+ Lock them up at night to control them wondering around finding things to bark at.

Pathological barking

Barking that is a nuisance is not the same as barking that is pathologically excessive. The barking discussed is normal barking behaviour (except for lonely/anxious). Barking can be abnormal or “pathological” in situations like separation anxiety; obsessive-compulsive disorder in which a dog barks very excessively or at inappropriate things (a leaf falling); in dogs who become hyper-excited with the approach of people or other dogs; or dogs who become aggressive during barking episodes. These situation are not of a training problem but a mental health problem and should be treated by a veterinarian for behaviour modification and medication.


Debarking is a surgical procedure that removes the vocal cords from dogs. Debarking will NOT result in a silent dog and they will still attempt to bark and make a hoarse sound which some people find more irritating than the bark itself. Debarking will not cure the reason for barking – the fear, boredom or anxiety will still be there. Sometimes the anxiety cab be worsened because the dog feels different and doesn’t get the short release of anxious energy that hearing themselves can give. There is council restriction on debarking of dogs and veterinarians may refuse to perform the procedure without prior behaviour modification.

It’s a big commitment when you add a new dog into your home and it will take time and effort to ensure that both parties are comfortable and learn how to interact with each other appropriately. This may be easier for some dogs than others, so research on the breed and spending time with the new dog can help you to be aware of likely problems that may occur in this process. Below is information to help this introduction go as smoothly as possible.

Communication Skills

Breeding and personality play a large role in how a dog will interact and communicate with other dogs. Some breeds may be hard to read (eg breeds with short tail) or some are prone to nipping (eg cattle dogs). Genetics play a role in communication style but so does previous experience and socialisation, which may be difficult to assess especially if your dog has come from a rescue place. Always have the interactions in a controlled environment so you can intervene before a situation escalates and has a negative reaction.


The first interaction is ideally at a neutral place, as some resident dogs may not like intruders into their backyard or feel they have their favourite things to protect like a buried bone or toys, which can lead to protective behaviour. Before introducing your new dog to your home, try to take your resident dog away so the new dog can explore and become familiar with the environment without having to interact with a strange dog.

The first meeting of the two dogs should occur on neutral territory and ideally in a controlled and safe environment. Some dog’s behaviour can be more aggressive on the lead, however having a lead gives you control in the greeting and interaction. If you are comfortable or you know your dog’s behaviour is more aggressive on the lead then have a long lead hang on the ground that way it can be accessed quickly if an encounter escalates.

Have toys for them to play with and food to get their attention. You want the first interaction to be short and positive, do not let it escalate if the interaction is getting more intense. Sometimes play may not happen straight away which can be a good thing as play or close up interaction means the behaviour can escalate quickly. Allow them to sniff around the area and approach each other at a slow pace, ideally they will sniff the anal region then look at each other. If one dog is over friendly and starts play too quickly or jumps on their face or body the other dog may react by growling.

If a dog gives warning signs eg snarling or growl, judge the situation before reprimanding the dogs or stepping in. If subtle body language is ignored then a dog may have no choice to escalate their behaviour so the other dog takes notice. Do not allow a dog to be chased if it is scared, any negative reactions can be imprinted and breakdown the relationship.

Avoid Punishment

Growling, baring teeth, snapping are all forms of communication between dogs, which are used when a dog is very scared and feels the need to protect themselves. If you try to control the situation by your raised voice, you will be adding tension into the environment and can make the problem worse. Supervision, positive encouragement and time is key to a successful relationship.

Second Meeting

Hopefully you have the opportunity to have another interaction before they live with you permanently. If the last meeting went smoothly, then this one should too and repeat the same process as last time. If the initial meeting was not successful then keeping them in a controlled environment is essential.

If they are showing aggression or uncertainty, then keep them at a distance away from each other where they can still take calm direction from you. If you cannot get their attention or they are out of control then the space between them has to increase. Try to distract them and let them interact with food or a toy, that way that are adjusting to a new dog within a small space and not face-to-face. If this is successful, then make the distance smaller, ensuring the whole time that you have control of the situation. Having them on opposite sides of a fence or door may help them get used to each other’s sight and smell while being less confrontational. If you have one excited or very confident dog and the other dog shy and worried, you can have the more confident dog on a lead which allows the shyer dog to explore and initiate contact on their terms, giving them more confidence.


Ideally, both dogs should be separated and interactions supervised only, do not let them be alone if no one is home to control a disagreement. Depending on your dogs, this separation can last anywhere from 2 weeks to permanent, especially if an altercation has taken place. Each dog needs a different sleeping and eating area. Also, remove any toys that the resident dog hold very valuable when they are interacting as it may cause conflict or protective behaviours.

Harmful Interactions

Not every dog wants to have another dog friend or knows how to interact with other dogs. Keep a watchful eye on the interactions and intervene when body language and communication escalate to an unsafe level. Consider slowing down the progression of their interactions and they may need to be separated for longer and have very strict supervision. One negative reaction could mean the end of a developing relationship with fear intensifying with each interaction.

End result

After what seems like an eternity you’ll begin to notice some signs of harmony between the dogs Sometimes, it can be easy to loosen the supervision, just remember that the relationship is new and they both still need guidance and alone time. Not all dogs will become best friends, some may learn to coexist in the household. The hope is that it is a harmonious relationship and negative interactions are minimal, if at all.