On Dominance & Obedience

by Jane Gill

I am pleased to announce that Ms. P. B. (Pushy Bitch) Marple completed the third leg of her CD at the Pyr National in Iowa. I am even MORE pleased to announce that during the entire stay at the Des Moines motel, she did not make hard eye contact, or try to dominate any of the multitude of dogs attending the show. Marple is a very dominant girl. She even lifts her leg to mark! But through obedience training I was able to modify her behavior, gain her respect, and ended up with a much more pleasant dog to live with.

In reality, dominance behavior is very, very common in Pyrs. Forget that "gentle giant" myth: Pyrs can be real battlers! I do NOT mean dominance or aggression toward people! This is not a breed characteristic, and is a very serious problem which should immediately be discussed with your breeder or rescue contact. I'm talking about interdog problems: most typically between two males or two females. In Marple's case, strange dogs, particularly those passing through our neighborhood, really set her off.

I could not live with this. On walks, the sight of a strange dog would turn my sweet wagging girl into Cujo. In her efforts to get at the other dog, she would literally throw herself on the ground, or turn and snap at Conrad. Although I had originally had no intention of doing any intensive training with her, these tantrums rapidly changed my mind.

First, I worked with her in the yard. We did endless sit-stays and down-stays. While I worked the other exercises for variety, these two were my focus. As I had anticipated, down was a toughie for her. It still is. Dominant dogs do not necessarily take very well to this exercise, which makes it even more important to work hard on it. I also introduced her to a pinch collar, since she seemed totally unimpressed by corrections with a choke.

Once I had steady stays, I took her to her first obedience class. While the rest of the class worked in the middle of the room, Marple and I were on the side doing sit-stays and down-stays. I might throw in a few short recalls, and very brief heeling patterns, but mostly we worked stays and attention. When she kept her mind on me, she got LOTS of praise. The minute she began focusing on the other dogs in a negative way, however, she got a quick, sharp correction. Obedience class is a great, controlled, environment for doing this type of work in, because the other dogs are under the control of knowledgeable handlers.

Once phases one and two were complete, we were ready to work out in the "real world." Conrad, Marple and I would head out on our walks, but Marple had two collars and two leashes on. One collar was the regular slip collar. The second collar was her pinch. Whenever another dog was sighted, I would focus immediately on her reaction to it. If she gave no reaction, I would do nothing, except perhaps begin talking to her in a very cheery, happy voice. I wanted her to know that this was desirable behavior! But the SECOND she would begin to focus on the other dog, stiffen, or prick her ears, we would go right into an obedience exercise. At first this would most likely be a "Sit." If she did not IMMEDIATELY sit, the correction was given strongly with the pinch. The minute she was sitting, however, I would praise her (for doing the sit). Then we might do a stay, a recall, a finish, or heel.

Gradually Marple began correcting herself. When we would meet another dog, she would either avert her eyes from it ("If I can't see it, I won't get in trouble.") or automatically sit before I even told her to. Sometimes she would turn a corner to avoid coming too close to the dog--and I let her do that. In the obedience ring, if she is next to another dog that she dislikes, she will literally give it the "cold shoulder" treatment.

These days, I walk Conrad and Marple on a brace, and Marple no longer needs two leashes. I continue to remain alert to her behavior when she is around other dogs, don't let her sniff, and don't let her make hard eye contact. She may be a better-behaved girl, but she is still a dominant bitch!

If you have similar problems with your beloved pet, you may want to try a similar approach. The correction need not be with a pinch collar, but has to be a strong one, and given before the dog is totally focussed on the other dog, to the exclusion of all else. I know of a club member who used a squirt bottle to the snoot for the correction. Diane Baumann suggested an empty two-liter soda bottle for another Pyr with similar propensities. The point, however, is to take an active approach. Demand proper behavior, but also take the time to show the dog what proper behavior is. Just saying No, No, No without showing the dog an alternative behavior that earns approval just will not work as well.

The other thing to keep in mind is to avoid the "Uh Oh" response. When a strange dog heaves into sight, it is a natural human reaction to think Uh Oh to yourself, and tighten up on the lead. This communicates fear and anxiety to the dog, however, and Fido takes a good look around to see what it is that's upsetting you. Oh, no! There's another dog! That must be what's got you upset! And you have just ensured that Fido, who already has a propensity for acting up around other dogs, will do so this time. Force yourself to keep a loose lead, and a relaxed frame of mind. Be matter of fact and calm in your corrections as well. You are not punishing, or panicking, you are TRAINING.

TRAINING NOTE: Fun matches are a great place to work with distrac- tions. You can work on the side near other dogs without even going in the ring! You can also either enter Pre-Novice (which is COMPLETELY ON LEAD!) or enter Novice FEO (For Exhibition Only) and, with the judge's permission, work a particular problem exercise on leash or with whatever reasonable corrections you feel you need to give. Fun matches are not about competition--they're about training, a fun day with your dog, and the chance to pick up tips from the judge and other trainers. They are also a great way to gauge your training progress in a safe, controlled atmosphere.

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