Dominance is one of the most discussed concepts in the world of dogs. When describing dogs, people use the words dominant and submissive as the sum total of a dog's personality.
But why did that come to be? Why don't owners ever say their dogs are funny, playful, goofy, energetic or any other adjective? Why does a dog personality always get boiled down to dominant or submissive?
The idea originally descended from the idea of a "wolf pack", where wolves battled each other for supremacy. This concept was applied to dogs and has mostly been debunked in the scientific community (especially in terms of human and dog relations). The idea sticks around, though, because it's just easy to put things in one of two categories. On top of that, it isn't entirely false. There is a common sense truth to dominance.
"Common Sense Dominance"
Common sense dominance doesn't stem from scientific studies of wolves, but rather a practical realization about the dynamics of ANY relationship - dog, human, or otherwise. Dominance is fluid. When you pair certain personalities together, there can be a shift in the dominance dynamic.
There can even be a shift based on how you FEEL on any given day.
A normally confident leader can head into a business meeting with a particularly bold and confident team member and feel small that day. You and your spouse's dynamic could change based on the situation - maybe you feel more confident about how to work the remote and he feels more knowledgeable about lawn care. In each situation, you will submit to the other's superior knowledge.
Why acting "Alpha" isn't the same as dominance
This concept applies to you and your dog. Maybe you're confident in telling him to get off the couch, but not away from his food bowl. Maybe you've allowed your dog to behave a certain way - he won't come when called, he jumps on you when you don't want him to - and you need to take back the dominant position in your relationship.
However, this can be difficult to correct. Many times, people assume they just need to be more "alpha" – which most people will then escalate to a stern voice, "NO! COME! COME ... COOOOMME HERE!!!" This, unfortunately, isn't going to fool the dog into suddenly thinking he should respect you, it's only going to make him think you're unstable and unsuitable to listen to. We see this all the time in almost any dog training environment. People try to "become alpha" and this tends to make dogs think their owner has become crazy.
Leading a dog doesn't necessarily come from being stern, it comes from confidence. In my experience, if you're not naturally oozing self-assurance, confidence comes from having a plan. If your dog is running away from you, being tougher will not necessarily make him come to you, but having him drag a long line that you can step on and reel him in with will teach him that when you make a request, you're going to follow through with it.
Dogs do need leadership, but don't just mistake that for some idea of "alpha".
Instead, focus on finding a style of leadership that is effective for your personality. Think back to the best teachers you have had as a teen – if they were controlling a classroom of 20 students, they found a way to lead. It wasn't just by yelling repeatedly or losing their cool. It was about accentuating the best parts of your personality and finding ways to earn respect.