The human-canine bond is a dynamic balance of three very different but complimentary types of social interaction between owner and dog:

  • Dominant-subordinate interaction (rules)
  • Leader-follower interaction (leadership)
  • Nurturer-dependent interaction (affection)

Understanding how the bond works, how our behaviour towards our dogs' behaviour affects the bond, and getting the balance right and adjusting it when needs be, particularly when trying to prevent and resolve problematic behaviour, is fundamental to developing and maintaining an emotionally healthy and fulfilling relationship with a dog as well as being vital to the dog's psychological well-being.


Dominant-subordinate interaction or 'rules' defines what a dog may not do, e.g. jump up, bite on hands, chase the cat, etc. Its purpose is to set social boundaries and limit behaviour. Dominance-related interaction involves clear, non-hostile communication from the owner that serves to reduce behaviour, e.g. stepping towards a dog as it jumps up, while subordinate-related interaction involves submissive acknowledgement or 'appeasement' by the dog, e.g. licking, nudging or pawing (active submission), or lying down to expose the belly (passive submission). I've used jumping up as an example because while the first step to limiting this behaviour utilises dominant-subordinate interaction, jumping up in itself is actually an appeasement behaviour. Dominant-subordinate interaction is not used to redress the balance between who is dominant and who is subordinate when a dog jumps up, because the dog is not trying to be dominant in the first place ~ he is simply trying to reach our face so that he can lick it (appeasement/active-submission behaviour). What dominant-subordinate interaction actually does at this point is cause the dog to increase its efforts to appease us, and whatever the dog gives us in return is what we need to shape into acceptable greeting behaviour in order to allay any anxiety, confusion or frustration that the dog may develop as a result of having its initial efforts to appease us knocked back.

Dominance-related interaction has nothing to do with 'dominance theory', or being the 'alpha' or 'pack leader', all of which are based on unrelated theories about how to control dogs. Dominance-related interaction absolutely does not involve hostility, intimidation, challenge or threat, or physically forcing a dog into 'submissive' body positions. Submissive behaviour from a dog should always be a voluntary response. Dominance-related interaction has nothing to do with eating before a dog eats, spitting on a dog's food or mixing it by hand, or the ridiculous practice of pretending to eat out of a dog's bowl before giving it the 'leftovers', which although does create consistency at mealtimes and a ritual that the dog can rely on (which is at least a good thing) it sends no message of 'higher status' whatsoever, and just makes owners look and feel silly.

Dominant-subordinate interaction is an intrinsic part of the human-canine bond. We naturally are in the dominant role because we are human, and with many dogs, dominant-subordinate interaction happens of its own accord as a part of normal, everyday social interaction that involves the setting of various rules and boundaries that serve to limit behavioural excesses. Dominant-subordinate interaction, when understood and utilised correctly, actually causes a dog paradoxically to seek more attention, affection and closeness with its owner. Attention, affection and proximity seeking reflect a highly submissive state of mind whereby the subordinate dog is looking for friendly, social interaction, and must be guided towards what it may do in order to gain this …


Leader-follower interaction or 'leadership' defines what a dog may do, e.g. jump up on cue, play with a tug toy, move forward when the lead is slack, etc. Leader-related interaction involves prompting and coordinating social activities that bring beneficial results to both owner (leader) and dog (follower). Follower-related interaction simply involves a cooperative response from the dog.

'Leadership' has become a popular, although often misunderstood, doggy buzzword in recent years. To truly grasp what leadership is, it's important to realise what it's not. It isn't 'being the boss/alpha/pack leader', 'getting the upper hand' or 'putting a dog in its place'. It isn't having control over resources, neither is it challenging a dog yield to human authority, for example, preventing a dog from having right of way through doorways or from walking in front.

What leadership is, is giving a dog direction, showing and teaching it what it is allowed to do, what it may do instead of jumping up, biting on hands, pulling on the lead or barging through doorways. Leadership builds confidence and trust, and creates a mutual language between owner and dog. Leadership requires us to communicate clearly and compassionately with our dogs, to be patient and tolerant while our dogs are learning to accept our direction, and above all, to always remember that we are on the same team as our dogs.


Nurturer-dependent interaction or 'affection' sees the owner (nurturer) providing the dog (dependent) with rewards such as food, fuss, praise and play in return for its follower-related cooperation. Along with trust gained via leadership, affection is what cements the human-canine bond. Affection is the basis for a loving relationship with a dog.

The dynamic interplay between these three dimensions of the human-canine bond influences how well the continuous, daily stream of social interaction flows. It defines what mustn't be done, what may be done, and the kind of rewards that may be enjoyed as a consequence of cooperative and harmonious interaction. Through a better understanding of how these three different types of social interaction affect the dog's mind, we come to realise that attention-seeking behaviour such as persistent jumping up, pawing, mouthing or constantly being underfoot, is not symptomatic of over-attachment or dominance, but a reflection of a dog’s submissive and dependent search for kind-hearted, human leadership.


Copyright Lizi Angel 2007-2020