To The Dogs—Canine Advice Column

Shades of Gray

For some dogs, the quest for dominance results in anxiety when things are no longer black and white.

By Hilton Butler


Canines have four basic personality types, each with varying characteristics of aggressiveness, passiveness, dominance and submissiveness—we’ve been discussing these traits in the previous two columns. I see passive-dominant dogs frequently, as I specialize in correcting “anxiety issues.” Some breeds are more prone to anxious behaviors than others—setters, heelers and spaniels come to mind—but any breed can fall victim to “separation anxiety” or other related issues.

A passive-dominant personality sounds like an oxymoron, but its traits are easy to conceptualize. Picture a shy, awkward kid working in the mailroom of a big corporate company. He dreams of one day being a huge corporate executive. Years have passed, yet still he sorts mail day in and day out; he never moves up the corporate ladder, though, due to a lack of initiative or a fear of change. Now, imagine that same young man is suddenly thrust into the position of chief executive officer. His dream came true, but he lacks the personality and tools to actually lead with confidence. In a short period of time, he begins to develop headaches, digestive issues and a myriad of other stress-related complications. Now, he wishes he was back in the security of that mailroom, responsible for only himself.

Like our mailroom friend, a passive-dominant dog wants to be the boss but does not actually possess the coping mechanisms to deal with being in charge. Dissecting it a little further, the term “dominant” stands for where the dog thinks his social position should be. The term “passive” describes what he’s willing to do to get there. You might describe a passive-dominant dog as sneaky: he avoids direct confrontation in return for more subtle dominance-building techniques. Some tactics include:

  • Head in Lap: While you sit and enjoy a television show, Fido makes his way over and places his head in your lap. You’re glad he wants to see you, so you give him a good ear scratch. In the dog world, however, placing a body part over someone else’s body part is a reflection of dominance.
  • My Way: When giving the “sit” command, Fido sits but also places his paw on your foot or sits on your foot. This, again, is about dominance.
  • The Old Switch-A-Roo: You tell Fido to “sit,” and he lays down instead—this passive favorite gives you a different response than the one you requested.
  • “Good Boy:” A passive dog, after completing a task such as “sit,” will take the treat you offered as a reward, but places it on the ground before picking it right back up and eating it. In this behavior, Fido rewards himself. By placing it on the ground and picking it back up, he is controlling the resource. In his mind, the treat is now coming from himself, not from you.
  • The Distraction: You tell Fido to “sit,” and he immediately starts scratching at his collar. It amazes me how itchy those collars get once a command is given.
  • The Avoider: When issued a command, Fido immediately moves away and possibly displays submissive crouching or slinking.
  • The Drama Queen: Fido uses the appearance of submission to avoid obeying the given command, like when he rolls over when you tell him to sit.

This list is not all-inclusive, but most owners of passive-dominant dogs can relate to these scenarios.

What If?

The passive-dominant canine is far more prone to anxiety and aggression than dogs with other personality combinations. They spend all their time doing sneaky behaviors, like the ones outlined above, to build up their dominance, but once they find themselves in charge, anxiety develops and you encounter issues such as upset bellies, excessive chewing on objects or themselves, barking, whining, drooling and panting. The list goes on and on. After the anxiety dissipates, these dogs begin the process of building their dominance back up again. Without intervention, this cycle never ends.

Gray areas are the cause of anxiety. In the above scenario, a gray area exists because the dog isn’t naturally a leader. Do you think General Patton, George Washington or Winston Churchill thought about being a leader? Of course not, they just were. For our passive-dominant companions, however, once they possess dominance, they do not instinctually know how to maintain it; a gray area develops where the next choice of action is no longer clear, so they start to worry. Natural leaders, by contrast, are black and white: “If X happens, I will do Y.” Leaders spend very little time agonizing over their decisions, while the passive-dominant dog spends all his time pining over his choices, asking “what if” for every decision and worrying about the outcome.


This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Winter 2016 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.


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