Dog trains man

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A word on Hovawarts and dominance

The Hovawart is labeled as a dominant dog. Let me share Kenzo's story with you to see how dominant they can be. Or not be.

Kenzo, the Alpha wannabee puppy?

The pack leader
When we got him as puppy, now more then 2½ years ago, little did I know about the breed. Trying to be prepared I read some books recommended to me and talked to other Hovawart owners. It was clear to me that this cute little fellow soon will try to challenge my position as the pack-leader. Especially with Hovawarts this was supposed to be the case, as the self-assured dogs they are. So I started from the start with being a pack leader. You know. Move through the door first. Eat before the dog eats. Dog cannot be above (couch, stairs) you. Etc.

See, he wants to dominate
We went to our first dog training class just before the start of his adolescence. The trainers knew and heard about the Hovawart breed and pointed out to me I had to become more of a leader otherwise ... They wanted Kenzo to do what I said he should do, no matter what. Not following a command would first trigger the "No" word in increasing levels of volume, and eventually a leash correction. Well that definitely didn't work. Actually I could see Kenzo's contact now starting to focus away from me. The "breakthrough" came when one of the trainers jumped in to help me and show how to do it. Kenzo didn't move. "See, he wants to dominate" the trainer said. She tried again. Kenzo didn't move. Then she called upon the other trainer "Come and help, we have a real alpha over here". Basically I didn't know what was right or wrong, but based on Kenzo's obvious discomfort, I decided that enough is enough and we called it a day.

You cannot rule a Hovawart
Coming home and thinking things over I remembered some advice I got from our Hovawart breeder which first now started to make sense to me. You cannot rule a Hovawart. I started to follow up on that because why can Kenzo and me work together when training on a daily basis for fun. And not in training class. Fun is the difference here. Kenzo works based on some kind of partnership with a mutual form of respect which we both enjoy. Not on an alpha ruled relationship. The solution was obvious, find a training class with a trainer that works based on these principals. I found out there were a lot of those out there. Kenzo and me are now working happily together without one of us trying to dominate the other. Just because we both think it is fun. I also stopped all those Eat-before-the-dog-eat rules, and it has made absolutely no difference at all.

The pack hierarchy
Another thing that puzzled me was the theory of the hierarchy in the pack. To establish the hierarchy my wife also had to enforce the pack leader rules. I was a little worried, as she is laid back and didn't enforced any of those rules for very long. OK, she doesn't want Kenzo on the couch or in the bed but that's for other reasons. This was kind of worrying me, what if Kenzo didn't see her as pack leader? Since the pack hierarchy theory is something based on Wolfe behaviour with a strict line-of-command, it made me wonder if Kenzo would try to move up the ladder. But he didn't.

Then there are the dogs he played with, came over to visit, and also other family dogs that went with us on family vacations. I couldn't see any sort of hierarchy exist. Sure one dog has resource guarding issues, the other has not. But when thinking of moving through the door opening, they seem to do that in random order. The resource guarding dog was labeled as dominant btw by his owner. Nice excuse not to do anything about it I guess.

So, are Hovawarts dominant?
I was discussing this with another Hovawart owner which had the opinion that Kenzo just not is a dominant dog and his dog is. Happy to have made some kind of point, because in that case we can at least agree that not all Hovawarts are dominant, I also asked him what he did with his Hovie. He did not do any working dog or obedience training other then one obedience class in the start, kept him a lot outside during the day, but did made long dog walks with him. I couldn't convince him but you are probably guessing what I am getting at. The lack of a job just made an unhappy dog, not a dominant one. The other owner needs some kind of harshness to keep his not so happy dog from rebelling.

I still doubt that Hovawarts should be labelled as dominant. They are just working dogs that need a job to be happy. They can get a job by attending tracking, search & rescue, "Schutzhund", etc. training classes. We use the dominant word as an excuse not to give our dogs what they need and covering up issues they might have. But I still doubt because I am neither a professional dog trainer or a behaviorist. You will have to make up your own mind when you own a Hovawart. But what I hope you will do is think twice before labelling your Hovie as dominant, and see if there is not something that he needs which you should provide, or if he has an issue that needs to be solved. The correct diagnosis is half the work.

Just for the record, the trainers didn't do anything harsh to Kenzo and the other dogs involving real punishment or alpha-rolls. And I learned a lot of them on other areas. I still have a lot to thank them for.



  1. It's interesting, because some of the dog behaviorists, such as Patricia McConnell, are now moving away from the whole alpha concept.

    Some of the experts believe that dog behavior can be controlled be proper feedback without the need of dominating them.

    I think that some of the benign methods of asserting oneself, such as eating first, going first through the door don't hurt anything. Hey, even I can do that!

    I think that different things can work for different people and different dogs, but it also depends on how well each respective method is applied.

    I do not believe that bullying one's dog will take anybody very far.

  2. @Dog Mama
    Thanks for this addition. It is so very true what you are saying. The subject is too complex for a one size fits all approach. Breed and individual differences play a significant role. What I have written is reflecting what I have experienced with Kenzo in our own little world.

    My hope with sharing it is, to get rid of some of the fairytells around Hovawarts. And that people stop using "dominant/subsmissive" to cover up issues their dog might have.

  3. Very interesting! I know a lot of people who have had similar experiences with dogs they were cautioned may try to be "dominant" over them.

    If you've ever witnessed a litter of puppies, you may actually see a bit of "dominant/submissive" behavior going on. One pup may run at another's face, weight resting on his front legs with his tail up and tocking...while the other pup slinks down and rolls over, one paw up in appeasement.

    There are dogs who are pushy in personality, just like there are kids who are pushy - kids try to push and push more in an effort to see where the actual boundary lines are. Why should dogs be different?

    I think "dominant" and "alpha" are confused terms - they're labels in the same way "aggression" is a label...and labels confuse the actual issue at hand.
    I think you're right in saying that it covers up issues the dog might have. When we label things in a way such as that, we don't look deeper... we don't find the actual underlying problem.

    Some breeds are simply a little harder to train than others.... I usually settle for saying that the dogs need an owner who will respect and treat them fairly, rather than convince themselves the dogs are out to get them. They're not, but don't think for a second that a dog who steps into a messy household won't step up to the plate and try to make things right!

  4. Could it be rather than terming it 'dominance', it should be termed 'independence'? It sounds like his reactions were refusal to obey as opposed to a dominant dog's reaction to a subordinate (which would have escalated into growling, snapping, biting... if he'd continued to be pushed)
    Just a thought...

    1. You hit the nail on the head. It is independence. It is three years ago I wrote this post, and learned a lot since.


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