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Situational Dominance


March 8, 2015 by Julia

I was reminded of another entertaining piece of dog lore recently. In this case, it isn’t defining one dog or my relationship with them, it is about the relationship between two dogs – Dash and Xena.

I’ve been rereading Patricia McConnell’s Other End of the Leash when I came to the section on dominance. (If you haven’t read this book, use my affiliate link above and buy it ASAP, I think it should be required reading for any dog lover.) In one passage, dominance is defined as “priority access to preferred, limited resources.” I accept that simple definition though that short version doesn’t include one nuance that I find important: “preferred” resources are in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t matter much if one dog hoards all the toys if the other dog doesn’t care. So, for me, a dog can be pushy about a resource, but they are only exerting “dominance” if the other dog gives a hoot.

Anyone observing Dash and Xena in their day-to-day interactions would probably see Dash as the higher social status and more dominant dog (those two things are not the same, btw – another reason to read the book). Aside from being a bratty “younger brother”, Dash made clear claims to preferred resources. As an adolescent, he’d bullied Xena mercilessly for toy possession. By the time he was an adult, Xena barely played with toys around him. If she did start playing, one glance from him and she’d drop it and walk away.

Food was one area where Xena pushed back. She was a chow hound and didn’t have taken kindly to missing out on any goodies. Their few squabbles (all yelling, no injuries) were over food or the possibility of food. We were careful to dole treats out a short distance apart and there was typically no stealing, just each to their own.

But then there was popcorn. Not even Xena’s favorite treat, but for some reason that is where she drew clear line in the sand – she got priority access. When I gave them popcorn, the dogs would settle on either side or me and I would toss them each a piece in turns. This is how things would go:

Xena’s Rules of Popcorn Ownership

  • If she throws me a piece and I catch it, it’s mine.
  • If she throws me a piece and it lands near me, it’s mine.
  • If she throws me a piece and it lands near you, it’s mine.
  • If she throws you a piece and it lands near me, it’s mine.
  • If she throws you a piece and you catch it, it’s yours.

It was always interesting to see this play out. There was no growling or snapping, barely even a nasty look between them. I don’t even recall them ever having a spat over this special treat. Xena quietly took her stance, Dash accepted it.

She also had priority access to his body heat.

She also had priority access to his body heat. (Actually, I think he kind of liked it.)

In some ways, Delta and Dash have a similar dynamic, the pushy younger dog and the tolerant older dog. It’ll be interesting to see if Dash chooses his “popcorn”.

What about you? Do you think dominance can change depending on the situation? Have any of your dogs had “popcorn” rules?


  1. Robin says:

    Very interesting! I don’t remember any dominant behaviors in the dogs that I owned when I was younger. One of my cats is definitely the dominant of the two, but the way things work with cats is a little different than dogs. Neither cat is aggressive towards me.

    • Julia says:

      ah, but dominance and aggression aren’t the same. In fact, McConnell mentions that many aggressive dogs are fearful or insecure wanna-be dominants. I’d also say while dogs see us as akin to family, they don’t treat us like other dogs. (I don’t have the experience to speak to cats)

  2. This isn’t at all unusual. I hadn’t heard that title before, but there are indeed deference-behavior based on the situation: location/territory, item involved, animals involved, etc. It’s not so easy to just say “THIS dog is dominant, THIS dog is submissive” (or cat, for that matter). Cats in particular have a very fluid hierarchy dynamic where one cat “rules” in a particular room of the house but defers to others in a different room. Fun stuff!

    • Julia says:

      Funny, I almost called this “Fluidity of Dominance” but it didn’t quite click with the story (for me). I can’t claim ownership of the term, but I’ve used Situational Dominance for years. I’ve seen more changes that are situational versus location, but it doesn’t surprise me that location can be used. Afterall, we tell folks all the time that “sit” in the living room isn’t the same as “sit” in the yard.

      Interesting about the cats. I haven’t lived in a multi-cat household since I was a teenager, so I’m not sure I ever saw that.

  3. Jana Rade says:

    I’m not sure whether the word dominance is a good one to use for that but competition over a resource every now and then can happen. We do our best to prevent such things.

    • Julia says:

      I know dominance is a word that a lot of people are hesitant to use. That’s why I included a definition of how I was using it. Since popcorn was a preferred, limited resource and Xena insisted on priority access, that would fit into this particular definition of dominance.

      Do you have an alternative definition you use?

  4. Val Silver says:

    Interesting. I only have one dog now, so I don’t get to see this play out, but I remember how my Duke would put up with a lot from little Louis and let him rip toys right out of his mouth. However, when Duke would lay down and surround himself with toys, saying not a word, Lou wouldn’t venture near. I always wondered what that was about. Now, perhaps I know.

  5. Sadie says:

    My shelf is full of books I need to ‘get to.’ And this is one of them. Your post explains a lot (puppy mill idiosyncrasies in the form of food guarding/dominance). I will have to move that book to the top of the list! Well reminded.

  6. Very interesting! I find canine and feline interaction and dominance very interesting and sometimes comical .
    My dog Odin is certain he is my baby and if I pick up kitty Raven and baby her too much Odin will try to hump my leg as if saying “my mom”. Sigh 🙂

    • Julia says:

      That sounds more like attention seeking than dominance to me. Xena used to do that to her best Boxer friend when he ignored her at the dog park. Sort of like “this will get your attention!”

  7. dogvills says:

    This is very interesting technique. I might try it on my dogs

  8. Popcorn is really good….Xena is smart 🙂

    • Julia says:

      She was! I just realized (with a small, sad jolt) that today would have been her 12th birthday. It is hard to believe she’s been gone over 3 years now. But her lessons and anecdotes live on:

  9. It’s interesting how dogs figure out the order in their house. We have a 4 yr. old male GSD Booth and a Brussels Griffon female Bailey. Most of the time Booth thinks he runs everything until little Bailey decides she is in charge. She usually wins BOL

  10. Abby Chesnut says:

    Love the popcorn rules!! I have two girls, Jada and Bailey, and Jada is the more dominant one and she makes it clear to Bailey, but Bailey doesn’t really mind. The few times she did care is when she was eating her food and Jada was getting too close!

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