People often confuse Dominance and Defense, or feel like you can’t have one without the other. This is a very common mistake even among experienced dog trainers. The reason this is so common is because in many breeds it’s generally true. In German Shepherds, Rottweilers, American Bulldogs, and similar breeds it’s especially true. These breeds, like most dogs, have lost their ability to tell who’s in their pack and who isn’t. Most dogs are like this that’s why most dogs feel like everyone they meet is family. In a wolf pack the pack is their family, their reactions are very different to creatures outside their pack.
Between pack members there are social interactions. These include play, cooperative hunting, grooming, submission and dominance, etc. The whole point of dominance and submission is to stop pack members from killing each other, it would be very bad for the pack otherwise. If a conflict arises inside the pack and a fight breaks out, it’s settled when one animal submits to the other and gives up – usually by rolling on their backs to show vulnerability, which is a clear demonstration that they aren’t trying to fight. A very submissive wolf won’t try to fight in this scenario. Two Pack member wolves fighting because of an argument aren’t usually trying to kill each other just to settle things. This is the kind of fighting dogs and wolves do for dominance. Teenage boys do the same thing in school yards around the world, fighting over a certain chair at the lunch table, the right of way down the hall, a certain girl, etc. No one’s trying to kill anyone, they’re just trying to see who’s going to give up first, and who going to claim the status of the biggest and the baddest.
If the pack is threatened by a mountain lion, for example, they recognize that this isn’t a pack member, and react with defense. Defense is purely the fight or flight response. If they have to fight they aren’t fighting for dominance, they’re fighting for survival. Fight or flight is the out of pack equivalent of dominance or submission. In a fight like that if they feel like they’re losing they won’t roll over and submit because that would mean quick death; instead they run. There is no submission in defense, they fight to the death or run for their lives. The whole pack fights from the most dominant to the most submissive. Social status isn’t a consideration in a fight for survival. This is also why wolves maintain clear borders to their territories. Two separate wolf packs will kill each other if they encounter each other, they don’t seek dominance. This is like a man fighting an alligator, he’s not looking to settle a dispute he’s looking to survive and kill if that’s what it takes.
Most dogs have what is basically a mental disorder to see every person or dog they meet as their pack members. This is great for hunting dogs and pets because they can easily accept new dogs and people without conflict. The problem is that some guard breeds have this as well so in order for them to be aggressive with strangers they have to use social aggression – dominance. A dominant guard dog isn’t seeking to eliminate a threat to itself and it’s pack, it’s looking to be sure they understand his high social status. This is why you’ll often see dominant breeds humping the decoy and doing other dominant posturing. It’s also the reason a dog who’s fighting in dominance can “cur” which happens when they feel like the opponent is too hard to dominate, so they submit.
Some breeds, mostly primitive breeds like Mastiffs, still understand the difference between pack members and non pack members. Mastiffs are known for having high suspicion and strong defensive reactions to strangers, combined with very gentile and extremely loyal natures to their families. Having this very clear understanding that the people they live with are their pack and no one else is, gives them the ability to be very submissive, and still fight to protect themselves and their packs. They’re expecting everyone to fight the threat off not just the alpha. That’s what makes them such great family guardians, they can submit to everyone in their family and rage against a dangerous outsider.
I’ve had people ask “without dominance how will your dog react to a dominant opponent?”. My thinking is if the person is dominant and not threatening then I don’t what my dog killing someone for standing confidently. If the person is a threat from outside the pack my kind of dog won’t care if they are postured dominantly any more than a wolf pack would care if the mountain lion had his tail up. They’re in fight or flight they aren’t looking for social cues.
So as long as the dog has good pack instincts and strong defense drive he can be both very submissive and very protective. Everyone fights to protect the pack, only the alphas fight to run it.
This is important because in a family situation you don’t want a dog who has the same basic reactions to a “bad guy” and his family, a dominant rank aggressive dog who’s willing to fight a grown man for rank will not be afraid to fight a toddler for rank. A military or police dog who’s kept in a kennel until time to work and only worked by a strong alpha type man isn’t a problem. When one is brought into a home and allowed to freely interact with children, who will inevitably hug the dog, pat him too hard, take his bone, jump on his back, or decide to hit him with a stick, the risk of fatal danger becomes unacceptable. Even if I didn’t have children, I personally don’t want to have to always butt heads with my dog for the right to run my household. A guard dog should add safety to his family not risk.