A Deferential Dog is Better than a Submissive One

Over the years, there has been a lot of talk in dog training about being the “Alpha” or dominant in the relationship with your dog. May training protocols have been based on teaching your dog to submit to you. But submission isn’t always the best response if you want a great relationship with your dog. Instead, you should focus on teaching your dog deference.

Before we delve into the details, I would like to state a couple of things. I am a small animal veterinarian and my techniques for training/behavior modification for dogs have been heavily influenced by the styles of Dr. Karen Overall, Dr. Sophia Yin, and the protocol outlined on the CARE for Reactive Dogs website. I would also like to note that these are general training guidelines, but that most dogs will benefit from working directly with a trainer and/or a veterinary behaviorist to develop a specific treatment protocol depending on the level of behavioral concerns. 

What is Deference?

The Meriam-Webster definition of deference is “ respect and esteem due a superior or an elder” or “affected or ingratiating regard for another’s wishes.” The Oxford dictionary defines deference as “humble submission and respect.” 

Submission on the other hand is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.”

When you think about working with your dog, which sounds better: have your dog’s respect, esteem, and regard for your wishes OR having them yield to your superior force or will? Which relationship would you want to have a superior or authority figure in your life? I am assuming most of you would prefer respect and esteem.

When you ask your dog to defer to you, you are not attempting to dominate your dog. Instead, you are asking them to respect you and to take your wishes into consideration. This respect is key. When your dog defers to you, they allow you to lead them through situations that may be stressful. A dog who respects you can look to you for guidance when they are anxious or aroused. 

Deference is very important when training. If your dog can’t pay attention and doesn’t defer to you, it will be nearly impossible to work on any type of behavior modification. 

Dogs are used to deferential behaviors because they are social animals, just like people are. Problems arise when your dog is used to handling situations on their own and don’t defer to their human companions. Deference is important because when your dog defers to you, they (as a social individual) are assessing an ongoing situation and waiting calmly to get input from you (another member of their group) before they pursue the next set of behaviors or social interactions.

Each of you has a dog at a different stage in their ability and willingness to defer to you as their leader/trainer. So we will start with the basics of training your dog to defer to you. 

Tips for Good Training Sessions

There are a few considerations that can help you make the most out of your training sessions with your dog. While you are training your dog whenever you are interacting with them, setting aside a quiet time and place for focused sessions can help you maximize your training.

Start In a Low Distraction Area (such as inside your house)

It will be easiest for your dog to focus and pay attention to you in an area with limited distractions. Oftentimes, the best low-distraction area is your living room or a bedroom without other pets or people present. Remember, even the best-behaved/trained dogs might not be able to pay attention in pandemonium

Once your dog understands the skills that you are teaching and can reliably perform the tasks requested in a quiet area, you can start to slowly move to areas with more distractions.

Be Consistent and Clear

Clear and consistent communication is very important when training your dog. It is your dog’s job to learn to watch you quietly and calmly, looking for signals about which behaviors are desired. But you must learn to be clear in your signals to your dog. Clear communication makes you reliable and humane during your training sessions, which can help to reduce your dog’s anxiety during training.

If you are inconsistent, your dog will have to do more guessing regarding what is expected of them during a training session.

In a previous post about finding your dog’s favorite food reward, we discussed why it is important to make a training plan based on positive reinforcements like food. But just to reiterate: anxiety creates more chances for mistakes in behavioral responses. So in addition to being clear and consistent, there must be no violence or physical abuse in your training protocol. While a physical punishment may get you quick “results,” it will not help your dog in the long run.

The basic principles needed to work on deference with your dog are clear communication, no punishment, and ignoring undesirable behaviors.

A small note on feeding treats

Before we get into the training details, here are a couple quick tips about how to feed treats. 

When feeding treats, try not to feed your dog from your fingertips. This increases the chance of an unintentional bite. Try to open up your hand flat when offering the treat to your dog.

Also, try to be clear about what has earned your dog the treat. Clicker training can help to mark the appropriate behavior. And then be prompt in delivering your treat. 

Dr. Sophia Yin has some great videos about how to feed treats in a clear and precise manner: She offers tips on how to feed treats quickly and precisely without confusing your dog. Check out her blog posts here.

Training Your Dog to Look at You

In order to defer to you, your dog must first be paying attention to you. One of the ways you can help your dog learn to pay attention to you is to teach him or her to look at you.

Before training your dog to make eye contact with you, please be aware that staring can be an aggressive behavior for dogs. But there is a distinct difference between staring and looking.

Stares are associated with “hard” face muscles. When you are staring you’re not blinking as frequently and the muscles around your eyes may be tight. You can soften your gaze by softening your eyes, blinking slowly, and moving your focus around. So try to keep your gaze soft when looking at your dog.

And if your dog has any reactivity to your staring, your dog will likely benefit from a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist.

To start training a “watch me” or “attention” command, start in a quiet room with no distractions. Find a good reward/ treat and plan a short duration training session. Just 5 minutes a day is plenty of time for your dog to practice these skills. But multiple 5-minute training sessions each day is even better. But don’t try to cram multiple sessions into one long session. Your dog will learn better in smaller, frequent training sessions than in a big, long one.

Training “Watch Me”

You are going to be using shaping behavior to accomplish this task. This means that you will begin by rewarding small approximations of what you want your dog to do.

If your dog already knows how to sit, you can start by having your dog sit. If not, don’t worry. We will talk about sitting calmly after your dog is looking and paying attention later in this article.

Step 1: Take a small treat in one of your hands. Hold the treat between your index finger and your thumb. And show it to your dog.

Step 2: Once your dog is aware of the treat, swipe it up past your eye (as if pointing towards your eye).

Step 3: Your dog should make eye contact then, even if just very briefly. Mark the desired behavior by saying “yes” (or using another marker word or a clicker if your dog has been clicker trained).

Step 4: After marking the desired behavior, promptly feed your dog the treat.

Repeat steps 1-4 until your dog is quickly and easily performing this task.

Step 5: Make the same hand signal with your index finger and thumb, but don’t hold a treat.

Step 6: Sweep your hand up past your eye in the same manner and again mark the behavior with “yes” or your clicker.

Step 7: Quickly feed your dog a treat from the hand opposite the one you signaled with.

Repeated steps 5-7 until your dog can hold a few seconds of eye contact.

Step 8: Add a verbal cue. Say “watch” or “attention” or your dog’s name (just pick one cue word), before repeating steps 5-7.

Repeat step 8 until you can say the verbal cue and your dog looks at you before you make the hand signal.

Remember (as mentioned above) to keep training sessions short, as holding eye contact can be a difficult behavior for a dog. Training sessions should be only 2-3 minutes long 4-5 times a day.

Once your dog can reliably “watch ” you, start making the practice more challenging, by slowly adding small distractions.

You can also consider adding a release word to signal that your dog no longer needs to watch you and can turn her attention to the treat you are now ready to feed her.

Sitting Calmly for Attention

After your dog can look at you, you can add in a sit as a calm deferential behavior.

Dr. Karen Overall calls this a “sit to defer protocol” and states that “the exercise is simple, but the mindfulness involved is not.” She also reminds us to remember that we are ALWAYS signaling and dogs read non-verbal cues better than people do.

The point of this protocol is for your dog to cease motion and calmly attend to you for information.

In this program, your dog receives what they want (oftentimes interaction with you) by attending to you, sitting, and deferentially awaiting attention. The sit does not have to be prolonged. The sit can be as short as a couple of seconds as long as your dog’s bottom is on the ground and he or she is quietly looking you. You can exchange food/treats for this behavior.

Like training your dog to watch you, training a deferential sit starts with a quiet environment, treats, and marking the desired behavior.

Step 1: Most dogs will offer a sit naturally as they are attending to you, mark this with a “yes” and reward your dog promptly.

Some dogs may require a little luring at the beginning. To do this, place a treat between your index finger and thumb and raise it up and over your dog’s head. Most dogs will eventually sit down as they look up to take the treat. Reward the sit with a treat.

Step 2: Repeat the luring motion without a treat present. Reward your dog with a treat after they sit.

Step 3: Pair the luring motion with a verbal cue, like the word “sit.”

Once your dog understands what you are asking for you can stop luring and simply use a hand signal and verbal cue to ask for a sit.

Like your “watch” command, practice this repeatedly in short sessions. And once your dog can reliably sit to defer indoors with no distractions, start slowly adding distractions to your training sessions.

If you’re still wondering why sitting is such an important behavior for your dog to offer you, consider this. As Dr. Overall discusses in her “Protocol for Deference,” deferential behaviors allow a dog respite from a situation. The dog learns that if he or she responds to a request to sit, the person will help decide what the next best behavior is.

This provides great relief to dogs that are anxious about deciding what an appropriate response is. It also helps the dog calm and reduces misunderstanding.

Moving from the Living Room to Other Environments

Once your dog has mastered the core steps of deference at home, slowly transition from the living room to the backyard and eventually to even more challenging environments. Make sure your dog can “watch” and “sit” calmly in each environment before moving to the next. If your dog struggles with a specific location, back up a bit and/or increase the incentive for paying attention by bringing better treats to the training session.

Remember, you learned to swim in a shallow pool long before you ever swam in the ocean. Help your dog succeed by setting him up for success. Give your dog the mental space he needs so that he is able to attend and respond to you.

Train a Walking Watch

Before you hit the sidewalks or trails it may also be helpful to train a walking watch. More than just heeling, your dog should be able to defer to and watch you while moving, just as well as he does while sitting.

Training your dog to watch you while moving is fairly simple after they know how to watch you while standing still. So follow the steps for training “watch,” but start walking while you ask for the “watch” behavior. You will likely be able to start on step 5 this time, skipping steps 1-4.

A walking watch can help you get your dog’s attention as you lead them past or away from situations that typically result in anxiety and/or reactivity for your dog.

Start Today

All dogs can benefit from working on calm and deferential behaviors. So start today!

Wherever your dog already is in his or her ability to complete these tasks, try to fit in a short less than 5-minute session every day where you are simply asking your dog to pay attention to you calmly in a variety of situations.

These behaviors can also be reinforced in little ways throughout your day. Can your dog look at you and calmly sit before you feed him dinner or before you open a door to let him outside? Can she sit and look to you for an invitation to jump up on the couch or bed?

Again, this isn’t about dominance, this is about respect. In the same way you would ask a friend if they have a preference about what TV show the two of you watch (instead of just walking in a room and picking what you want to watch), your dog should be seeking your input on day to day decisions and activities. You negotiate with your dog by offering rewards for correct behaviors, then reinforce the habits you want them to keep.

Really, it’s no different than praising a family member for washing the dishes and encouraging children to make a habit of cleaning up after themselves. It’s not dominance, but normal social behavior to encourage deference in your dog.

And ultimately, a deferential dog is a happier dog. When paired with a human who is sending clear and calm signals, deferential dogs are less anxious and less likely to develop inappropriate behavioral responses.So start encouraging deferential behaviors today and every day.


Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She has spent the last 9 years working full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But as of June 2023, she is taking a year to travel with her dog, volunteer, and work on some passion projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Posts