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Dominance aggression

Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

In theory, dominance aggression is aggression that occurs as a result of the dog defending or asserting his or her dominant status. Generally speaking, this occurs within the dog’s own pack. However, it is not entirely clear what “the pack” is for the domestic pet dog. The conventional wisdom is that the owner or the human family takes on the function of “pack leader”. Take this with a grain of salt because we don’t entirely duplicate a wild dog pack, and in any case, dogs have been domesticated, so who knows what they were “in the wild” and to what extent they have changed. However, they remain very social, and “things happen” when they get together.

A pack can be a long-term group or a temporary one. A dog is a dog but two dogs are a pack, and will egg each other on in activities such as running, barking and chasing. The population of our parks and walking tracks is very fluid. In some areas, regulars get together with their dogs, who get to know each other. But there are many examples of dogs coming together in small groups and splitting up again. It’s not surprising that there is some friction and jockeying for position.

A group of dogs that meets regularly, for example in a weekly training class, will tend to forget their differences and make an outsider feel unwelcome, until the new dog is integrated into the group. This is social behaviour, but it is not dominance aggression.

Dominance is more likely to be seen when a one dog asserts him or herself over another one within the group. However, dominance is not straightforward. Some dogs will assert themselves about some issues but not others. For example, some dogs will show aggression to keep possession of a toy, but be very submissive in response to physical handling or grooming.

Having said that, I can’t leave it at that. As I said above, the concept of “dominance” is a controversial one.

Sometimes classic examples of dominance aggression may be better viewed as situations in which the owner has given the dog many privileges and allowed the dog to control many aspects of life, then, inconsistently, the owner has had a confrontation with the dog. The dogs asserts the control that he or she has always exercised, or reacts aggressively in response to a threat from the owner. Grabbing the dog by the collar to drag it off the couch, force the dog to go outside, or to punish the dog are examples.

From Stanley Coren

The most common and treatable form of aggression relates to dominance issues. Dominance aggression involves a dog growling or biting family members in order to control their behavior and thus, effectively, move up in status in the pack or family hierarchy. While you may think that this aggressive behavior is sudden and unexpected, it’s actually quite planned and deliberate and most likely first began to show up when your dog was an adolescent or young adult. Once a dog achieves sexual and emotional maturity, between 8 months and 3 years, many of the social restrictions associated with puppyhood are left behind. It’s at this time that your dog tests authority to ensure that the most reliable “dogs” (which include him) are orchestrating group activities. This is the motivation for challenging those people or other family pets that he feels aren’t as dominant as he is.

As your dog assesses your home life, he may start to try to climb the ladder of social control by picking on the most vulnerable family members — children and other pets. If successful, his behavior may escalate to include challenges to you. If your dog begins to block the entrance into rooms or growls at family members near his food, toys, or resting places, seek professional help immediately.

In your dog’s eyes, if you’re not authoritative and sensible, you’re not good leadership material, and because someone must lead the group, he’ll assign himself the role. The result? Your dog becomes aggressive to enforce his leadership. Unfortunately his threatening behavior may well have to do with your own personality and the way you interact with your dog. However, you are the easiest variable to change, provided that you’re willing to modify your behavior for everyone’s benefit.

The issue of dominance aggression has been confirmed by research done at the Western University of Health Sciences in California, which showed that owners, who are gentle pushovers when it comes to their dogs, are more likely to have to deal with dominance aggression in their dogs. Tip-off behaviors can be seen in people who treat their dogs like little children, giving in to their whims, giving them treats from the table, and allowing them to sleep undisturbed on sofas and beds.

Dominance aggression can escalate and, when aimed at children, can be quite dangerous. Most of the recorded dog bites are, in fact, family dogs who bite children. You have to understand that the dogs that are unsafe around children are usually dogs that haven’t been well socialized. However, it’s still important to monitor the interactions between dogs and children. A child may try to grab a toy or some other possession that the dog holds dear, and the dog may see this action as both a loss of his cherished item and a threat to his status, if he feels dominant over children. That is a setup for a biting incident.


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