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Dominance Aggression Assessment

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Dominance aggression is one of the most common behavioral problems of dogs. It arises when a dog perceives himself ranking higher than he should among members of his human family. Dogs are social animals, and they strive for social order with a leader at the top and subordinates of various ranks below. Status within the "pack" is maintained by submissive and dominant signals.

A dog that sees himself as ranked higher than another family member, even temporarily or situationally, will seek at that time to hold onto his position by trying to intimidate the would-be usurper. He may, for instance, react aggressively if the family member tries to interact with him while he's resting or in possession of a valuable resource, such as food.

Dominance aggression often involves owner family-directed threats or hostility, though other familiar individuals (especially visiting children) are also sometimes subjected to a dominant dog's antagonistic behavior. The problem is how to diagnose and quantify this problem so that appropriate precautionary and remedial measures may be taken.

Veterinarians have designed a dominance aggression questionnaire which, when completed by the owner, generates a Canine Overt Aggression Score (COAS) applying to the dog in question.

Note: The form, as well as the diagnosis and treatment, should only be completed under the guidance of a veterinarian. At all costs, do not discipline any dog using harsh training techniques. Physically "correcting" your dog inevitably will promote an escalation of aggression, which will further damage your relationship with your dog and could lead to serious injury.

What Will a Dominance Aggression Assessment Reveal?

The purpose of the assessment is to determine if a dog, especially a young puppy, is showing dominant traits that may cause problems as the dog grows older. It is far better to diagnose dominance aggression earlier than later.

All new puppy owners should fill in this form so that emergent dominance aggression issues can be recognized and treated early. "Nipping" should be substituted for "Biting" on the chart for dogs less than 6 months of age. Although dominance aggression is a moving target in terms of its development, useful information can be obtained from the questionnaire in pups as young as 3-month old.

The questionnaire should be completed at each annual appointment until the dog is 2 to 3 years old to detect late onset dominance issues. Owners of recently acquired older dogs should be asked to fill in the dominance questionnaire for the same reason as above.

How is a Dominance Aggression Assessment Performed?

Owners check the appropriate box on the form if their dog exhibits any of the listed behaviors at any time when they, or other family members/people familiar to the dog, engage in any of the "interventions" listed on the chart, and the dog's reactions.

To each interaction, owners record how the dog reacted:

  • Growl
  • Lift lip
  • Snap
  • Bite (or nip if the dog is under 6 months of age)
  • No aggressive response
  • Not tried

    1. Touch the dog's food or add food while he is eating
    2. Take away real bone, rawhide or delicious food
    3. Take away a stolen object        
    4. Physically wake the dog up or disturb a resting dog
    5. Walk by the dog while he is in his crate
    6. Walk by/talk to the dog while he is on furniture        
    7. Remove the dog from furniture        
    8. Restrain the dog when he wants to go someplace        
    9. Lift the dog        
    10. Pet the dog        
    11. Medicate the dog        
    12. Handle the dog's face/mouth        
    13. Handle the dog's feet        
    14. Groom the dog        
    15. Bathe or towel off        
    16. Take off or put on collar        
    17. Pull the dog back by the collar or scruff        
    18. Reach for or grab the dog by the collar        
    19. Hold the dog by the muzzle        
    20. Stare at the dog        
    21. Reprimand the dog in a loud voice        
    22. Visually threaten the dog: newspaper or hand
    23. Make the dog respond to a command        
            
    Scoring: 1 for a growl, 2 for a lip lift, 3 for a snap, 4 for a bite (or nip from a puppy). Score only the maximum response of the dog with respect to any particular intervention (i.e. if the dog usually growls, but sometimes may snap and bite in a particular situation, score 4 for a bite, only).

    Interpretation

    Score 0-5 - No significant dominance issues
    Score 5-10 - Mild or developing dominance
    Score 10-20 - Moderate/problematic dominance
    Score greater than 20 - Severe/problematic dominance

    It should be understood that so-called dominance aggression is relatively uncommon in truly dominant dogs, which seem more confident about their status and tend to signal their desires posturally, rather than by means of an overtly aggressive response. Such true "alphas" tend to nudge and shove, barge through and barrel forward, rather than bite.

    Treatment of dominance aggression using a non-confrontational "leadership enhancement" program (a.k.a. Nothing in Life is Free, Working for a Living, No Free Lunch, etc.) is essential if family harmony is to be maintained, people are to be able to cohabit safely with such dogs, or if there are ongoing behavior problems. Most dogs need strong leaders if they are to be properly influenced and trained/retrained. Again, a training program should only be undertaken after consulting a veterinarian.

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