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Dominance Aggression in Dogs

By: Dr. Alice Moon-Fanelli and Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Many kindly owners, in their effort to show their dogs love and affection, run into problems with some more dominant individuals. If the owners fail to display leadership, "spoil" their pets, and indulge them by allowing them to have their own way much of the time, some dogs will start trying to call the shots. What's viewed as kindness by owners seems to be viewed as submissive behavior by some dogs, elevating their rank with respect to the owner.

Dogs were domesticated from wolves and as such are social animals that have retained many aspects of wolves" hierarchical ("pack") mentality. Dogs have no sense of equality and strive for a social structure with a leader at the top of the hierarchy and subordinates of various ranks stratified below the leader.

The status of individuals within the pack is established and maintained by submissive and dominant signals. In the absence of a direct challenge, control of the most valuable resources can be maintained by communicative signals, without the necessity for overt aggression. The problem arises when a dog that views himself as dominant perceives that he is losing control of a resource or is being challenged by a subordinate. For example, dogs that have established a degree of dominance over their owners may respond aggressively if the owner tries to interact with them while they are resting or in possession of a valued resource, such as a favorite toy or delicious food.

Restraint, handling over the top of the head or body, and prolonged eye contact can also elicit threats. Dominant dogs may attempt to control their owner's behavior by demanding attention and then rebuffing the owner when they've had enough. Such dogs may use body blocks to control the owner's movements. They resist discipline and rarely emit submissive signals, such as averting eye contact, lowering the body, and rolling over (unless they have been trained to enjoy a belly rub).

Dominant behavior is often directed toward family members or familiar people within the dog's social group. Dominant dogs challenges other "pack" members that they regard as being of a similar or lower social status.

Finally, although the drive for dominance probably has an inherited component, learning is an important factor in terms of how the dog responds. It is important to recognize that dominance is an interaction between individuals. Once owners understand this concept, the necessity of establishing themselves as the benevolent leaders of the dog's social group will make more sense.

Diagnosis

Dominance aggression is characterized by threats directed toward the owner when the dog feels challenged or threatened by the owner's actions.

A complete physical examination is recommended to rule out any underlying medical condition that may be contributing to your dog's aggressive behavior. If your dog receives a clean bill of health, a behavior specialist can evaluate your dog and provide an appropriate treatment plan as well as safety recommendations.

Therapy

1. It is important to avoid any further confrontations with your dog that he might win. This can be accomplished by identifying all situations in which your dog is likely to challenge you and avoiding all interactions and situations in which aggressive behavior may be evoked.

2. Obedience-train your dog to enhance your control and help you develop appropriate leadership skills. The most important commands your dog should be taught include, SIT, DOWN, STAY, and COME. Train your dog to obey a command before he receives any resource from you, including food, attention, toys, petting, and access to the outdoors. Teaching your dog that "Nothing in Life is Free," that all gifts great and small must be earned by means of offering an appropriate response to a single-word command, promotes a relationship based on understanding and trust.

In order to accomplish this feat, you must remove all your dog's valued assets so your dog cannot gain access to them on his own. Highly prized possessions often include delicious food treats, special toys, and comfortable furniture. One of the most valuable and difficult resources for owners to control is the attention they give to their dog. Keep in mind that social interaction is a very potent reward to your dog, so it is particularly important that you ignore any desire for affection from your dog. All attention must be earned by having your dog follow a command issued by you, responding in a deferent and respectful manner.

Do not discipline your dog with harsh training techniques. Physically correcting your dog inevitably will promote an escalation of aggression, resulting in further deterioration of your relationship with your dog. If your dog is misbehaving, distract him with an obedience command and reward him for a compliant response.

Reward your dog for obedient and subordinate behaviors. It is helpful to focus on teaching your dog what he should not do. Rather you should show your leadership by teaching and rewarding appropriate behavior, and ignoring him, if possible, when he misbehaves.

Home Care and Prevention

You should provide your dog appropriate daily aerobic exercise (off lead, running), a non-performance diet, and regular daily obedience training sessions. Training your dog to wear a head halter will increase your level of authority and thus control.
Because dominant dogs have the potential to inflict serious injury, it is important to not expose any family members to the risk of danger. The person for whom the dog has the most respect should initiate the obedience training and the "Nothing in Life is Free" program. Once your dog understands the new rules, each member of the family should follow the protocol so that your dog understands that his rank is below that of all family members.

Although some improvement may be noticed in the first week, it can take up to 8 weeks to establish a new social hierarchy within your home. Once your dog understands and accepts the new social structure, you may be able to relax the rules to some extent. However, you must always be on the lookout for any recurring dominance-type moves by your dog and be prepared to reinstate the training program in its entirety. It may be necessary to maintain some aspects of the dominance program indefinitely.

Prevention of owner-directed aggression is better than cure. Adopting a dog whose temperament is appropriate for your personality is of the utmost importance in this respect. Some dogs (both individuals and particular breeds) may be genetically predisposed to developing a dominant temperament so it is important that you research the breed as well as breed line before selecting a canine companion. Following adoption, you must establish your role as "benevolent leader" early on in your relationship with your new puppy. Obedience training and proper early socialization will help promote your pet's confidence and respect.

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