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Dominance Aggression in Dogs

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

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Wolves arrange themselves in social hierarchies known as packs. Within the group, there is usually a dominant (alpha) individual that holds the top ranking position, and then middle rankers and subordinates who hold various lower ranking positions. This social structure helps wolves hunt more efficiently, protect their young and territory, and settle internal disputes with minimal fighting.

The dominant position usually affords the alpha individual the most influence or control over other pack members, social situations, and desired resources such as food, resting areas, and mates. Assertive young wolves may challenge the leader of the pack, and if they are successful, may in due course, usurp the title. Longevity in the alpha position may provide a certain advantage, but will not prevent an assertive newcomer from trying to better his position. In nature, two rivals of near equal status may fight for the top ranking position, and the winner becomes dominant. The loser either assumes a lower status in the pack or leaves.

Dogs are social animals and retain elements of a pack lifestyle inherited from their wolf ancestors. Because of their innate "pack mentality," dogs don't expect equality and it is natural for them to push toward the highest social position.

Dogs enter into pack-like relationships with their owners. People often try to win a dog's affection by petting, spoiling, and allowing the dog to get his own way, all of which permit its dominance status to escalate. A dog with a strong desire to push to the top interprets kind owners as weak, and takes advantage of them to move toward the alpha position. Once a dog has achieved the dominant position in the family, it will then expect its owners to respect its wishes and follow its directions.

Dominance aggression may be displayed when a dog feels he is being challenged or is losing control of a resource or situation to someone he perceives as subordinate. The events may range from a growl to a bite. Whether dominance aggression is exhibited is influenced by a number of factors, including the dog's genetic temperament, the relative dominance of other individuals involved (in wolf packs closer ranking individuals below the alpha position have more disputes), and the dog's motivation to control a particular resource. Typical situations in which dominance aggression is displayed include:

  • Approaching or disturbing the dog while he is resting
  • Physical punishment
  • Prolonged eye contact or staring
  • Restraint or handling
  • Attempting to remove a resource the dog considers valuable (food, toys, preferred family members)

    Dominance aggression is difficult for owners to fathom because it is expressed inconsistently, being influenced by time of day, location, and the circumstance. However, it is consistent within each specific situation. Dominant dogs may show only one or two signs of dominance; they may object to being petted on the head; they may protect food, toys or their bed; or they may resist grooming, nail trims or discipline.

    Dogs may challenge some family members, but not others. Children are particularly vulnerable because of their small stature and erratic behavior. It is critical that family members establish their leadership over their dog. However, control should not involve physical punishment. Physical punishment does not build respect -- it incites retaliation. You should not engage in scruff-grabbing, pinning or other forms of rough handling because such techniques are inappropriate and may well lead to increased aggression.

    Dominance may have a genetic basis since certain breeds are predisposed. Castration is recommended to prevent the transmission of this hard-to-manage trait to offspring. Males are much more likely to display dominance aggression than females. Castration helps to reduce dominance aggression. Approximately 25 percent of dogs can be expected to show a 50 to 90 percent level of improvement after castration.

    Dominance aggression usually peaks between 18 to 24 months of age, as the dog reaches social maturity. Since dominance arises from learned social interactions, dogs are not born dominant, only with a tendency for dominance to develop. Young dogs that are predisposed to developing dominance may periodically challenge their owners. Potential warning signs in young dogs include excessive "mouthiness," body blocking, pushing or leaning on the owner, growling when disturbed, and resisting handling particularly of the feet or head.

    Once the family establishes leadership over the dog, problems related to dominance can often be resolved. However, it is important to monitor your dog's position in the family hierarchy on a regular basis and to take measures, if necessary, to prevent a resurgence of dominant behavior.

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