Dominance Aggression in Dogs


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.

Information In-depth on Dog’s Dominance Aggression

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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