What's is all this fuss about dominance? (Proceedings)


There's an old expression that goes something like this: "Your words may come back to bite you." Such is the case with terminology in medicine. Striving to communicate, we are inclined to label phenomena before we fully understand what it is we are actually describing.

There's an old expression that goes something like this: "Your words may come back to bite you." Such is the case with terminology in medicine. Striving to communicate, we are inclined to label phenomena before we fully understand what it is we are actually describing. Sometimes scientists are close to the mark. Yet other times not so accurate. Think spontaneous generation.

Once upon a time, dog owners began to approach their veterinarians for guidance with aggressive behavior. People were being bitten by their own dogs. Why? And what could they do about it?

Thoughtful practitioners noticed that biting occurred most often when owners attempted to take away valuable items or food. Aggression might be exhibited when a dog was booted out of bed, or when harshly reprimanded, particularly following a prior confrontation. Small children were often targeted and might be bitten for climbing into the bed or onto a parent's lap when the dog was nearby.

The hypothesis was that the dogs, being pack animals, were attempting to climb to the top of the social ladder. After considering some observations that had been made while studying social hierarchies in chickens and captive wolves, experts concluded that this aggressive behavior in house dogs was related to dominance. And the term "dominance-related aggression" made an official debut.

The debut was followed by a long career that was still flourishing when the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists was formed in 1993. Dominance-related aggression was the most diagnosed condition for dogs referred to behavioral specialty practices.

Can it be true? Is our nation overrun with ambitious pet dogs that are all plotting a coup to climb over and rule their human housemates? How unlikely!

Indeed, as behaviorists began to examine their canine patients more carefully, they discovered that the term "dominance-related aggression" was not only simplistic but that it was inaccurate more often than not. The dogs that were biting their owners were not exhibiting the calm, confident take charge posture of an animal that is dominant in a relationship. They were not strutting up, ears and body erect, and staring until the human stepped meekly out of the way.

Rather, many dogs that presented exhibited an assortment of postures that, when combined, were sometimes difficult to interpret. Their body language suggested a dog in conflict. While messages were mixed, very often, signals suggestive of fear were predominant.

Furthermore, some dogs did not exhibit noticeable signals at all. Without attempting to communicate intent, they reacted by biting. Could biting be a successful strategy for attaining a respected leadership position in a social group? Impulsive aggressive behavior instead suggested underlying pathology such as anxiety.

The Dilemma

With the realization that a large of proportion canine patients were either conflicted or suffering from behavioral pathology came a change in the standard of care. But old habits die hard. Even when evidence suggests otherwise, it can be difficult to abandon a strategy that seems successful. When aggression was considered secondary to the dog's motivation to dominate people, it made sense for therapy to focus exclusively on helping owners gain control. Some dogs were done a disservice through benign neglect. Underlying anxiety was often not addressed.

More disheartening was the way some trainers and even veterinarians interpreted the dominance theory. Owners were told that they must fight and win, whatever the cost. Confrontational treatment strategies were routinely adopted, with corrections applied until there was evidence of submission. Mechanical devices were used to increase the intensity of corrections, thereby enabling meek owners to more successfully punish their dog's aggressive responses.

Whenever any therapy is implemented, some patients will respond. However, there is considerable risk to engaging in a contest based on "might makes right". First, most owners do not wish to confront their dogs. They are dismayed that their trusted veterinarian has insisted that they must fight with their pet.

Equally important, most owners do not have the skills to fight successfully. Corrections are often poorly timed. The intensity of the punishment might be too high or too low. All these factors serve to increase the frequency and intensity of aggressive behavior in their dogs. People and dogs are unnecessarily injured.

When all the fighting is over, the dog's motivation for biting remains unchanged. Aggression began because of confusion and aggression continues because of confusion. The bond between the owner and dog is further damaged.

We are Family

If dogs are not trying to dominate household people, why all this fussing and biting? As with any social relationship, clear communication has been missing. Instead of focusing on offense and defense, a strategy that teaches communication skills may be sufficient for a successful outcome. Owners can learn to communicate their intentions and their expectations to their dogs. To some degree, dogs can also be taught to communicate in ways that are clear to humans. An integral part of a successful treatment plan is the education of dog owners so that they are able to accurately identify and understand the implication of their dog's postural changes.

The Abnormal Dog

Some dogs are not behaviorally normal. For instance, some dogs exhibit abnormally high levels of fear, making it difficult to assure safety. Using confrontational treatment strategies in these dogs carries a great risk of increasing fear and aggressive behavior. If the underlying anxiety can be reduced, and if triggers can be predicted and managed, then the outcome can be favorable. Behavior modification may include relaxation exercises combined with desensitization and counterconditioning to known triggers for aggression.

The Dominating Dog

Some dogs do calmly and confidently guard resources. They may lean forward, even giving a bit of a snarl or growl when told to obey. If aggressive postures yield the desired results, then aggressive behavior is likely to escalate. A diagnosis of dominant behavior or dominance-related aggression may apply. This behavior can be addressed safely, without the use of fear-based tactics or physical force. Owners can be educated so that they are able to reward desired behaviors and discontinue rewarding unsafe or unwanted behaviors. Dogs can learn that calmly offering appropriate postures, rather than assertive or aggressive postures, earns them all the resources that they need. Reward based training can be used to teach dogs to follow commands with alacrity, eliminating the need for owners to shout instructions or pull their dogs physically.


We still have a lot to learn. Our understanding of dog behavior increases daily, with new studies regularly being published world-wide. Regardless of what we learn, there will never be a reason to abandon the humane treatment of our patients or to risk fracturing the human-animal bond in the name of therapy.

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