Dominance Aggression in Your Dog

By Ed Bailey

Permission to reprint.
1st published Gundog magazine
Oct/Nov 1997

Dominance-subordination relationships are normal in dogs. Actually all animals that live in a group-type social system establish a dominance order, and that includes dogs and people. Within a dog group, social ordering is established and maintained by aggression, which includes overt attack at one end of a continuum to a mild threat such as squinting the eyes or positioning the ears forward a the other. Once established, the relationship is quite stable so that only a mild threat is necessary to remind a subordinate of his station in life. Overt biting is rarely needed on a day-to-day basis.

Because we have domesticated the dog – to a much greater extent than any other non-human animal – we have set up the situation of a mixed species social grouping whereby the dog and his people form a pack. Within this pack a social ordering must and will occur. Most dogs, like most children, will compete for top spot, to be top dog, so to speak. Dominance aggression toward people occurs more often than most of us suspect or care to admit. The aggression can escalate until we have a problem dog. Aggression is so common in dogs that it, along with separation anxiety, makes up more than 90 percent of the problems dog owners have. And about 70 percent of the aggression problems involve dominance aggression with people.

We usually think of dominance aggression as the dog taking over and maintaining his status by aggressive means. It is the result of competition for social status in the group, which includes the dog and his household of people. Dominance aggression can be as simple as competition for a single object like a bed, a chair, a toy or food bowl, or it can be global, so severe that the dog controls every aspect of everyone’s life.

Some years ago Bodo Winterhelt and I were giving a training clinic in Quebec. One man watched all morning but had no dog with him. When I asked about his dog, he told me it was in the car and that it was “too nervous” to be trained. I asked to see the dog. It came right up to me, tail wagging a bit high, I thought, and shoved his head into my hand demanding to have his ears scratched. I read the dog’s shoving his head up to me as a dominance gesture rather than just friendliness and guessed this was what the owner meant by “too nervous.”

I convinced the owner to bring his dog to the training area and that’s when the dog took over. With the dog on leash, the handler tried to go left but the dog went straight ahead. A jerk on the leash and again the handler went left, the dog straight ahead; another jerk on the leash and the dog calmly walked to his handler and bit him viciously on the leg. The dog then walked straight ahead and the handler followed holding the leash.

On the table the dog leaped directly at the face of the trainer. A few minutes later the ordering was reversed with the trainer on top, but not the owner.

He told me the dog could not be confined in the house and had torn holes through or totally removed every door in the house, slept on the bed of the owner and his wife and generally controlled every aspect of their lives. He even dictated whether they sat on the sofa or not, or on which chair they were allowed. This was an extreme case of dominance aggression.

What are the causes, or better, what are the affecting factors that would turn man’s best friend into such a demon? One contributing factor which we know surely has an effect is genetics. Dogs are bred to be bigger, stronger, more determined hunters, more predator sharp and more competitive. Often, there is little selection for good temperament or any control of breeding which selects against “head problems” in general.

Sex of the dog is often thought to contribute to aggression. However, evidence from behaviour clinics shows no difference between males and females, and no difference between neutered and intact dogs. So sex and neutering will have no bearing on whether the dog will be aggressive. Age does seem to have an influence on aggressiveness. About 80% of dominant aggressive dogs are between six months and three years of age. Only 10% are under six months and an equal percentage are over three years. The rebellious “terrible twos” carries into aggressiveness too.

Management, the way you care for and bring up your dog, can also have a reinforcing effect on dominance aggression. Some things that act to increase the probability of dominance aggression are: prolonged excessive petting; games which the dog always wins; person(s) backing away when a dog growls or otherwise threatens, thereby reinforcing dominance aggression; allowing the dog to mouth, stand over or mount people; and allowing the dog to always get its own way. These mistakes in management of a young dog pretty well guarantee dominance problems, especially in a dog that has a genetic predisposition for dominance.

But dominance is not always expressed by overt aggression. Dogs of normal temperament or even dogs that would be considered soft and totally non-aggressive will use behaviours much more subtle than biting or growling to assert their dominance.

For example, I recently had a call from an owner asking what he could do about his dog continuously pawing at him every time he sits down. The dog sits beside his leg and keeps pawing, even rolling on his back and pawing. I asked whether he then petted the dog and that made him stop as long as the petting or rubbing his belly continued. Of course he said yes because it was the only way to “make him quit.” He didn’t quite believe it when I said that the dog was expressing his dominance, believing there was no way a dog could be dominant lying on its back. I asked him if the dog always got what he wanted by doing it and he said “sure, always.” He then agreed that the dog did always win and maybe I had something.

To stop dominance aggression when it is this mild is not a big problem. I told him to just ignore the dog, when he paws, walk away and leave him to sit pawing at the air. This is counter-conditioning in that you never reinforce the dog pawing or even acknowledge that the dog is waving a paw at you.

A week ago he phoned to tell me my diagnosis and cure were correct, worked like a dream and took only a few days. Now the dog is cured of that but there is another problem the dog always has had. He seems oversexed and mounts every dog in sight whenever out for a walk. I said it is just another form of the same problem, an expression of dominance, like the pawing except this is directed toward dogs. Each dog he mounts he is putting into a subordinate position.

I suggested that his dog was selective in which dogs he mounted, preferring young dogs or small dogs, never a 100 pound Rottweiler – he was a discriminating mounter who carefully chose his mountee. I explained how the owner could fix it, that it would not be as easy as the belly rub on demand because it was a dog-to-dog dominance-subordination relationship, and this was socially much more rewarding to his dog than domination of a person. I said he would need to control his dog and get him into a subordinate position before he had a chance to mount. This is retraining so that seeing another dog means lie down with the chin flat on the ground rather than meaning “Oh boy, mount!”

Because dominance aggression is so pervasive and can be such a serious problem, there must be ways to control it - and there are. The first and best thing is to do what you can to avoid it. Make an all-out effort to learn the temperament of both parents of any prospective puppy. Do not buy a pup if one or both parents is of questionable stability.

In the real world, however, there is mostly no way to objectively assess parental temperament. In tests where temperament is considered, except in the most blatant cases, it can only be evaluated validly by judges very knowledgeable about the breed being tested, judges who can read the dogs well enough to pick up on all the subtle nuances in the short time they see the dog and who can see through what training has covered up.

The puppy tests for dominance, so popular among the pseudo-scientific folk some years ago, have no valid predictive value. All follow-up studies which measured dominance and aggressiveness in puppies and then reassessed the same dogs at six months and at a year found no relationship between what a pup showed on any given test day and what it showed when it reached sexual maturity. Therefore, assume any pup you get has the potential to be a dominant aggressive dog and do what you can to dampen it, to nip it in the bud.

The best way to avoid dominance aggression is to gain control from day one. Start the puppy as soon as you get him, preferably not less than 10 or 12 weeks old, and having had lots of exposure to people, dogs, noise and various underfoot surfaces. Start by giving him his own space in a crate that he can get to know and love and call his own safe space. Begin obedience training, teach him that no means no always and not just once in a while. Leash train him using either a pinch collar or nose halter collar if he seems a bit too wired. Teach come, sit (which automatically includes stay until told to move). Establish and stick to a timetable so there is a consistent day-to-day routine. Though perhaps sounding boring to you, to the dog a schedule is essential.

You need not be overly worried that our dog will become dominant or aggressive much before six months, so if you establish the rules and the schedule up front, before he starts challenging authority – you and your family members – most problems can be avoided. And if you are lucky and the pup’s parents and grandparents are not dominant aggressive dogs, with proper management of the dog’s early training, chances of the dog going off on a dominance aggression binge are about nil.

However, that is the ideal situation and things seldom go according to plan. So, let’s say that through not too careful management and some inherited temperament problems, you are aware one day that the dog is in charge, he had somehow pulled off a coup, and is now running the government. And worse, he enforces his newly found authority with ivory-white canines ready for blood-letting.

If he demonstrates full-blown dominance aggression toward people, it is usually directed at members of the immediate family like the children, wife or husband (depending on who is dominant and who is not) who are now subordinate to him, whomever he sees as being closest in rank and a potential threat to his status. In this situation, immediate control of the dog is a must. The more the dog gets to exercise his power, the more his behaviour is reinforced and the harder it is to reverse. What works and what doesn’t?

First, punishment does not help the situation. Beating the dog into submission will, at best, drive aggression underground as far as the one who does the beating is concerned. The dominance aggression quickly becomes fear aggression, or more dangerous, redirected aggression toward pack members less dominant than the one who did the beating – like a young son or daughter or wife or the live-in mother-in-law. Though seeming like the most logical choice to reverse dominance, severe punishment is almost always the worse possible thing to try.

Castration does not change dominance aggression, nor does spaying. However, neutering is recommended to keep the genetic potential for temperament problems from being transmitted to future generations. If you have a dog that is a dominant aggressive case, don’t “share the wealth” by producing a whole passel of progeny to be distributed to unsuspecting buyers.

Since punishment and neutering won’t do it, what does work? For the hardest of the hardcore cases like the dog in Quebec, start with cage confinement close to the household traffic but with the dog totally ignored by everyone. Take the dog out of the cage for eating and drinking twice each day. Also twice daily, give the dog a 20 to 30 minute brisk walk on leash for his exercise. No petting and no praise except for going back into his cage. And certainly no games.

After three to four weeks, or sooner if the dog is complying nicely with the plan and not demonstrating dominant behaviours, begin including obedience training in the daily routine. Use one of the head halter type collars known as the “Promise” collar available from veterinarians only, or the “Halti” available in pet stores, or use a chain link pinch collar. Whichever you choose, use it correctly. Continue the control training for another three to four weeks and the dog should be back to normal. But forever after, stay on top, avoid games the dog wins, and don’t let up on the obedience. Stay in control.

This is one of the approaches in a group of treatments referred to as global domination, or just domination. Another domination technique is the roll-over, where the dog is muzzled, and then you set up a confrontation. At the same time, you force the dog physically down and roll him onto his side. Hold him until the struggling stops, then allow the dog to get up, but keep control with a leash, walk the dog briskly and repeat the process again later in the day. Repeat daily until the dog passively accepts the whole thing without struggling. Again, in this and all retraining techniques, control is the main port, not punishment.

For milder cases where there usually isn’t much aggression but the dog gains dominance by more subtle means like the pawing mentioned earlier, milder forms of control should be used. Control the situation by ignoring the dog in anything the dog initiates such as wanting food, asking for attention or soliciting play. All interactions between you and the dog (and the “you” includes all members of the dog’s group, the family) must be on your initiative.

Also train the dog for control. Teach the down command where the dog lies on his stomach, chin on the ground between the front feet. Include distraction and gradually extend the down so the dog will stay in the down position for at least 20 minutes with you out of sight. One man I knew would not consider a dog trained unless it stayed for a minimum of 13 hours alone in a wooded area away from home and where the dog had never been before. I think this is about twelve and a half hours of overkill.

In some dogs, dominance aggression is situation-specific. It only occurs over food, only when getting nails cut, only at the vet’s, or only when being petted on a specific part of the body, such as the rump or over the muzzle. These cases are harder to diagnose as dominance aggression and indeed might not be in many cases. They could be pain aggression, fear aggression or learned aggression.

For example, this is, if a dog growls and it works to stop something the dog doesn’t like, the aggression will be stronger the next time because the dog has learned that aggression stopped some unpleasant things.

On the up side, situation-specific cases are easier to treat in most dogs by using a process of de-sensitization in which the dog learns that the bad stuff isn’t so bad or even that it’s pretty good. When petting on the rump, for example, start with the dog on a short leash, pet the dog on the ribs on the side closest to you and praise the dog for staying calm. Then reach over the dog and pet the ribs on the far side. Gradually move the petting higher, toward the centre of the back, then move gradually back toward the rear with praise each time the dog is tolerant of petting. If you progress too fast and the dog objects, retreat a few steps and try again more slowly.

There are other forms of aggression that can be confused with, or which can escalate into, dominance aggression. Territory aggression (only in the house, yard, car, or only when on leash close to you) is common, a sort of “junkyard dog” syndrome. Predator sharpness can get out of control and become aggression toward everything, including people. The line between high level prey aggression or sharpness and “off the deep end” is a narrow one. The dog that kills stuff including wrecking shot birds and needs to be tested or hunted wearing a muzzle has a problem. The dog that kills little furry things but is able to discriminate between a little fury thing (read, predator) but is sweetness and light to people and even cats in the house is a normal and a well adjusted dog that is in control of his emotional state.

The signs of dominance aggression are all behavioural and cannot be detected except by deviation from normal behaviours. You are in deep trouble if you don’t know what is normal, obviously. So here is what to look for.

Aggression with the purpose of gaining dominance is usually directed toward family members or people the dog knows, rarely toward strangers. Mostly it is directed toward those persons who are most threatening to, or most in competition for, the dog’s social status. The very submissive members of the family and small children are seldom targets at the beginning. But the aggression can become more inclusive of family members if allowed to progress.

If the dog does attack, it is seemingly unprovoked and the dog may have a glazed look and probably appear remorseful after the attack. A dominant dog will have an aggressive posture – stand tall, head erect; ears forward, corners of mouth forward, not drawn back, tail erect and waving slowly from side to side. If the dog has been severely punished for past aggressive acts, he might adopt a fearful/aggressive posture, one between dominance and fear, signified by ears laid back, corners of mouth drawn back, tail down and a crouched posture. Either way, it hurts when they bite!

Additional indications of potential dominance are often apparent only within certain contexts. The contexts vary greatly and a dog might show aggression in one or several of them. Some examples of these contexts are a person standing or reaching over a dog, petting the dog on the head and shoulders, restraining the dog such as holding the dog’s muzzle or putting a collar on him, or holding the dog for grooming including nail cutting, picking the dog up, approaching a dog when he has food or a bone or toy or any similar source of contention, waking a dog suddenly, staring at the dog (only an idiot or someone who wants a new face will have a nose-to-nose staring contest with a one to three year old dog), or even something as innocuous as a person entering or leaving a room. These should serve as warnings of impending problems and the retraining should start as soon as they occur. If the problems are not corrected when small, they will surely get bigger.

Other signs in a dog’s behaviour that imply dominance or an attempt at it are the dog being overly protective of territory, not just against dogs (which is normal) but also directed toward people. This over-protection can be for an item of furniture in the house or a room or the whole house or yard, the car, feeding place, or members of his social group (the dog may threaten any person or dog while being walked on leash or sitting by his owner’s foot, though not when running free).

Standing up on people, mounting people or dogs or demanding touch as in the dog mentioned earlier are all telltale signs, though less obvious than a plain old bite. Even more subtle signs that can predict potential for dominance aggression are playfully taking his owner’s hat or gloves to induce a chase game which he can win, leg-lifting at inappropriate places, or just pushing for his own way in all things which give him comfort (reinforcement), including begging for food.

If one or more of these behaviours show up in your dog from time to time don’t make a panic dash to your local dog shrink. Like anything else, most of these things mentioned if done in moderation are normal and of no consequence.

A young dog grabbing your hat and trying to provoke a chase is normal, but if you chase him, make sure you win most of the time and you control the game, not the dog. It is important to recognise what this competition is all about and not reinforce it by giving the dog the upper hand. However, it is also important not to punish for the trifling infractions, ignoring works better. So if he steals your glove, just walk off in the opposite direction and chances are he will run at top speed to catch up to you carrying the glove, giving you a good chance for a mini-retrieving lesson as well as downplaying his takeover bid.

But if it gets to be serious, to the growling or biting stage and you can’t control it, talk to a behaviourist. If he/she doesn’t outline a program similar to those I have sketched out here, talk to another one. Your veterinarian should be able to direct you to a good behaviour person. Most veterinarians have little behaviour training, and unless you have one of the rare ones who does, make sure his advice is sound.

Again, don’t ever try simply beating the dog into submission. Harsh punishment is almost always the worse of all possible choices. Far better and less traumatic for dog and everyone else is to retrain the dog so he can accept your pack leadership and his position in the pack (you, the family member and the dog) gracefully and happily.

In order to smooth the way there is one drug that could help. Clomipramine, trade name Anafranil, has been used. It is an anti-compulsive behaviour drug and acts to keep the dog at a low level of excitability. It must be used in conjunction with behaviour modification and can act as a low level reinforcer to keep the dog mellowed out. Gradually the dog must be weaned from it to prevent over-dependence and build up of tolerance for the drug so that it loses its function. But by all means, consult your veterinarian on this one.

If all attempts at rehabilitation by retraining fail with a totally incorrigible dog, do not waste any more of your time (or blood). Euthanize the dog and get another from a different source. Don’t try to be “kind” by giving the dog to someone or by dropping him off at the local pound or humane society; people usually have enough problems to cope with and don’t need another – especially one that could result in maiming or killing someone. And, no matter how great a hunter the dog is, do not breed it.

The chances of passing on the potential for dominance aggression to future generations is far greater than transmitting his great hunting ability.


Return to Main Page

Updated 27 May 2006