Reconsidering the “Dominant” Dog

Jacqui Neilson, DVM, DACVB

Dominance aggression is frequently diagnosed in the canine population, ranging between 20-59% of behavioral caseloads. In cases of dominance aggression, family members are usually the targets of the aggression. The dog is described as having a superior position in the social hierarchy and the dog uses aggression to manage situations where his/her status is threatened.  The dominant animal in a group setting is usually a very confident animal. However when cases of “dominance” aggression in dogs are examined, these dogs are often fearful or submissive. Owners report signs that are ambivalent or submissive surrounding attacks. Many owners describe these dogs as “trying to make-up” just after an attack.   This behavior is in conflict with a truly dominant/confident personality.

If the dog is not dominant, then what is occurring?  Perhaps a better term to describe the behavior is “conflict” aggression. The dog is put in a confrontational situation or feels as though it can’t predict the owner’s response due to past inconsistencies in the owner’s behavior.  This results in motivational conflict/anxiety and the dog uses aggression to get himself out of the uncomfortable situation. Since aggression is often very successful at terminating the uncomfortable situation, the dog learns that aggression is a good way to manage situations of conflict.

If the motivation behind the aggression is anxiety and not an overly confident/dominant dog, then the treatment plan must reflect this.  Domination techniques (e.g. alpha roll over) in response to conflict aggression is contraindicated, as they would only serve to increase the anxiety of the dog.  Many owners report an escalation in the aggression when they attempt these domination techniques and this is understandable if the dog is truly in a state of anxiety/fear.  Employing these techniques will only serve to escalate the fear/anxiety and subsequently escalate the aggression.

Important treatment principles for the dog with conflict aggression include:  avoiding confrontation, having a safe way to handle the dog and establishing consistent dog-owner interactions. If there is a specific trigger situation, desensitization to that trigger can be implemented.

Many owners are concerned that if they avoid confrontations, they are letting the pet “win.” However, this is not the case.  Any animal in a highly aroused emotional state is not a good candidate for learning.  The dog will be taught acceptable behavior when he is calm and relaxed.  The owners also want to avoid being placed in situations where the dog’s aggression is successful, thereby reinforcing the unwanted aggressive behavior.  By avoiding triggers for aggression, this unwanted learning will not occur.  To avoid aggressive situations, sometimes the owners will have to modify their behavior (e.g. don’t get near the dog when he is eating) or modify the environment (e.g. if the dog has been aggressive with toys, remove them from environment).

Having a safe way to remotely control the dog is important.  A head collar with a drag line attached is very helpful in many cases.  The owners can pick up the line at a distance from the dog and direct the dog into a more appropriate behavior when necessary.

To establish consistent dog-owner interactions, it is often necessary to terminate all casual interactions between the dog and the owner.  Predictable, structured interactions can become the mainstay of owner-dog interactions.  Generally, owners are instructed to give the dog a command prior to all interactions.  If the dog responds appropriately to the command, the interaction can proceed.  If the dog does not respond, the owner should ignore the dog.  In addition to these lifestyle interaction changes, the dog and owner should practice obedience training that rewards obedient relaxed behavior in the dog. Obedience provides a structured, predictable interaction where the dog is reinforced for relaxed, obedient behavior.  

If a specific trigger for the aggression is identified, a gradual desensitization to that trigger can be implemented.  For example, if the dog is aggressive when disturbed when resting, the owner can use a light ball to roll and gently tap the resting dog.  When tapped by the ball, the owner can call the dog and ask him to sit, rewarding non-aggressive, obedient behavior with a treat and praise.  The intensity of the tap can be gradually increased by selecting slightly heavier balls to roll at the dog until the dog is no longer anxious about being disturbed when resting.

It is important for clinicians to consider the fact that most dogs presenting with aggression are not confident/dominant dogs since it has a huge impact upon the treatment plan.  Kind, gentle and consistent handling will reap more rewards than harsh, challenging and threatening behaviors in these dogs in conflict.