Dog Behavior

Dominance & Aggression

Because humans and dogs have different communication systems, misunderstandings can easily happen between the two species. A kid might approach your dog in a way that’s meant to be friendly, for example , but Fido may perceive that child's behavior as threatening or intimidating. There are several types of aggression, each stemming from a different root cause. In order to treat the problem effectively, it’s necessary to determine what form the aggression is taking.

And please note: working with aggressive dogs can be potentially dangerous, and should be done only by, or under the guidance of, an experienced animal behavior professional. The right obedience trainer (one who uses positive reinforcement techniques) can also be instrumental in helping a dominant aggressive dog to correctly reinterpret his role in the social hierarchy.

Dominance aggression: By nature, dogs live and cooperate in social groups to survive; to maintain order, they establish a dominance hierarchy within their group. When a dog comes to live in your home, the humans in the household must take the highest positions in the dominance hierarchy so that your house can remain a safe and happy place for pets and people too. Most dogs take a neutral or submissive role toward people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance.

From your dog's point of view, kids, too, have a place in the dominance hierarchy. Because they’re smaller and get down on the dog's level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates rather than superiors. Small kids and dogs should not be left alone together without adult supervision; older kids should be taught to play and interact appropriately and safely with dogs. Under no circumstances should a child ever be left alone with a dog who has displayed signs of aggression.

If your dog perceives his own ranking in the hierarchy to be higher than yours, it's likely that he'll challenge you. Because people don't always understand canine communication, you might unintentionally challenge your dog's social position within the ‘pack’; a dominantly aggressive dog might growl threateningly if he is disturbed when sleeping, or if he is asked to give up a favorite spot like the sofa. Reaching for your dog's collar, or reaching out over his head to pet him, could also be interpreted by him as a challenge for dominance. Dominantly aggressive dogs are often described as "Jekyll and Hydes" because if the dominance cues are not being correctly perceived by the human the dogs can seem to snap without warning, yet these misunderstood doggies can also be very friendly and sweet when not feeling challenged.

Fear-motivated aggression: This is a defensive reaction caused by your dog’s belief that he is in danger. Remember that it's Fido’s perception of the situation, not your actual intent, that determines his response. For example, you might raise your arm to throw a ball, but your fearful dog might bite you because he thinks he is protecting himself from being hit. A dog could also become fearfully aggressive when approached by other dogs.

Protective, territorial And possessive aggression: These 3 are related, and each involves the defense of valuable resources. Territorial aggression is usually associated with defense of property; be aware, however, that Fido’s sense of territory may go way past the boundaries of his yard. For example, if you walk your dog regularly around the neighborhood and allow him to urine-mark, he’ll have every reason to think his territory is the entire block. Protective aggression is directed toward people or animals that your dog perceives as threats to his family. And dogs show possessive aggression when defending their food, toys or other valued goodies - even if the treasure in question is a wet teabag nabbed from the trash. If Fido thinks it’s valuable, then in his mind it’s worth protecting from all efforts to throw it away again.

Redirected aggression: If Fido is aroused into an aggressive response toward a person or animal that he is not allowed to attack, he might redirect this aggression unexpectedly onto some other innocent bystander, whether animal or human.

What to do

  • First check with your vet to rule out medical causes for the aggressive behavior – maybe Fido’s actually in pain.
  • Seek professional help from an animal behavior specialist - an aggression problem is serious and will not go away by itself.
  • You're liable for Fido’s behavior. Supervise and restrict your dog's activities until you can get professional help; if you must take him out in public, get a cage-type muzzle as a temporary precaution, and keep in mind that some dogs can get a muzzle off.
  • Avoid exposing your dog to situations where he is more likely to show aggression. This might mean keeping him confined to a safe room and limiting his people-contact.
  • Spay or neuter your dog. Intact dogs are much more likely to have trouble with dominance, territorial and protective aggressive behavior.

What not to do

  • Punishment won't help and, in fact, will make the problem worse. If the aggression is motivated by fear, punishment will make your dog more fearful, and therefore more aggressive. Attempting to punish or dominate a dominantly aggressive dog is likely to cause him to escalate his behavior to make sure he retains his dominant position – this could mean a bite or even a severe attack. Punishing territorial, possessive or protective aggression is likely to just bring about more defensive aggression.
  • Never encourage aggressive behavior. Playing tug-of-war or wrestling games can bring on the beginning of a dominance aggression problem. When dogs are encouraged to "go get 'em" in response to outside noises or people, territorial and protective aggressive behavior could become the result.