Dominance Myths

Myth: Dogs engage in dominance aggression to increase their status.

Fact: It is highly probably that dogs engage in ‘dominance aggression’ to increase their control over threatening or competitive situations. Many dogs who are at the bottom of the hierarchy in terms of social dominance will nevertheless defend a food resource vigorously and successfully against more dominant individuals, thus improving their chances of controlling the food.

In general, improved consistency on your part is an excellent way to improve your dog’s sense of the predictability and controllability of his environment, and thus his psychological well-being. This is probably the reason that so-called status reduction programs work fairly well; not because they’re reducing the dog’s status, but because they’re increasing his confidence in the stability of his environment.

Myth: If you punish or yell at your dog and he growls at you or bites you, he is displaying dominance aggression. If the aggression escalates over time, he’s definitely challenging you for the top position and needs to be put in his place.

Fact: The chances are that in this situation, dominance aggression is being confused with avoidance-motivated aggression (AMA). AMA is the result of repeated negative reinforcement, or escape/avoidance learning. Let’s clarify that a bit.

Suppose you put a dog in a cage divided into two by means of a low partition, and you electrify both sections of floor separately. Now you blow a whistle and pass a charge through the section of floor the dog is on. Sooner or later (probably sooner) he will jump the partition into the other section to try to escape the shock, and because you’re only electrifying one section at a time, he will succeed.

If you repeat the process a few times, in a very short space of time he will learn to jump the partition as soon as he hears the whistle, and will thus manage to avoid the shock altogether, and will show distinct signs of pleasure at having succeeded! (This is, in fact, the best way to use an electronic collar, if you’re going to use one at all.) The behaviour of jumping the partition has been negatively reinforced, ie it is rewarded by the removal of something unpleasant or aversive.

Behaviours trained like this are extremely resistant to extinction, in other words, the dog will keep on jumping, time after time, when he hears that whistle, long after you have disconnected the wires from the cage floor! He has learned that jumping the partition is a successful strategy for avoiding shock.

Now let’s get back to the scenario where your dog bites you when punished.

Let’s assume that you beat him, or do something else which he finds highly unpleasant. Perhaps he has a fairly low genetic threshold for offensive aggression, so he goes for you – and what happens? The chances are that you back off in shock and horror – and your dog has just learned that attacking you is a successful strategy for escaping, and in time avoiding, being beaten!

Now, you might have preceded your beating with a verbal cue, such as “Bad dog!”. The next time your dog hears you say “Bad dog!”, he remembers that this precedes a beating, and that he escaped a beating by attacking you, so this time he attacks pre-emptively and in his mind avoids the beating altogether!

And as more and more incidents of aggression occur, in the dog’s mind he becomes more and more successful, and thus more and more confident. The first couple of times it happened, your dog’s body language might have shown signs of fear-based aggression, but after four or five such “successes”, the chances are that his body language is going to be fairly confident – and he will in all probability be misdiagnosed as dominant aggressive.

It is only at this point that the dog may start to regard himself as “dominant”, and to expect you to submit, but the original problem developed out of frustration, confusion, fear and anger – not status-seeking.

In fact, AMA is thought to account for most cases of “dominance” aggression referred to behaviourists.

So what should I do if I have a dominant-aggressive dog?

First and foremost, make sure that his aggression is not the result of a medical problem. There are various health factors which can influence aggression:

  • · Low-tolerance dominance aggression, where a dog will attack with very mild provocation such as being touched on the withers, may in fact be related to a problem in the neo-cortex, although this has not been clearly shown. Many of these dogs respond well to anti-depressants.
  •  Many aggressive dogs in fact suffer from hypothyroidism, and thyroid treatment will solve the problem.
  • Episodic rage syndrome, sometimes called idiopathic aggression (or aggression of unknown origin) is increasingly believed to be caused by psychomotor epilepsy (seizure of the limbic system). This does not usually show up on a conventional EEG, but can be diagnosed by treating the dog with drugs which first increase and then inhibit epileptic seizure, and monitoring the aggressive behaviour shown.

Look out for simple things like sore teeth or cut feet.

Do not try to confront or “alpha-roll” your dog when he growls at you. This is a recipe for being bitten.

Become reward-orientated: start rewarding your dog for what you like rather than punishing him for what you don’t like. Make all attention and food conditional on the dog performing some or other small obedience exercise for you. This is the best way I know of “pulling rank”.

Manage the situation: do not let your dog get into the sort of situation which triggers his aggression.

Be consistent in what you reward and what you punish. This improves your dog’s ability to predict and control his environment, and thus reduces his frustration and confusion, and makes aggression less likely. Don’t let him up on your bed one day and then yell at him for climbing up the next day.

If your dog is suffering from AMA, you need to seek professional help. This is a complex condition to resolve, and your behaviourist should recommend techniques such as systematic desensitization, counter-conditioning and response prevention. Do not hire anyone who promises a quick fix or recommends severe aversives straight away.

Don’t kid yourself. An aggressive dog has to be managed for the rest of its life. Never assume that your dog is cured.

The more we learn about dogs, their species-typical behaviour, and the way they learn, the more opportunities we have for finding better, kinder and more effective ways for interacting with them. Once upon a time, the dominance approach was the only one we knew, and we did the best we could with it. But now so many more doors are opening into our dogs’ minds. Let’s go through them, and learn to deserve the love and companionship of these wonderful and unique creatures.

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