More on Dominance

Q. My dog is dominant and has growled at me a few times when I try to kick him off the couch. I’ve been told that I ought to alpha-roll him to prove that I’m dominant, but I’m scared he’ll bite me. What should I do?

A. The wolf-pack theory of dog behaviour is so prevalent amongst dog trainers and people who write articles about dogs that it has become taken for granted. Articles on how to deal with “dominant” dogs abound. It is assumed without question that social status and rank is important to dogs. “Dominance” aggression toward owners is one of the most frequently reported problems behaviourists have to deal with. So it would be nice to know first of all how much truth there is in the idea.

Early research into dog behaviour suggested that the dog evolved from the wolf with his patterns of social behaviour pretty much unchanged. Wolves are highly social, hunt in packs and form fairly fluid linear dominance hierarchies in their packs, with the highest-ranking wolf called the Alpha. The wolf-pack theory of dog behaviour thus suggests that the dog regards his human as another dog and that it is very important for the human to treat the dog as an Alpha Wolf would. In particular, if the dog misbehaves or shows aggression toward the human, the human is called upon to demonstrate his Alpha-ness by “alpha-rolling” the dog – hurling him to the ground on his back, pinning him by the throat and growling at him. The more devoted aficionados of the theory hold that this will “put the dog in his place” and apparently resolve a variety of training and behavioural problems at the same time.

It’ll certainly frighten the dog, or alternatively provoke him to even worse excesses of aggression, but whether it will make any difference to the dog’s perception of his social rank is highly doubtful, and it certainly won’t compensate for undertraining – the most common reason for misbehaviour.

There are several things wrong with the wolf-pack view of dog behaviour. The first is that dogs (or wolves, for that matter) don’t alpha-roll each other. An animal which is already low in rank may voluntarily roll over and display its stomach to an animal higher in rank, but this is a deferential behaviour on the part of the low-ranking animal, not an attempt on the part of the higher ranking animal to “put the other one in its place”!

The second is that dog social behaviour is not actually all that similar to wolf social behaviour. Dogs seldom hunt in packs, their social structure is much looser, and they probably don’t have an exact equivalent of the Alpha wolf. Observations of domestic dogs which have gone feral and of village dogs in primitive communities make this very clear.

The third thing wrong with the idea is that dogs almost certainly do not perceive their human companions as other dogs. The relationship, especially when it is a good one, is far closer to that of parent-child than of alpha-subordinate.

The fourth problem is the idea that dogs are continually jockeying for status. Dogs almost certainly don’t even have a concept of social rank as being something desirable as such, and it’s certainly not something that they would put themselves at physical risk for by fighting. What they will fight over is access to resources – the best food, space, the best place to sleep – and the dog who tends to win these encounters will emerge as dominant with respect to the other dog or dogs, sometimes in very specific situations. It is not uncommon for one dog to be dominant over another with respect to food, while the situation may be reversed with respect to sleeping space, for example. Once a dog has won the bulk of a series of encounters, he will expect the other dog to defer to him over access to resources, but whether he actually cares about his ‘rank’ as such is highly doubtful.

This leads to a much more sensible view of dominance, and one which fits in much better with the scientifically observed facts. Firstly, dominance is an attribute of a relationship, not of an individual dog, and secondly, it is a result, not a cause. Let’s elaborate:

Spot and Curly get into several fights over who gets the best bone. Spot wins most of them. Eventually he has only to glare at Curly and Curly will leave a bone and allow Spot to take it. Over time, then, we can say that Spot emerges as dominant, or higher in rank, with respect to Curly. Fido, on the other hand, may be able to take food off Spot every time, so Spot’s dominance is an attribute of his relationship with Curly, and not something intrinsic to Spot. We can say that Spot is dominant with respect to Curly, but it is not accurate to say that Spot is a “dominant dog”, period.

Furthermore, Spot doesn’t fight with Curly because he wants to be higher in rank than Curly. He fights with him to get the best bone. His higher rank is a result of the outcomes of several fights.

Some dogs, of course, are physically big and strong, and have a low threshold for offensive aggression, and possibly a high pain threshold as well, which means that they are likely to emerge the victor in most of their squabbles, and thus to become dominant. Such dogs often learn that they can defeat most opponents, and the more winning they do, the more confident and threatening their behaviour becomes when meeting a strange dog. But this is still an outcome of physical ability coupled with a history of winning. The dog doesn’t set out to “pull rank”.

So how does this relate to the situation where a dog is showing signs of aggression toward his owner? Is there such a thing as “dominance aggression” toward the owner?

The condition which behaviourists loosely call “dominance aggression” certainly exists, but has relatively little to do with rank at least in its early stages. It’s more likely to exist in a dog which wants to attain control of various resources and is socially inept. It’s only when the owner has inadvertently backed down to the dog a few times that rank may come into it, or that the dog may perceive itself as “higher-ranking” insofar as it expects the owner to give way to it.

Prevention, as always, is better than cure, and the best way to ensure that the problem never develops is to maintain control of access to all goodies and dole them out in exchange for obedience from the get-go, so the dog is never in doubt either about who controls the goodies or about how to get them. This has two benefits: first, the dog is never in doubt about its position in the household, and second, the dog’s environment is highly predictable and controllable, which reduces anxiety and frustration and has the effect of making it easier for a socially anxious dog to negotiate his role.

Where the problem has already developed, do not confront the dog or alpha-roll it. This is an excellent way to get severely bitten. Be particularly careful if there are children in the household as these are easy targets for a dog who has learned that aggression works.

Depending on the level of aggression, it may be possible to deal with this without professional help. If the dog has not actually bitten, then the first thing to do is to sit down and make a list of all the things which trigger growling or snarling. The next thing is to use management techniques to ensure that the dog has no access whatsoever to theses triggers (and they are usually quite specific). So a dog who growls over access to the couch must be kept off the couch, and this usually means keeping him out of the room containing the couch, or confining him by crating him or tying him out when he is in that particular room.

Thereafter, desensitization protocols should be followed for each trigger. In the case of a dog refusing to get off the couch, teach him a cue for getting off and follow up with a high quality food reward. Initially the dog should be lured off (and on) with a tasty treat so that he focuses on the treat rather than the fact that he is being asked to get off the couch. Once he is doing this quite willingly, the cue can be added and the lure faded, to be exchanged for a treat once he has actually done as asked and gotten off. If he refuses at any stage, turn round and leave the room, preferably shutting him in, and take the food with you. Try again a few minutes later.

In the case of a dog who is growly over toys or food (which need not have anything to do with dominance), start an object exchange protocol where he learns to give up an object in return for a treat and the return of the object. To start with, any high-quality items like rawhide chews, fresh bones and favourite toys need to be eliminated from the environment. Starting with a fairly boring toy is a good approach. Say a cue such as “leave it”, and offer the treat. As soon as the dog drops the toy, say “good dog” (or click if you have started clicker training), give the treat, and return the toy. Again, fade the lure until the dog will drop the toy happily on cue, and then gets rewarded. Then a slightly more interesting toy can be used, or another variation is to have two toys and swap them each time the dog is cued.

In general, the approach to a dog like this should be one of giving him many opportunities to earn small rewards in exchange for obedience: sit if he wants to go out, sit for dinner, lie down to have his lead put on for a walk, sit for attention and patting, and so on. Obviously he needs to know a few basic commands, and these should be taught using reward-based techniques, a) because using a punitive approach is dangerous with an aggressive dog, and b) because reward-based techniques give him an opportunity to get control over sources of reward. Usually, greater consistency and patience on the part of the owner will reap results.

If the dog has become seriously aggressive (biting and drawing blood), I would recommend calling in a behaviourist unless you know a great deal about learning theory. Avoid anyone who recommends aversives, alpha-rolling or the use of e-collars straight away. You are looking for someone who can identify behavioural triggers and construct the safest possible desensitization hierarchies, and also someone who has a working knowledge of behavioural pharmacology and will be able to recommend medication, at least during the process of behaviour modification.

Whether you deal with the problem yourself or call in a professional, the dog should never be regarded as cured. Managing his behaviour will mean that you will have to make changes in your behaviour which will have to last for the rest of the dog’s life.

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