In this post we will deal with dominance aggression displayed toward people since this is the most common problem in many households with dogs. Dogs are natural predators, and if not socialized and habituated to people and other dogs they can and do use many types of aggression to communicate their personality, mood, and status.
Beneath the endearing, lovable exterior of our dogs beats the heart of an animal with natural drives inherited from the wolf, however moderated they may be through domestication. The recommended behavioral training programs generally apply to this type of aggression, with a few minor adaptations.
People’s domestic circumstances vary greatly but the training programs we suggest are, of necessity, general in application. You must read carefully and select from the information provided that you consider is most applicable to your dog and situation.
Dominance aggression toward people and especially family members is the problem what dog trainers are most frequently asked to help with. The second most common problem is fear aggression displayed toward people outside the family. Dogs can display fear aggression toward other dogs and dominant aggression toward their own family members – so identifying the problem can sometimes be a little confusing. So what are the main problems people encounter with dominance aggression?
Reducing the High-Ranking Attitude
Don’t play rough games with puppies who appear to be dominant, as this can produce a familiarity that may be difficult to undo at a later stage. Remember what the wild dog desires – leadership and a high secure position, if possible. Leaders survive longer in times of stress or food shortage than lower-ranking dogs. Use obedience training; this is the best known way to control a dog and induce it to defer to your top dog position.
Don’t allow play-biting in any form, or pulling on clothing. Allow your dog to play with toys but insist on being able to remove a toy without a struggle. When the game is finished, lock the toys away so that your dog can see that you are the keeper of them and he is not. Your dog must not win.
Rope-type toys are popular, but this particular game of strength should not be practiced with an apparently dominant dog, especially where children are involved. The more the dog wins the tug-of-war, the more it feels confident about challenging the person playing the game. Dogs can then transpose this confidence to other areas of their relationship within the family – aggression may be the end result.
The Crucial Factor
However you view your dog’s aggression, the circumstances in which it manifests itself are the most crucial element that determines how serious the behavior problem is. A dog that growls at its owners and the occasional visitor but never bites and is generally amiable is a problem dog and should be helped. But take the same dog and now place it in a family with small children who behave impetuously and who are easily within reach of the dog’s jaws, and the seriousness increases tenfold. It’s still the same dog, but the “triggers” for aggressive responses have also increased tenfold.
Then take the same dog and place it with a single person who lives in the countryside and who has few visitors. It may be the same dog with the same level of aggression, but the problem is now less serious.
So the circumstances in which the aggression is triggered are the key to its seriousness. The breed and size of a dog will also influence the magnitude of the problem: a Yorkie can inflict little damage on an adult with careful handling, but some of the larger or giant breeds, like a St. Bernard, can inflict serious injuries, even on the strongest adult.
Dominance Aggression Toward People
So why are dogs dominantly aggressive to the hand that feeds them? Dogs are born with a set of instincts that prepare them for living in a wolf pack that is based on rank positions. Even when they’re in a human family, dogs still assume their pack role and try to establish a niche through interaction with the other pack members, namely you and your family.
Dogs also inherit a predisposition toward dominance from their parents. Because the pack is very important to a dog, most dominant aggression is directed at other pack members. The way you handle and generally interact with your dog deeply affects the dominant dog and its view of you. Good socialization and early handling greatly reduces the dog’s willingness to try it on.
Many people are confused by dominance aggression because their dog can be the most wonderful, kind, and gentle creature most of the time, but not when he’s eating, or resting. They are describing a dog that has learned to be dominant in some, but not all, situations. In other words, the dog accepts your leadership in certain areas of the relationship, but not in others.
Most dominance aggression is directed at a family member or occurs within the family pack. An example is the dog that only growls when you go near him when he’s on his bed or is eating. No other aggression may be displayed. That is what the dog has learned and has gotten away with over time, so he holds on to it for dear life. It’s not personal; it’s just a dog behaving as dogs do. But it is still aggression, and that’s unacceptable in a harmonious and trusting relationship.
In public places dominantly aggressive dogs generally do not react to other people unless that person starts to impose on the dog by trying to pet it. Joggers and people performing other unusual actions, like games, can sometimes activate the dog. People who come too close to their owners to pass the time of day can also be perceived as a threat to the pack.
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