Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 7: Dominance

Dominance… 

 

That one little word is all it takes to send some dog trainers right over the edge. It has become such a “bad word” in some circles that trainers often feel the need to refer to it as “The D Word”. I have even heard professional dog trainers say things like, “I don’t want to use the word dominant but he is kind of a bully.” What is that, some sort of magical bad word shield? Will putting “I don’t want to use the word” in front of it protect you from offending people who may have otherwise been offended? Good to know! I’ll have to try that trick the next time I want to drop an F-bomb. But seriously, all joking aside, why would someone think of dominance as a “bad word” in the first place? I can't speak for everyone but I think I have a pretty good idea, so let's touch on that for a minute, then I'll get into why dominance is a relevant topic for understanding and preventing dog aggression. If you already know that dominance is not a bad word, feel free to skip down to the “What Is Dominance?” section.   

 

The Myth of Dominance Debunking

 

Most of the trainers who don’t want to use the D word are "positive” trainers who have drank the kool aid when it comes to claims of dominance having been debunked or that it’s a myth that is not “backed by science”. This has created a lot of controversy but, in reality, these claims are misleading and inaccurate. For example: If dominance is an unscientific myth, then why have there been so many scientific papers written on it and why doesn’t the dictionary define dominance as “mythological” like it does if you look up the word unicorn? It’s probably because dominance is real, which means we should probably try to understand it better. 

 

Is dominance highly misunderstood? Yes. 

Do people often mislabel a behavior as dominance when it’s not? Yes. 

Are there nuances that need to be clarified? Yes, yes, yes! 

 

However, clarifying dominance does not entirely invalidate it, as the word “debunk” implies. You don’t need to read scientific journals to confirm that dominance is real, although you could because they do. All you really need to do is observe dogs and you will clearly see dominant behavior, along with its counterpart, submissive behavior. Seriously, Stevie Wonder could see it. You can call what you observe being a “bully” if you want, although that’s kind of an anthropomorphic word that implies intent to harm, which is actually not the definition of dominance. You could also use more accurate replacement words, like assertive or controlling, but dominance is still a thing, regardless of your vernacular.

 

“I’m still not convinced. I follow a lot of science-based trainers who say dominance has been debunked. They also say that believing in dominance leads to animal abuse, so I think you are full of sh#t!!!”  
 

Hey now, slow your roll Mr. Potty Mouth, you forgot to use the magical “I don’t want to use the word” filter before saying a naughty word. That’s ok, I am not offended and I understand why you feel that way. However, I have a little fact checking exercise for you. 

 

Fact Checking The Debunkers

 

Before accepting a claim of dominance debunking, check for any of the following three things. You will likely find they do at least one, if not all three.  

 

1) They cherry pick statements from cherry picked scientific studies. Most of these studies actually verify rather than debunk dominance…if you bother to read the whole thing. On top of that, there are many other studies, which they fail to mention, that also verify rather than debunk dominance.

2) The debunkers themselves will say contradictory things that verify their belief in dominance…if you bother to follow enough of their content.  

3) They say things like, “studies have proven” but either don’t cite their sources or their sources are articles, blogs or videos that are not actually scientific studies. 

 

…but they mean well.  

 

Debunker devotees do mean well, to the extent that they believe that “dominance theory” leads to abuse, a.k.a. the misuse of punishment in dog training. I actually agree that this is a legitimate concern but I have much greater concerns about the total denial of dominance because that belief system leads to something much worse; it leads to the unnecessary medicating and euthanizing of dogs. Please let me explain: 

 

The “All Aggression Is Fear” Myth

 

In Part 4 of this series, I pointed out that a lot of trainers, particularly the positive ones, believe that all aggression is based on fear. I also said that I disagreed with that. One reason I disagree is because aggression can be based on dominance, which is not fear. The “all aggression is fear” trainers actually do admit that non-fear-based aggression exists, they simply believe that it is due to mental illness. 

 

Let’s connect the dots. 

 

Generally speaking, the trainers who believe all aggression is fear are the same ones who believe dominance has been debunked and are also the same ones who deny the relevance of the dog-wolf connection. So, the belief system is basically this: Dominance is a myth, dogs are not at all like wolves, all aggression is fear, aggression that is not fear is mental illness. Got it? Ok, so when confronted with dominance-based aggression, which is clearly not fear-based, they will diagnose the dog as having a mental illness.  

 

What do you suppose they do with mental illness? They medicate it. (This almost never works because there is no anti-dominance pill.) What do you suppose they do when medication fails? They keep the dog locked up or they have the dog put to death. Yes, this is true, it’s not a secret, they are very open about it. 

 

Moral Of The Story 

 

Dominance is NOT a mental illness! It is a well-documented and perfectly natural animal behavior. To deny this fact can literally be a fatal mistake.  

 

Ok, now that the dominance debate has been settled, we can get down to business. Ready? 

 

What Is Dominance?   

 

While it is definitely a thing, there is no definite, detailed, precise and widely agreed upon definition of dominance in dogs. This makes conversations and debates hard to navigate but, for the sake of this article, we don’t need to split hairs over every little detail. Let’s just use this somewhat simplistic definition: 

 

Dominance = Having power and influence over others. Having first right or priority access to limited resources. Having the right to control and discipline subordinates. 

 

Synonyms = authoritative, assertive, controlling, commanding, ruling, governing…more can be found in the dictionary, feel free to look it up. 

 

Dominance As An Underlying Factor In Dog Aggression    

 

Now that we understand that dominance is real, and have a general idea of what dominance is, we can get on with the show. Below are some bullet points on dominance and how it can be a factor in dog aggression.

 

Dominance reduces aggression

  • Aggression may or may not be used to establish dominance but, ultimately, dominance is designed by mother nature to reduce the frequency and intensity of aggression in social animals. (reduce, not eliminate) 
  • This is done by establishing some form of social status, hierarchy or ranking system within a group or between two individuals.
  • Dominance is about establishing or maintaining control.
    • This includes control over resources as well as control over the relationships and interactions between individuals.
      • ​Humans who fail to assume the dominant role often become a resource that dogs will attempt to control or possess.
      • Personal space and space around anything perceived as valuable are common triggers for dominance related aggression.
      • If dog owners were better at controlling resources, including their attention and personal space, I might have to get a real job.
      • But seriously folks, without exaggeration, this basic concept could avoid a lot of heartbreak, injury and death.

There is a difference between dominant behaviors and dominant relationships.

  • Dominant displays can be fleeting and roles may flip-flop.
  • Dominant relationships are more stable and consistent, constituting what could be considered a hierarchy between individuals or within a group.  
  • Dominant behaviors can be seen upon initial introductions and, over time, dominance relationships may form and become more stable. 
  • Dominance displays can happen on a situational basis, meaning it is not only something that happens within an established linear hierarchy.
    • ​One time dog 1 may display dominant behavior towards dog 2 and in a different situations dog 2 may display dominant behavior towards dog 1.
    • If dog 1 is dominating a majority of the time, it could be said that a dominance relationship or hierarchy has been formed but there may still be times when dog 2 dominates. In otherwords, it's not 100% across the board and could vary for many reasons, such as the dog's moods or energy levels that day or how important something is at that particular moment.
  • Dominance displays can occur in multispecies groups or packs such as those that might include dogs, humans and cats. 
    • ​This is called "cross-species" dominance and it is controversial, of course, but it is a thing.

Dominance is not necessarily aggression and aggression is not necessarily dominance.

  • As we have seen in previous segments, such as Fear, there are many possible factors at play when it comes to dog aggression.
  • Aggression may or may not be used to assert or maintain dominance. 

Dominance-Aggression is a ritualized form of aggression and, relatively speaking, it is not violent or malicious.

  • The intent is not to hurt but to “correct” or control.
  • Often a threat will do, as long as it is met with submission.
    • Posturing, growling, or snapping with little to no contact can be enough to get the point across.  
  • If it does escalate to a fight, these ritualized battles are really more like an argument and end with little to no injuries.  
    • Human interference often causes the escalation of dog arguments into more intense fights because they have never achieved dominant status with their dogs.
      • Humans typically don’t know what to do and are full of fear as they fan the flames with their weak attempts at breaking up the fight.
      • Hint: You can’t be dominant if you are afraid and you can’t just jump up and be a hero in the middle of a crisis if you have historically been nothing more than a supplier of cuddles and cookies. Mic drop. 
    • Humans, particularly children, receive more injuries from dominance related aggression than dogs do because they have skin that is tight to the muscle.
      • A dog biting another dog’s loose skin is similar to biting a person’s clothing, so when a dog bites a person’s tight skin, they could accidentally cause injury due to the lack of wiggle room. 
    • People, particularly children, also tend to panic or react very dramatically to a dog bite, which may trigger predatory aggression or be perceived as a dominance challenge. (see: Fear)   

Dominance challenges can lead to real battles or attacks.

  • When neither individual submits or yields to the other, the aggression could escalate into an all-out brawl. 
  • In nature, when a hierarchy cannot be established, one of the animals will likely be driven from the pack or possibly killed.
  • Unresolved dominance challenges can happen with pet dogs as well but, due to confinement, the dogs cannot disperse.
    • This generally means that either the humans need to step up their dominance role or one of the dogs needs to find a new home. 
    • No amount of "purely-positive" training will resolve a dominance issue. In fact, it often makes it worse.
  • When a hierarchy has not yet been established, has not been maintained or is disrupted by member changes, dominance challenges are more likely to occur. 
  • When leadership and pack structure is somehow in question, dominance challenges are more likely to occur. 

Proper human leadership is lacking in virtually every aggression case I see.

  • Most people are excellent at overstimulating and spoiling their dogs  (see: Hyperactivity and Tight Leash) and do not balance it out with proper leadership.
  • This leaves an opening for the dogs to rule (dominate) which can lead to aggression. 
  • Dogs rarely challenge humans who have consistently provided good leadership or who they see as dominant. 
    • If this happens, I have yet to see it, but any dog may bite when in extreme fear, panic or pain...which is not a dominance challenge.
    • I have seen many cases where dogs bite people who think they are the “pack leader” but the dog has clearly not been convinced.
      • Often, they attempt to control the dog at sporadic times but they do not consistently provide enough structure, control and fulfillment to be perceived as a good leader.
      • The dog may interpret random control attempts as dominance challenges.
      • This is when people get bitten by their own dogs. 
  • Did you notice the word fulfillment in the previous bullet?
    • Leaders don’t just go around flexing their power, they assume responsibility for the wellbeing of the pack and lead their followers to good things.
    • Leaders initiate activities and provide enough resources for the pack to be fulfilled.
    • Dominance, aside from resolving occasional challenges, tends to be very subtle when shown consistently

The Play Hard To Get Rule

  • Playing hard to get is a simple dominance establishing exercise.
    • Give the dog attention by invite only.
    • Ignore all uninvited attempts to get your attention.
    • The leader is the one who initiates activities and interactions, remember?
    • This is so simple and so powerful, yet somehow it seems to remain a secret.
      • Simple means not complicated, it doesn’t mean easy. 
      • It’s nearly impossible for most people to do it consistently.
      • Try it, go ahead, I dare you.
      • No, hold on, the dog just came over to you and you looked at him, didn’t you?
      • Looking is not ignoring, it is acknowledging and engaging. See, I told you, it’s harder than it sounds. 

A dog that takes a dominant role may feel entitled to give corrections...even to humans. 

  • Most commonly towards children due to both their size and behavior.
    • Children should be taught from day one that dogs are not teddy bears!
    • Children should be taught to never approach a dog and, instead, let the dog come to them.
    • Children should be taught to never hug or climb on dogs.
    • Of course, most adults don’t know this either but now you do.
      • Hello horse, here’s the water, cheers!
    • Yes, I know, I know, you always hugged your childhood dog and layed on top of him or carried him around like a baby and he loved you and all the fairies in all the enchanted lands sang in harmony while riding bareback on unicorns as you did it.
      • ​That is wonderful, I had the same experience (minus the fairies) but those dogs were probably not assuming the dominant role.
      • It is not good practice to do this with dogs in general because some, in fact many, will not tolerate it.
      • At bare minimum, know the dog first, be certain the dog is bomb proof and teach your kids that this is only ok with this particular dog, not every dog they meet.
      • At bare minimum, know your child and be certain they are capable of understanding this sort of grey area.
    • (see: Rude Behavior, Child and Dog Safety)  
  • Being a human doesn’t automatically make the dog see you as dominant. 
  • Cross-species dominance, meaning the acceptance or assertion of dominance between dogs and humans is real. It is not a mental illness. Sometimes it’s very subtle and sometimes it is dramatic but it is a thing. Many “positive” trainers will claim otherwise but, as we saw earlier, their fact checking seems a little questionable. 
  • Failure to recognize the relevance of dominance can literally be a fatal mistake...did I say that already?

Are “corrections” really aggression? 

  • It depends on how you define aggression.
    • Most people will define any sort of bite as aggression.
    • Even puppy biting and mouthing is considered “aggressive” to many dog owners.
    • Most people will even label a threatening gesture (growling, barking, air-snapping) as aggression. 
  • Dogs tend to correct with their teeth, so we need to address corrections when speaking of dog aggression.  
  • By my definition, a “correction” is not serious aggression; it is not malicious, it is not an attack meant to cause harm, it is simply meant to deliver a message with little to no injury.
    • Can it still hurt, leave a mark and be scary? Totally, but it should not need medical attention.
    • By needing medical attention, I mean stitches, not a really expensive Band-Aid. 
  • Some dogs are better at giving fair and appropriate corrections than others.
    • Those that are not should be well managed around dogs or people, at least for initial greetings, perhaps always. 
  • Dogs that regularly “over-correct” are generally not of a dominant personality type.
    • This means they probably lack confidence or emotional control. (see: Hyperactivity and Fear)
    • These dogs do not want to be dominant but many times they find themselves in leaderless homes and it stresses them out.
    • They may attempt to take the dominant role only because no one else is doing it.  
  • Lack of mental stability or loss of emotional control (for many of the reasons mentioned throughout this entire series) can lead to inappropriate or overly-aggressive corrections, which can lead to a fight by triggering defensive aggression from the other participant.
    • This can happen between dogs or between humans and dogs. 

Conclusion

 

Dominance goes hand in hand with leadership. It is the human’s job to control resources, initiate and lead activities and keep the peace. 

 

Do you need to constantly “dominate” your dog with brute force? No.

Do you need to rule like an iron fisted Nazi? No. 

Do you need to be a jerk? No. 

 

You do, however, need to be the boss. You can be a really cool boss who everyone would love to work for, but you still need to be the boss. This means controlling resources, including your attention and personal space, and actually having control of your dog. One simple way to get started on this path is to learn about balanced dog training  and maybe take a course on balanced basic obedience training

 

Your responsibility as the leader (dominant partner in the relationship) increases exponentially with every member you add to your pack. This includes adding other dogs, roommates, having children or getting married but, even when it’s just the two of you, it still matters.

 

Thanks for hanging in there! If you actually read the whole thing, then congratulations!  Welcome to the 10% of people who actually read things all the way through. You are an amazing person, a great student and, dogonit, people like you. Well done, Grasshopper

 

Chad Culp, Certified Dog Trainer, Canine Behavior Consultant, Owner of Thriving Canine. 

© Thriving Canine 2022

Please use the links below to follow the whole series for a more complete understanding of the triggers and underlying factors of dog aggression.

Related Topics:

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 1: Tight Leashes

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 2: Hyperactivity and Anxiety 

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 3: Overly Intense Play

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 4: Fear and Anxiety

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 5: Frustration and Agitation

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 6: Obnoxious Submission

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 7: Dominance

Triggers and Underlying Causes of Dog Aggression: Part 8: Misreading Social Cues

 
 

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