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Dominance Aggression in Dogs

Domestic dogs are descendants of a common wolf-like ancestor. Many physical and behavioral similarities persist between dogs and modern wolves. The wolf pack is a well-organized society of individuals that cooperate in hunting for food, defending their territory and rearing the young. A hierarchy of individuals is formed as pack members challenge each other for positions of relative authority. This social order is determined by each individual's motivation to assert itself at certain moments or in certain situations. Pack members test each other's ability and determination from a very young age, beginning in the form of play between littermates. Individuals within a group challenge each other to determine their relative social rank. Dominance is a relative term, implying that an animal is dominant over another more submissive individual. There are advantages to being dominant, but there are risks as well. For example, dominant animals have more responsibility and risk than others in coordinating the hunt. They are also continually challenged by subordinates seeking to oust them. Conflicts between significant rivals may result in serious injury. Dogs probably perceive human families as the equivalent of their ancestral pack. This is valuable, for example, in applying a dog's pack loyalty and territorial nature to the defense of our families and homes; however, it can cause problems when a dog assumes an inappropriate position of leadership in the human family. A dominant dog can become aggressive toward family members that, intentionally or not, challenge its position. As much as we love our dogs, we must remember that they are dogs and not human beings. Your kindness and tolerance may be perceived by a socially ambitious dog as a sign of weakness and, therefore, a chance to promote its own social rank. This does not mean that you should remain cold and stern, but rather you should be aware of how to interact with your dog. Your actions affect yourdog's reaction and your response to your dogs behavior determines whether that behavior will be repeated.

One of the ways that a dog asserts its dominance is to assume a physically superior position over a subordinate. The dog attempts to become "top dog." Mounting is among the more obvious dominant positions. The front paws clasp (or the dog may stand over) another dog, arching its back, accompanied by rhythmic pelvic thrusts of variable intensity. Some owners find this humorous. By tolerating it, they encourage it. The dog views this as confirmation of its dominant status. Many owners mistake mounting for sexual behavior. Perhaps the best way to distinguish between mounting motivated by social dominance and mounting motivated by reproductive drive is to consider the circumstances. Is the mounting dog sexually intact (not neutered)? Is it a mature male or female? Is it a puppy? Is the dog mounting a human being or another dog? If it is a dog, is she a female in heat?
Unless the animal being mounted is a female in heat, the mounting is probably a display of dominance. Because dogs interact with people as they would with other dogs, mounting can be directed toward people and often has the same significance. If your dog mounts an object (for example, a pillow), the underlying motivation most likely is redirected sexual behavior.

Signs of Dominance
Puppies in a litter often show mounting behavior. As they wrestle and roll during play, puppies learn which among them is strongest. By playing tug of war with a variety of objects, for example, pups test each other's stamina and determination. By the time they are weaned and adopted by human families, puppies have already practiced the basic skills necessary to manipulate the beings around them to their own advantage. A puppy that jumps up in greeting or during play may be perceived by its owners as enthusiastic and affectionate. The puppy, however, may be testing your willingness to submit to its expressions of dominance. Other behavior can also indicate dominance. For example, you may think that placing a paw in your lap is a friendly gesture. Indeed, a paw in your lap may be a submissive dog's attempt to attract attention or seek reassurance. However, your tolerance of this may encourage a dominant puppy or adult dog to place both paws in your lap and stand over you in a truly challenging and threatening position. Another subtle way in which dogs display dominance is by reluctance to assume physical positions of submission. This is seen as hesitation to obey your command to "sit" and is most obvious as resistance to the "down" command. A dog may lock its elbows to avoid contact with the ground, squirm away from you, and even pull at the leash with its mouth, all to challenge your dominance. Yawning or grooming in apparently inappropriate circumstances often indicates that the dog is undecided on submitting or asserting itself. These should be interpreted as a sign of anxiety, and you should assert your dominance firmly but gently.

Regaining Control
Owners must be aware of the hidden meaning of subtle dominant behavior, even in the form of play, in dogs of any age. Games that encourage excited and uncontrolled behavior often lead to objectionable agitation in juvenile and adult dogs, increasing the chances of an aggressive outburst. Tug of war, chasing, wrestling, and any interaction that teaches a dog any form of aggression toward people should be avoided. It is unacceptable to teach a pet to behave aggressively toward people or to encourage it to think this is fun. Alternative activities should include controlled play that applies obedience skills. The game of retrieving objects ("fetch"), for example, is a good opportunity to assert your dominance and to command obedience. Give the command to "come" as the dog returns to you, then "sit" and "stay" after the dog returns to you. To teach it to release the object on command, gently pry the object from its mouth and say "drop it" or "let go." From an early age, dogs should be taught to assume submissive positions in the presence of any human being. Your dog should learn to greet you, any visitor to your home, or acquaintances you may meet during walks by assuming a calm and controlled "sit" and "stay" position. To a dog, your tolerance of pawing, jumping up, and sitting on or above the same physical plane as you indicates your surrender to a subordinate role. If your dog is showing signs of dominance behavior toward you, reinforce submissive positions whenever possible throughout the day. The dog should "sit" for its food or a treat, to have its leash put on or taken off, to go in or out of the house, and to greet anyone at the door. It is best if your dog does not sit or lie on the furniture with you, but should instead remain at your feet. Do not allow your dog to sleep in bed with you, at least until you regain control. Should you decide to permit this again (some owners find this hard to give up!), it must be on your terms. Teach your dog to jump on or off the bed on command, assuming a "sit/stay" position at your feet before doing so. Dogs use eye contact to assess each other's temperament and motivation before actual physical contact. The higher-ranking dog makes eye contact sooner and holds it longer. The subordinate is slower to meet the other's gaze and looks away more readily, avoiding direct eye contact. This interaction is usually very quick but very informative. If direct eye contact becomes a staring match, signaling that neither dog relinquishes social rank, the challenge may instigate a fight for dominance. A dominantly aggressive dog may perceive prolonged eye contact with a person as a direct threat, triggering aggressive warnings (lip curling or growling are the most obvious) and possibly an attack. The best way to guarantee an attack is to unwisely persist in your challenge. If this happens to you, avert your gaze just to the dog's side and then slowly back away. Dominant dogs frequently resent being petted, or brushed on the top of their head, neck and over the length of their back. This closely mimics another subtle form of asserting dominance by placement of a dog's head or paw over the neck or back of another dog. This is a clear challenge to a dog that is strongly motivated to achieve dominant rank or to one that has already attained it. In this situation, there may be little or no warning of an impending bite. If the dog has a history of biting or has already attained an inappropriately superior social position, proceed with retraining gently and firmly, but cautiously. During the early stages of working with a very dominant dog, avoid prolonged eye contact because this may be seen as an offense. Avoid direct confrontation if your dog seems at all aggressive. It is not worth risking your injury by directly challenging an assertive dog. Instead, motivate the dog to accept submissive postures with food or during acceptable forms of play. Send your dog a subtle message of your leadership by preceding it into your home or into a room. If your dog resists you, enlist the help of another family member or friend. "Outnumbering" your dog with more than one person reinforces your dominant position. Use your dog's desire for social acceptance and attention to your advantage. Make your dog earn your attention by obeying your commands.