Back to Behaviour

Dominance Aggression

By Cat Cino  Professional Dog Trainer - Cat & Jack K9 Safety

There are a few things to consider before you adopt or purchase a new dog. If you are looking at a larger breed like the Golden Retriever, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Can you meet his or her need for exercise?
  • Do you mind excessive shedding?
  • Are you ready for a loaf of bread or pound of butter to go missing off the kitchen counter? 

These are just some of the future worries that lie ahead for you when you live with a blonde bombshell. But nowhere in all the printed matter will you be warned of potential aggression. Actually there are many who will argue that it is genetically impossible for a Goldie to be aggressive. Unfortunately, this is not true. We have seen a dramatic increase in all types of aggression with this breed. Although many display resource guarding, dog-to-dog fighting and even fearful aggression have been heard of more recently – so much so that some are being labeled with dominance aggression.

If you were to Google dominance and aggression, you will find a variety of sites. Unfortunately, many of them totally contradict one another. This is the contributing factor to why pet owners cannot correctly identify the type of aggression they’re dealing with … never mind trying to resolve it. This amount of conflicting information is so problematic that it has actually become a bigger part of the problem. For many of my clients who are dealing with unwanted canine aggression, their numerous attempts not only on-line but with other professionals has magnified the original problem. There is no magic formula to fix a deep rooted emotional response like aggression. Although my own tag line reads, “Simple solutions for difficult dogs” don’t misinterpret it to mean I give the same simple answer for every dog.  A proper evaluation, which includes looking at the dog’s inherent traits and temperament, is the first order of business. The professional should take a detailed history of both health and behaviour. Then the relationship between each family member and the dog should be clarified. At this point, they should be able to give you a comprehensive outlook on who your dog is and what type of aggression he is displaying.

A dog that is naturally dominant will appear confident and stable.

If you have been told that your dog is dominant, let me define it.  First of all, it is not evil and doesn’t always lead to aggression! A dog that is naturally dominant will appear confident and stable. He will respond to new situations with curiosity and intellect. He will not be fearful or panicky, regardless of his age. This dog will often be relaxed amongst a group of dogs and will even receive more attention than he gives. This dog will not pick fights, alarm bark or even mount those around him as that is an unnecessary waste of energy. He doesn’t have to try and prove his position as he is confident in where he stands. In fact he will only respond if his pack is threatened or his authority is challenged. This dog will even allow a lower ranking member to reprimand him as he does not take their disrespect seriously.  If your dog does not fit this description of a naturally dominant dog, be thankful because you are not dealing with true dominance aggression. You might be experiencing pushy, demanding, and nasty behaviour but they do not add up to a top dog. It is more likely a dog struggling to climb his way up the perpetual ladder rather than one defending it.

At this point, it is essential to establish solid rules without conflict or injury. Let’s say your dog repeatedly mounts your leg, grabs your clothing or tugs the leash during walks. But it only happens at specific intersections or as you pass other dogs on the street. This is frustrating to both you and your dog. He is trying to communicate his wishes without avail. You are in the same boat. Now the struggle begins and the behaviour increases. Soon you are either giving up on walks or overcorrecting his behaviour. At no time have you respected each others wishes. I must say frustration has to be one of the biggest instigators for aggression, on both your parts. In order to fix this problem, you must first figure out what he wants. Some dogs don’t want to continue the walk, some don’t want it to end, and some don’t want to miss out on a play session with a dog you just passed. Just because you do or don’t want something doesn’t mean you’re dominant. The underlying reason could be you’re tired, playful or even frightened of what’s going on around you. Can you imagine what your dog thinks of you, if he is reacting fearfully and you give him heck!

Aggression on the other hand is not who the dog is but the way he reacts. There are many reasons for aggression (i.e. fearful, possessive, territorial, defensive, gender specific, and dominance aggression). These various types are best described as the motivation behind the aggressive act and the act comes in many forms. It can vary from a subtle warning to a full blown violent bloody attack. It is important to note that although aggression manifests itself in many ways, varying from a posture to a snarl, bark, lunge, snap or bite. The primary motive needs to be identified and eliminated in order to actually eliminate the aggression. It is a common error to correct the aggression rather than the cause.

A very handsome, male Golden named George (name changed to protect the innocent) was barely two years old and had already been a hardcore criminal. He had been through a couple of trainers and labeled a dominant dog.  How typical that the only course of action suggested was to de-rank him with heavy obedience and the Nothing in Life for Free technique. Unfortunately after many months of hard time labour, the dog violently attacked his owner. I must interject here and describe this family followed the directions of professionals and did absolutely nothing wrong. The sad part is that at no time was the dog’s poor health and undiagnosed illness a focus of the trainers. It was more than a contributing factor and may have actually been the cause of the dog’s initial intolerance. George had learned to mistrust his owners and become obligated to use force in order to be understood. George’s story sadly ended last month. In honour of this dog and the family that tried everything, please be careful of the often misdiagnosed DOMINANT title. 

A dog with dominance aggression is a rare but serious concern. He may not attack often but when he does it is very dangerous. All types of aggression must be properly understood before they are to be treated. It is a shame that so often defensive aggression is misdiagnosed as dominance. Sadly it is dogs like George who pay the price. There are some telltale signs that your dog is probably not dominant. They include but are not limited to: avoidance, destructive chewing, incessant grooming, hair loss, lethargy, hypersensitivity, and attention seeking approval. Although it is possible for one or more of these traits to be present in a dominant natured dog, it is more unlikely to occur. Hopefully I have cleared the muddy waters that are aggressive behaviour. If you should experience it, please seek the help of a qualified professional.