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CANINE BEHAVIOR Dominance Aggression
(Revised July 23, 2007)

[This information is intended to be of practical information to dog owners, veterinarians, shelters, rescue organizations, foster homes and new adoption members. It is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of the field of Animal Behavior, nor to simply represent a small portion of the complete research that has been done in Behavioral Medicine. The focus of this article is for information and educational purposes only and to share this information with other animal caretakers, owners and concerned individuals with a possible dominance aggression problem.]

Before discussing dominance aggression, a brief note on the concept of dominance would be very useful here. Dominance is a concept that pertains to a dog's ability to maintain or regulate access to some resource. It is a description of the process of winning or losing staged contests over those resources. Dominance is not to be confused with STATUS. It is important to realize that it is not defined as aggression on the part of the "dominant" animal but rather as the withdrawal of the "subordinate" animal. The behavior of the lower status animals, not the higher ranking one, is what determines the RANK. Truly high ranking animals are tolerant of lower ranking ones. Dominance displays rarely lead to actual combat. Instead, combat begins when they are not effective.
Although dominance is a concept that must be cautiously used (and the term is grossly misused), it is not the same as dominance aggression. Dominance aggression is an abnormal, inappropriate, out of context aggression that is manifested by dogs towards people and/or towards their "canine family" when the "resource" is "access" to control.


SIGNALMENT: Dogs affected are young adult (1 3 years) purebred males. It can is found sometimes also in females and purebred mixes. This aggression can be found in all breeds but the most common breeds to date are the English Springer Spaniel (severe problem in this breed), the Cocker Spaniel, the Golden Retriever, the Lhasa Apso and the Poodle. This is the most commonly diagnosed (and misdiagnosed) behavior problem in canines to date.

DESCRIPTION OF CANINE BEHAVIOR THAT IS PART OF DOMINANCE AGGRESSION: The affected dog may growl, snarl, snap or bite, usually directed at family members. The dog may: push on people, place paws/head on people's shoulders, head or back, straddle people with or without mounting, block access particularly in doorways, block correctional possibilities (holding the leash or the person's wrist), stare at people *particularly if accompanied by pupil dilation, talk back, lean on people's feet/legs, particularly with paws or
back, "bill pops" (the smacking together of the upper and lower jaws or lips combined with one lick of one side of the mouth) when asked to comply, snorting when asked to comply, stamping the feet when asked to comply. (IMPORTANT NOTE: With the absence of growling, snarling, snapping or biting, all of the other behaviors listed above can be "dominance" without accompanying aggression.)
The dog affected maintains dominance "hierarchy" (authority) within the family. It can assume a wide range of manifestations; from growling (warning good) to multiple bite attacks with no warning (no warning bad). Many times the affected dog will have a "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde" attitude or glazed expression afterwards. It does have genetic confirmation but the mode of inheritance is still unclear. It is definitely found in "family lines" and you can see siblings of the same litter affected as well.

HUMAN BEHAVIORS THAT MAY ELICIT BEHAVIORS THAT ARE PART OF DOMINANCE AGGRESSION: The affected dog responds to some or all of these dominant gestures or postures from people: staring at the dog; toweling head, neck, back; toweling or handling of the feet (excluding having toenails cut "fear"); leaning on, or pushing on back, neck or head; handling head; reaching over head (including putting on leash); pushing on rump; stepping over dog; disturbing while resting or sleeping; pushing from bed or sofa; verbal corrections; leash corrections; and any physical punishment including alpha rolls and dominance downs.

Responses can be when critical (scarce) resources are defended, such as food, toys or objects; mate, "favorite person" or a specific item is approached; and/or when a family member leaves the room. petting (especially the head area), hugging or kissing, bending over the affected dog; and restraints.

HISTORY: Dominance aggression is the most complex of all the aggressions and warrants further study. It is associated with PEOPLE and/or THE DOG'S CANINE "FAMILY", and is only then called dominance aggression, and always has an underlying anxiety. A dog with this problem feels their only default is to either take control or test our social environment. Dominance aggressive dogs choose to take control, out of absolute survival. It is underappreciated that a dog can be dominant without being dominantly aggressive.

PROGNOSIS FOR TREATMENT: VERY POOR TO FAIR One cannot "cure" or guarantee there will be no more of this type aggression. The prognosis has many variables. It also depends on what the owners are willing to live with. The prognosis is VERY POOR if babies, toddlers, or infirm elderly live in the household. The prognosis is VERY POOR if ANY attack is unpredictable or without warning. The prognosis is a little better or possibly FAIR if the dogs growls or "warns" prior to an attack. The prognosis is also a little better (FAIR) if there is a slow escalation of the above signs and it is caught early. Dogs with this illness make poor "rescue" candidates and should never be "passed on" to new owners or put in shelters. Owners of a dog with true clinical dominance aggression must work on a counter conditioning or behavior modification program for the life of the dog, and again, this aggression can never be cured. It is a true mental illness and is never the dog's fault and never the owner's fault. Dogs displaying this type behavior should never be bred.

TREATMENT: Castration (or spaying), intensive owner education and counseling, avoidance of eliciting aggression such as: no physical punishment, Identify stimuli carefully; desensitization and counterconditioning for the life of the dog. In avoiding this aggression, their should be no physical punishment (worsens aggression), do not disturb while sleeping or resting, no rough play or contact mouth games*fetch or retrieve only*no tug of war and no roughhousing. These affected dogs' owners or trainers should never use "alpha rolls". The owners must change their lifestyle so that the owner assumes dominance and the dog assumes subordinance by: using a sit stay program, a "no free petting" program, using a Halter or Promise type collar (in the home and outside), frequently using 30 minute downs, and participating in a variety of "food games." A leash or tab should be on the dog at all times(if Promise type collar is not used), even in the house. A basket muzzle should be used when necessary. The dog should be desensitized to known stimuli, the dog should never be allowed up on the furniture or on laps, should never be allowed to jump up or sleep in bed with the owners or family members. A low protein diet (20% or less) is highly recommended. In 70% of milder cases (those given a fair prognosis), certain anti anxiety drugs (Serotonin base) can be used for the beginning of the modification program such as (my choice in this order: [Elavil] Amatriptamine, Paxil and Prozac; with remarkable results. (The choice of drug is critical*you remove any fear using something like valium*you remove the fear from a dominant aggressive dog and the results can be serious.) This is to be decided between owner, rescue organization and vet!

SUMMARY: Dominance aggressive dogs can be split into two categories*(1) Truly dominant dogs that must control environment; no anxiety about position; "master of the universe" type attitude; and potentially very aggressive. (2) Dogs that are uncertain of their role in the hierarchy; using dominance challenges to test the system and obtain information; and potentially dangerous but treatable under special circumstances (treatable*not curable). Aggressive dogs more frequently have abnormal metabolic screens (in the absence of any metabolic disease) in relation to normal dogs. Excessive Glutamine and Taurine (excitatory neurotransmitters) can be found and it is interesting that Glutamine excess has been reported in humans with aggression problems. (Further research should be done in this area, since many puppies with excess Glutamine later develop dominance aggression!)
Euthanasia is always recommended when there are babies, toddlers or elderly at risk; if the owners will not tolerate even reduced risk (i.e., will always be present), if the dog is not predictable or does not "warn", if their is even one severe episode or any multiple bite attack (rage).

FINAL AND PERSONAL NOTE: Dominance Aggression*this terrible mental illness*is the most difficult of all aggressions for Rescue Organizations to deal with. Many times, the organization finds a perfect adoption candidate in a shelter or being given up by a family, and the family is not honest with the organization. Of course the shelter caretakers are not informed as to the animal having any aggression, for fear it will be put to sleep immediately. A dog with dominance aggression is usually a perfect dog while amongst strangers. It is not until the dog has been in a home (foster or permanent) for 2 4 weeks that this form of aggression begins to rear its ugly head. On occasion, it may not appear for months. When this form of aggression does begin to appear, and the calls come in from the confused family, once a determination has been made that the diagnosis is possibly or probably dominance aggression, there is little recourse but to put the affected animal to sleep.
The best counseling I personally can give to a family that might be dealing with this problem is to educate themselves with the above information, and be honest when reading the "Signalment" section * is your dog displaying some or all of the signals or symptoms of dominance aggression? It cannot be explained away. This aggression would occur no matter who raised the dog * no matter what the diet was given * no matter what training was applied. Again, it is NO ONE'S FAULT. But what now must be determined is your own family's lifestyle and protection. Do you want to live with a dog that can mar or even kill * with no warning? Try, as you will, you can not change a dog with true dominance aggression. Another piece of information is that when this disease escalates (gets worse)*the dog itself becomes unhappy. The family must understand this. So when you are trying to make the decision as to what to do, please remember all of the above.

For additional information or assistance, please feel free to contact me. Acknowledgements to material from the Sixth International Conference on Human Animal Interactions in Montreal; On Talking Terms With Dogs by Turid Rugaas; The Perfect Puppy by Hart and Hart; Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals by Karen Overall and Cornell University's School of Continuing Education "Solving Canine Behavior Problems".

Patti Conroy, Animal Behavioral Consultant and
Advisor to Peppertree Rescue, Inc.
Breeder/Exhibitor of Golden Retrievers and
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
236 Forts Ferry Road
Latham, NY 12110
Tel: (518) 608 4057
Certified 1996, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY

This page was last modified at 14:05:35 on 05/30/2014.