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The Prevalence of Dominance – Part 6, Aggression

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Is aggression a sign of a dominant dog?

It is all too easy to see why aggression has been labelled as dominance.  So many of us still believe in the concept of violent wolf packs with its members fighting for a dominant role, that whenever we see any signs of aggression, barking at people or dogs, snarling or even fighting and attacking, we simply label it as a dog feeling the need to challenge for status.  Even now knowing that wolves do not live like this, that they prefer to live peaceably, not in constant tension, we wonder why there are still so many aggressive dogs that come from happy, ‘normal’ homes.  Dominance seems like a fitting explanation.  But is it?  What else could cause aggression?

Fear

When dogs are young - primarily between 0-12 weeks old - they learn through the processes known as habituation and socialisation.  Habituation is essentially learning what is ‘normal’, anything that is not normal later becomes something to be feared.  If your puppy sees something often enough - without anything negative or even particularly positive being associated with it - it becomes normal, something that they can ignore without a problem, like the hoover, washing machine, or car for example. 

Puppies also require socialisation, which is learning to recognise and interact safely and happily with its own and other species.  It is important that this is a positive experience, negative experiences around dogs, humans or other animals can lead to a fear of them, so a wide, varied and positive schedule for socialisation must begin as early as possible in a puppy’s life.

Puppies who have not been habituated to a wide variety of objects, situations and circumstances, or positively socialised with lots of people, dogs and other animals will very likely become fearful of the things that they have not seen, or the animals they have not met.  There have been plenty of studies demonstrating just how important early socialisation and habituation is for dogs, a succinct outline of some of the key studies can be found in this article by the APBC.  

When dogs mature, they can develop new fears of people, animals and objects by associating these things with bad experiences.  This could be obvious, such as a dog being hurt by a car door, or a child standing on its tail, or the groomer plucking its ear hair, a necessary but rarely comfortable experience - the dog then develops a fear of going into the car, of being around children, or of going to the groomers.  Occasionally these negative associations may develop in a much less obvious manner, perhaps your dog wants to play with other dogs it sees when being walked on the lead.  It pulls towards them and you yank on the lead to get his attention.  With repetition the dog associates the other dogs with pain from the leash tug and develops a fear of seeing other dogs. 

When dogs are fearful of something, this can manifest in a variety of ways, but ultimately, if the dog is forced to get too close to its fear, it will manifest in fight or flight.  Whether it elects to fight or flee is largely due to its genetic make-up and experiences to date, but if it has learnt that fleeing does not work, or isn’t an option (perhaps it is confined to a room, or on the leash) then it will likely fight.  This may start as just a bark, snarl, snap or growl.  If the object of its fear acknowledges this and it backs off, the dog learns that this works and uses this again next time.  If it doesn’t back away, the dog may escalate its behaviour, lunging, biting and fighting.  Next time, it might skip the warning bark or growl and go straight into a fight.  This is why modern dog trainers never punish the warning signals, or ignore them and try to push past them.  These signals are the dog telling us they are close to their threshold.  We move the dog away from the object of its fear, so it learns that we understand and that it doesn’t need to resort to a ‘full on fight’ to get away from its fear.

When dealing with fear related aggression, it is important to understand that although the dog may look ‘dominant’ and imposing, it is just an outward expression of a dog’s inner emotional state, which is fearful.  If you’ve read my earlier blog on Fear of Spiders, you may recall that when a dog is reacting to its fear, there is no reason in the dog’s mind, it is lacking in control and reacting impulsively.  Punishing this will not help, in fact, it will increase the fear.  The dog is proven right, that thing is scary, it lead to it being hurt or chastised – which may lead to it reacting faster and more aggressively in future and it may begin to associate other things with its fear, such you, a precarious situation to be in.  Ignoring it, or trying to push the dog to confront it’s fear will result in warning signals being skipped and the dog jumping straight to aggression  - “hey, that didn’t work last time, but this did, I’ll just go straight to biting”.  

The only way to deal with fear related aggression is management, avoiding the things that make a dog fearful and ensuring that you, your dog and anyone else is safe, until you have effectively counter conditioned the fear (taught your dog that the thing it is scared of is actually something really great) or taught it a safe alternative way to deal with its fear – this is known as behaviour adjustment therapy (BAT).  This is not an easy process, it takes time and the ability to read your dog to ensure you keep your dog under threshold.  That is, not so close to the object that it has the chance to become scared of it again and lose control, and building up to close proximity over time and at the dogs own pace.  There are a number of excellent manuals that you can buy to help with this, but it is always worth consulting a professional for help with these issues if you are unsure – dealing with aggression isn’t easy and can be dangerous.

Resource Guarding

Dogs may guard food, toys, people or locations from other dogs, animals or people.  As we dealt with dogs resource guarding from people in my last blog, this section is just on dogs guarding resources from other dogs.  Resource guarding is a natural action for dogs (and many animals).  The guarding may manifest as simply blocking another dog from getting close to its resource, or a growl, snarl or even fight or bite to prevent another dog from taking the object it wants.  It can be easy to see this as evidence of dominance, the dog is warning off other dogs from its resource.  However, studies into this behaviour have shown that there is rarely one dog that controls all resources, this is often localised to a handful of resources that it values most.  If this was an example of a dog asserting its dominance over others, it would stand that they would try to control all resources, not just a few. 

I have seen dogs happily sit next to other dogs taking food from my hand, play with other dogs out on walks, play tug with other dogs with a toy but then fight over a scrap of food on the ground.  There are a variety of reasons for this behaviour occurring, but perhaps surprisingly, the underlying cause is still fear.  Fear of losing the object.  There are a variety of methods that can be used to effectively deal with this (mostly rooted in counter conditioning or BAT), but using dominance training techniques is not one of them!  Using dominance techniques will just increase the fear and may even make the dog fearful of humans being close to it when it has a valued resource.  Not good!

Frustration

Dogs can also become aggressive through frustration.  An example of this could be a dog that is not given enough exercise, but left to run free in a big garden all day.  When it sees other people and dogs, it wants to say hello and play, but it can’t, so it becomes increasingly frustrated.  This feeling is not a positive one, so the dog begins to associate other people and dogs with this unhappy feeling and it becomes aggressive towards them in an attempt to not feel frustrated.

It may be easy to see this as dominance (it doesn’t want another dog/human in ‘his space’) but trying to use dominance training techniques will again just risk your dog becoming more frustrated (and even scared) or other people and fearful of you.  A schedule of increased exercise and the opportunity to socialise with other dogs and people should help to deal with the underlying frustration, assuming that the dog has not generalised its frustration to areas outside of the home or garden, but a programme of counter conditioning may also be needed to address the now ingrained behaviour of aggressing people or dogs close to the dogs own home. 

Other Reasons for Aggression

There a few other reasons for a dog becoming aggressive.  Illness, injury and pain can lead to a dog displaying aggression – it is always worth asking your vet to check your dog over if your dog has suddenly started to exhibit aggressive behaviours for no reason (warn the vet first!).  Dogs can be provoked into aggression by people or children hurting them, teasing them or violating their space.  For this reason dogs and children should always be supervised by an adult when they are together.

There is also some evidence of the existence of Rage Syndrome (also known as Sudden Onset Aggression or SOA) which is characterised by a dog displaying inexplicable bursts of aggression.  Sadly little is known about the condition, as dogs diagnosed with this are frequently euthanized due to the unpredictable nature of the aggression, however true SOA is extremely rare and a full case history often shows an underlying cause for the aggression.  SOA can only be diagnosed by a vet or qualified behaviourist.

So is there any room for the dominance theory in explaining aggression?  I don’t think so, what about you?

If you and your dog are suffering with aggression issues, then please don’t suffer in silence, speak to your vet who may be able to refer you to an experienced and qualified behaviourist on your insurance, or contact a trainer experienced in working with aggressive dogs who only uses positive training and conditioning techniques. 

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