Have you noticed that your dog aggressively guards their food when you come close? Perhaps they shove you aside to enter a doorway first, or growl or nip at you or other canines. These can be indicators of “dominant aggression” behavior, which could have appeared when your dog was just a puppy or not developed until your dog matured. Different breeds are often associated with aggressive behaviors; Pit Bulls, Rottweilers, and German Shepherds are thought to be more aggressive around both humans and other dogs.But what is dominant behavior? How does your dog learn to be dominant? Is it hereditary and unstoppable, or something that can be trained? Let’s talk about that.
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The Root of the Behavior
The “dominance theory” was first proposed by Swiss animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, who studied a group of captive wolves in the 1930’s and 40’s and assumed that their method of the hierarchical establishment could be extrapolated to wild wolves and, therefore, could also be used to define your dog’s behavior. However, more recent studies have debunked this idea, instead citing specific living situations and selective breeding as potential reasons why your dog may exhibit more dominant behavior.
For example, dogs who are “spoiled,” or given too much leeway at home, may begin to exhibit aggressive, dominant behavior, because they’ve been given the run of your home and don’t like being told no! We know it’s hard not to spoil your favorite canine but proper training (using positive reinforcement) can be a great way to head off dominant behavior before it ever becomes a problem.
It’s also important to research your dog’s breed and if you’re purchasing your dog, your breeder. Because aggressive or dominant tendencies can be bred into animals, making sure you can handle a more naturally dominant breed is important. Rarely, dog dominance and aggression behaviors can be a sign of a medical issue, such as a thyroid imbalance or a negative reaction to a new food. If your dog suddenly develops dominant behaviors without any prior indication, you might want to take them to the vet. Better safe than sorry!
In general, it’s important to remember that many dogs who are exhibiting aggressive or dominant behavior aren’t actually trying to prove they’re the “alpha” over you. Humans and dogs are two different species - your dog doesn’t expect you to behave just like them! It’s far more likely that they’re either pushing boundaries to see exactly what they can get away with, or that they’re seeking a feeling of safety and comfort due to a feeling of insecurity (like if you’ve introduced a new dog into a household with an established canine presence or even a larger family). Most dominant or aggressive behaviors can be handled with gentleness, reassurance, and proper training!
Encouraging the Behavior
Dominant behavior in animals is not necessarily bad, but it should be something you work to control. Nearly all vets, dog trainers, and handlers promote the use of positive reinforcement training, which differs drastically from the Cesar Millan “alpha dog” training that was popular throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Reinforcing the behaviors that you want to see from your dog while ignoring the behaviors you dislike, so as to not provide accidental attention or recognition of that behavior, can go a long way towards diffusing a dog’s dominant behaviors.
The AVSAB (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior) has also come out against the aggressive-submissive style of training, saying that owners should strive for leadership by showing a good example. After all, the reasons that wild animals may exhibit dominant or aggressive behaviors such as food shortages or control of mating, aren’t issues that domesticated dogs face in your home. It’s also key to remember that some totally natural dog behaviors are attributed to “dominance” when they’re simply how your dog interacts with the world. Behaviors like begging for food, jumping up on high places, or even trying to tackle you when you walk in the door may not be aggressive. It’s more likely that your dog loves you and is trying to show their interest in everything you’re doing! Taking your dog to a training class can be helpful to both you and your pup, letting you learn the difference between actual dominant behaviors and normal, expected dog behavior while reinforcing the positive habits you want your favorite pet to learn.
Other Solutions and Considerations
It’s very important to remember that some breeds or specific animals will have higher natural tendencies towards aggressive or dominant behavior, but that doesn’t mean that your animal is “uncontrollable” or doesn’t have the potential to be a great fit for your home. Dogs respond very well to positive reinforcement training and can develop a high level of trust with their owners; establishing that trust and reinforcing it can help you mitigate aggressive behavior or keep it controlled to specific circumstances (for example, if you’re wanting a guard dog, you can keep dominant behavior displays limited to a specific command). If proper training doesn’t seem to be reducing the dominant behavior, or the aggression started without provocation or prior indication, remember to take your dog to the vet to rule out a medical reason for the behavior. Sometimes, unusual behavior is the only way your dog can tell you that something’s wrong.
It’s important to remember that dogs aren’t people, and the ways they communicate are very different than the ways we do - even if they act like they understand our every word. Establishing a “language” between you and your dog that helps them understand what’s expected of them and what they can do on a daily basis can help calm dominant behavior and provide your pet with a sense of calm and safety. And that’s all we want for our favorite friends!