Copyright 2000. Dumb
Friends League. All rights reserved.
In order to understand
why your dog is acting "dominant," itís important to know
some things about canine social systems. Animals who live in social
groups, including domestic dogs and wolves, establish a social
structure called a dominance hierarchy within their group. This
hierarchy serves to maintain order, reduce conflict and promote
cooperation among group members. A position within the dominance
hierarchy is established by each member of the group, based on the
outcomes of interactions between themselves and the other pack
members. The more dominant animals can control access to valued items
such as food, den sites and mates. For domestic dogs, valued items
might be food, toys, sleeping or resting places, as well as attention
from their owner.
In order for your home to be a
safe and happy place for pets and people, itís best that the humans
in the household assume the highest positions in the dominance
hierarchy. Most dogs assume a neutral or submissive role toward
people, but some dogs will challenge their owners for dominance. A
dominant dog may stare, bark, growl, snap or even bite when you give
him a command or ask him to give up a toy, treat or resting place.
Sometimes even hugging, petting or grooming can be interpreted as
gestures of dominance and, therefore, provoke a growl or snap because
of the similarity of these actions to behaviors that are displayed by
dominant dogs. Nevertheless, a dominant dog may still be very
affectionate and may even solicit petting and attention from you.
You May Have A Dominance Issue With
Your Dog If:
- He resists obeying commands
that he knows well.
- He wonít move out of your
way when required.
- He nudges your hand, takes
youíre arm in his mouth or insists on being petted or played
with (in other words, ordering you to obey him).
- He defends his food bowl,
toys or other objects from you.
- He growls or bares his
teeth at you under any circumstances.
- He wonít let anyone (you,
the vet, the groomer) give him medication or handle him.
- He gets up on furniture
without permission and wonít get down.
- He snaps at you.
What To Do If You Recognize Signs of
Dominance In Your Adult Dog
If you recognize the
beginning signs of dominance aggression in your dog, you should
immediately consult an animal behavior specialist. If the dog is an
older puppy or adult, and there is any risk of the dog biting you,
then physical punishment may be dangerous. Getting physical with a
dominant dog may cause the dog to intensify his aggression, posing the
risk of injury to you. With a dog that has shown signs of dominance
aggression, you should always take precautions to ensure the safety of
your family and others who may encounter your dog by:
- Avoiding situations that
elicit the aggressive behavior.
- Supervise, confine and/or
restrict your dogís activities as necessary, especially when
children or other pets are present.
- When youíre outdoors with
your dog, use a "Gentle Leader" or muzzle.
- When youíre indoors with
your dog, control access to the entire house by using baby gates
and/or by crating your dog. You can also use a cage-type muzzle,
or a "Gentle Leader" and leash, but only when you can
closely supervise your dog.
Dominance aggression problems
are unlikely to go away without your taking steps to resolve them.
Treatment of dominance aggression problems should always be supervised
by an animal behavior specialist, since dominant aggressive dogs can
be potentially dangerous.
The following techniques
(which donít require a physical confrontation with your dog) can
help you gain some control:
- Spay or neuter your dog to
reduce hormonal contributions to aggression. NOTE: After a mature
animal has been spayed or neutered, it may take time for those
hormones to clear from the system. Also, long-standing behavior
patterns may continue even after the hormones or other causes no
- "Nothing in Life is
Free" is a safe, non-confrontational way to establish your
leadership and requires your dog to work for everything he gets
from you (see our handout: "Nothing
in Life is Free"). Have your dog obey at least one
command (such as "sit") before you pet him, give him
dinner, put on his leash or throw a toy for him. If your dog
doesnít know any commands or doesnít perform them reliably,
youíll first have to teach him, using positive
reinforcement, and practice with him daily. You may need to
seek professional help if your dog is not obeying each time you
ask after two to three weeks of working on a command.
- Donít feed your dog
people food from the table and donít allow begging.
- Donít play "tug of
war," wrestle or play roughly with your dog.
- Ignore barking and jumping
- Donít allow your dog on
the furniture or your bed, as this is a privilege reserved for
leaders. If your dog growls or snaps when you try to remove him
from the furniture, use a treat to lure him off. Otherwise, try to
limit his access to your bed and/or furniture by using baby gates,
a crate, or by closing doors.
- Always remember to reward
- Consult your veterinarian
about acupuncture, massage therapy or drug therapy.
- Obedience classes may be
helpful in establishing a relationship between you and your dog in
which you give commands and he obeys them (be sure to choose a
trainer who uses positive
reinforcement methods). Obedience classes alone, however,
wonít necessarily prevent or reduce dominance aggression.
A Note About Children and Dogs
your dogís point of view, children, too, have a place in the
dominance hierarchy. Because children are smaller and get down on the
dogís level to play, dogs often consider them to be playmates,
rather than superiors. Small children and dogs should not be left
alone together without adult supervision. Older children should be
taught how to play and interact appropriately and safely with dogs;
however, no child should be left alone with a dog who has displayed
signs of aggression.
Why Our Behavior Helpline Canít
While itís sometimes
possible to successfully resolve aggressive behavior problems related
to dominance, this is not a process that can be done by our Behavior
Helpline staff and volunteers. Very detailed questioning in order to
obtain a complete behavioral history, plus direct observation of your
pet in his own environment, is necessary before recommendations to
resolve the problem can be made. Our Behavior Helpline is limited to
telephone assistance (see our handout: "When
the Helpline Canít Help").