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Canine Behaviour – Misunderstandings about Dominance – Living with Aggression

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Dog Behaviour – Article: 1

Living with aggression

Overview of the article:

Suggested solutions based on the science of Applied Animal Behaviour covering aggression (types of aggression) and misunderstandings about dominance (the vast majority of dog owners have been misinformed regarding dominance).  Here we explain how hierarchies develop naturally and how to identify what type of aggression is being displayed.  All of this will help you to resolve the problem or what questions to ask to assess an Animal Behaviour expert and then choose the right one.  This is a brief article – for a fuller understanding of Canine Behaviour we suggest the Canine Behaviour Qualification Course.  See the end of the article for the link to the prospectus.



National statistics show that one of the commonest reasons owners ask an Animal Behaviourist for help is because their dog is exhibiting aggression either towards them or to other dogs. Often owners have tried their utmost to sort out the problem themselves or have sought advice from the local dog trainer. In over 90% of the cases we see at the Natural Animal Centre, either the owner or the dog trainer has assumed that: the dog has a “dominance” problem and he is showing aggressive tendencies because he no longer “knows his place”. This is a statement which is not supported by the Applied Science of Animal Behaviour at all.

 Dominance reduction programmes  are not based on

Animal Behaviour Science. They are at best unethical methods and

at their worst create serious welfare issues for the dog.



Unfortunately for the dog, the “dominance” label is often incorrect. Dogs have a number of communication signals at their disposal to indicate aggression. Canine Behaviourists recognise that dogs have phases of aggression with the first phase being a stare and the ultimate phase, the bite (we cover this in more detail on the Canine Behaviour Course). For many dogs, by the time they actually bite someone, it is because they have exhausted all their natural Canine Behaviour options to avoid an aggressive encounter by showing phases of increasing aggression (for example, raising their hackles, curling up their lips, holding a tight mouth position and so on). Each time the owner ignores a signal, the dog goes up a gear, as it were, in a type of warning system.

 It is rare to find a healthy dog that bites for no reason. Most owners that claim the dog “suddenly” turned on them, have been ignoring the dog’s earlier communication signals biologically designed to let us know that the dog feels threatened. One needs an understanding of natural Canine Behaviour to recognise the phases of warning signals – there at least 22 phases of aggression which precede biting … more on the Canine Behaviour Qualification course – see the end of the article for links to this and weekend courses for dog owners.

 Why a dog chooses to bite or not is all down to motivation and we can use the science of Applied Canine Behaviour to create an understanding of the whole process. For example, a bitch with puppies that bares her teeth at her owner is in all likelihood showing what Canine Behaviourists call maternal aggression. What is motivating the bitch here is nothing to do with dominance but a fear of either someone coming too close to the puppies or even to someone taking one away. To put a dog like this through “dominance reduction” training is very likely to increase both her fear of people and may even exacerbate the aggression.

If you have not heard of dominance reduction training, then typical examples include things such as never letting the dog go ahead of the owner through a doorway, always making the dog get up instead of you stepping over it, even bizarrely, suggestions to sit in the dog’s bed occasionally to show him who is “boss”. All of these suggestions are clearly distortions of the Science of Canine Behaviour. Over the years forceful trainers have sought to justify harsh methods by distorting true Canine Behaviour and using then misquoting it to justify actions which owners would never have otherwise even considered applying.

Outside of “dominance aggression”, Animal Behaviourists have identified a number of types of aggression, all of which reflect the motivation (ie the reason) for the aggression. Here are just some of these.  Note this is not the complete list – for more detail on aggression and how to remedy it consider the Canine Behaviour Qualification Course – the link for a free prospectus is at the end of this article or there are weekend courses for dog owners as well:


Type of Aggression(Animal Behaviour – the science) What is motivating the dog to display this type of aggression / Canine Behaviour pattern? 
Canine Behaviour: Fear Aggression Fear of being groomed, cars, men etc
Canine Behaviour: Pain Aggression Fear of being examined by vet due to previous bad, painful experience
Canine Behaviour: Predatory Aggression Ritualised stalking, chasing and even killing of vulnerable prey animals, like sheep, chickens or rabbits
Canine Behaviour: Redirected Aggression Unable to act out aggression towards preferred object, the dog displays aggression to an alternative, eg frustrated dog bites owner because he is on a lead and not able to interact with strange dog.
Canine Behaviour: Territorial Aggression Guarding behaviour that is motivated by fear
Canine Behaviour: Possessive Aggression Guarding behaviour of toys, food bowl, bone etc motivated by fear of losing precious item
Canine Behaviour: Maternal Aggression Guarding behaviour of puppies motivated by fear of losing puppies


So why is it that many dog trainers (not so, for the qualified Animal Behaviourist) are so quick to resort to resort to the “dominance” label when faced with an aggressive dog rather than look to the science of Animal Behaviour?  Clearly, looking at the Table of Aggression usually helps most people recognise that their dog may be motivated by one of the other types and that calling the Dog Behaviour ‘aggressive’ is too simplistic an approach.  Studies have also shown that dogs that are being treated for fear aggression (say, fear of men with beards for example) are very often suffering from territorial and possessive aggression as well.  So the applied Science of Canine Behaviour predicts that if one type of aggression is diagnosed there are likely to be other types as well – more on the Canine Behaviour Qualification Course.


Making assumptions that the dog will not give up his ball to you because he is showing ‘dominance’ is dangerous, not least because putting him under pressure may make him escalate his aggression and you may get bitten.  Animal Behaviour research shows that fear aggressive dogs are often the ones most likely to take action when they feel most cornered.

Understanding what is driving Canine Behaviour is thus critical to getting a solution. Applying the wrong Animal Behaviour modification technique to the wrongly diagnosed type of aggression could end up with an owner giving up on the dog because there is no improvement in the Dog Behaviour.  Lack of accurate information about true Dog Behaviour is one of the main reasons that misinterpretation of dog aggression arises.  Whilst there are literally hundreds of books available on dog training techniques, barely a handful are reliable sources of what motivates dogs to behave in the way they do: IE Applied Canine Behaviour. The vast majority of the information lies relatively inaccessible in scientific journals in university libraries.  This is the main aim of the Canine Behaviour Qualification Course – to convert the science into simple, Applied Animal Behaviour.

So how does dominance really work in dogs – Applied Canine Behaviour?

Before we can get to the bottom of this question, there are two important ideas you need to understand:

 how both dominance and submission works in dogs

In the 1930’s an Animal Behaviourist spent a considerable amount of time observing how hens interacted with each other.  Unfortunately he misinterpreted his observations – he thought that hens arranged their social group in order of the most dominant hen to the least dominant.  He called this a “pecking order” ie Hen A is dominant over Hen B who is dominant over Hen C and so on.  This simplistic analysis is far from the full story but this erroneous idea has perpetuated in dog owner’s minds and has led to the myth that the human owner always needs to remain ‘dominant’ over the dog, as though there was a kind of hierarchy between the two.

The problem with this kind of dominance approach is that it implies an adversarial stand-off between owner and dog (whereas once you have an understanding of Canine Behaviour the problem can be fixed using Canine Behaviour Modification Programmes and positive reinforcement – no force is necessary!).  Actually most canid species – including the dog – go out of their way not to get involved in disputes with other pack members and often concede at the mere suggestion of a contest.  In wild canids, sorting out rankings in the pack is dependent on complex interchanges of age, sex and size of the individuals involved If you are a small six-month-old bitch for example, it doesn’t make sense to risk injury by challenging a large adult female – it is far more sensible to concede and survive to live another day.

So the establishment of dominance relies on deference – there has to be one individual who “agrees” to give in. Without this agreement of deference, dogs would spend too much time and energy squabbling in the pack and they would lose condition, even die.


Fight or flight – Applied Animal Behaviour?

When any animal is faced with something threatening in the environment from an Animal Behaviour aspect, it has four choices of how to deal with the problem, known colloquially as the “Four F’s”. So a dog faced with a threat coming towards it could do one of the following:


  • Stay and Fight,
  • Try to escape from danger by taking Flight,
  • Freeze on the spot and hope the danger passes,
  • Fiddle about! This is where an animal tries to avoid confrontations by acting out appeasing behaviours which communicate to another that it does not want to get involved in an aggressive encounter.


Some owners think that dogs are creatures primarily of fight but may not be aware that their ability to flee from danger is equally fundamental to the success of the species.  Sorting out dominance and submission between two individuals always involves potential fight or flight behaviours and if we curtail our dog’s ability to take flight (by keeping it on a lead for example when approached by a strange threatening dog), then we contribute greatly to the chances of “fight” responses occurring and of course, injury.



Getting the right advice – the science of Animal Behaviour

If you are in the unfortunate position of having a dog that is displaying aggression, make sure you get the right advice from an appropriately qualified Canine Behaviourist.  The local dog trainer may not necessarily be qualified to handle your case, correctly diagnose the specific Canine Behaviour aspect.  Treatment of aggression can be complex and bad advice can lead to getting bitten so consider carefully before taking action.  From the Natural Animal Centre stance anything other than positive reinforcement indicates a lack of knowledge – hence the use of force! On the Canine Behaviour Qualification course we teach you how to use Animal Behaviour Science to diagnose and then amend the Animal Behaviour without any force.


Our view on aggression: always seek out advice from a qualified Canine Behaviourist where aggression is involved. When you ring for an appointment, ask for the behaviourist’s qualifications – you are entitled to do so and ask if they use positive reinforcement only. If you are still unsure, ask for a reference from a client or a vet who has previously worked with the Animal Behaviourist. If you want help from a Natural Animal Centre qualified Canine Behaviourist call us on 44 (0)1267 21 114.



So if you want to live your passion: make helping dogs your life skill.

We provide all the Animal Behaviour & training you need on the Canine Behaviour Qualification, to setup your very own practice:

 Follow the link:  Canine Behaviour Qualification

 Or on the website choose the ‘Animal Behaviour’ tab on the home page, then then 1st item ‘Equine, Canine, Feline Behaviour Qualifications Stage I’ on the drop down menu, scroll down and click on the picture of the dog for a free Canine Behaviour Course Prospectus.

OR … for Dog Owners we have weekend courses on Canine Behaviour:

Weekend courses: Canine Behaviour Courses