CVC Highlight: Rethinking the causes of canine aggression


CVC Highlight: Rethinking the causes of canine aggression

Aggressive dogs have too often been labeled dominant. A second look at the true underpinnings of most aggressive behavior has prompted safer and more effective—and often more humane—treatment of affected dogs.
Dec 01, 2010

Ellen M. Lindell, VMD, DACVB
In 1993, when the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists was formed, dominance-related aggression was routinely diagnosed in dogs referred to behavioral specialty practices.1 Then, as today, owners were seeing aggressive behaviors in their dogs, and they wanted to know what they could do about it.

Owners and practitioners had observed that aggressive behavior most often occurred when owners attempted to take food or valuable items away from their dogs. Aggression might also be exhibited when a dog was booted out of bed or when it had been harshly reprimanded, particularly after a prior confrontation. Small children were frequently targeted and might be bitten for climbing into a bed or onto a parent's lap when a dog was nearby.

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The hypothesis was that these dogs, being pack animals, were attempting to climb to the top of the social ladder. After considering some observations that had been made while studying social hierarchies in chickens and captive wolves, experts concluded that aggressive behavior in pet dogs was related to dominance—hence the term dominance-related aggression.

But behaviorists have now come to realize that the term dominance-related aggression is not only simplistic but is often inaccurate.2 Dogs that bite their owners usually do not exhibit the calm, confident, take-charge posture of an animal that is dominant in a relationship. These dogs do not strut up, ears and body erect, and stare until the owners step meekly out of the way.


Instead, aggressive dogs often exhibit an assortment of postures that can be difficult to interpret but that suggest a dog in conflict. A dog might have one ear forward and one ear back. Or a dog's ears might point forward assertively while its tail is tightly tucked, indicating fear. Owners routinely report that their dogs tremble after a bite and often slink away or "look sorry."

Furthermore, some aggressive dogs do not exhibit noticeable warning signals at all. Without attempting to communicate intent, they react by biting. But is biting a successful strategy for attaining a respected leadership position in a social group? Impulsive aggressive behavior instead may suggest an underlying pathology such as anxiety.


When aggression was considered secondary to a dog's motivation to dominate people, it made sense for therapy to focus on helping owners regain control. Unfortunately, underlying fear or anxiety often was not addressed.

More disheartening was the way some trainers and even veterinarians interpreted the dominance theory. Owners were told that they must fight to win, whatever the cost. Confrontational treatment strategies were routinely adopted, with corrections applied until there was evidence of submission. Mechanical devices might be used to increase the intensity of corrections, thereby enabling meek owners to more successfully punish their dogs' aggressive responses.

Of course, whenever any therapy is implemented, some patients will respond. But corrections were often poorly timed, and the intensity of the punishment might be too high or too low. These factors often served to increase the frequency and intensity of aggressive behaviors in dogs. With confrontational techniques, both people and dogs are at risk of being injured.

And when all the fighting was over, the dog's motivation for biting remained unchanged. Aggression began because of confusion, and aggression continued because of confusion. Moreover, the bond between the owner and dog was further damaged.