The setting is perfect.
It is a clear, sunny day in the summer. And you decide to take a nice walk with your pooch, because you know, it’s fun and immensely beneficial to your mental and physical health.
You are a couple of minutes into your walk, and you say to yourself “what could possibly go wrong?”
But no sooner had you finish that sentence did you notice an energetic dog canter in your direction.
“Oh no!” you gasp. This can’t be happening.
You know deep down, that it’d be a disaster if that dog came too close to your dog. And to avoid this, you make a split-second decision to careen off before the fireworks go off.
But, you’re prolly too late as you notice your dog already pulling with all its might, getting ready to slug it out with a dog he only just saw seconds ago.
For some dog owners, this a story that is exact or at least close to what they’ve experienced with their dogs. Sure, you know your dog needs the activity and outdoor experience and you undoubtedly enjoy your walk, but avoiding these conflict situations seems to be the practical play.
Some owners have similar experiences but in fundamentally different scenarios.
• Your dog would lash out at strangers at the first chance it gets
• You can’t touch your dog in a certain way, else it’ll snarl at you
• He has made his own rules, and you find yourself having to play ball after unsuccessfully attempting to change same rules severally
For most pet dog owners, one word explains all of these scenarios: DOMINANCE.
Among dog behaviorists, there are two camps. One camp likes to throw around the “dominance” word as many times as possible to rationalize most unruly dog behaviors. The opposing camp, however, prefers not to use the “dominant dog” label, as an explanation for any shoddy dog behavior.
To be fair to both camps, the concept of dominance is factual, but using one buzzword in a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t helpful.
The real deal lies somewhere in the middle.
The issue with syntax
First off: it is necessary to tackle the elephant in the room.
The words dominance, aggression, dominance aggression, submission, resource protection/guarding, and other related words on some level and in certain situations have merit in their application to dog behaviors.
Many times the presentation (in simple terms, how they are used) is inaccurate.
For example, a common theme amongst several lay owners and handlers is that a dog that exhibits dominance is a charming, persistent dog with attitude if things do not go his way. And then comparisons are made to the social structure of wolves to explain this notion.
Except that, wolves and domestic dogs are not the same species, as opposed to the heavily romanticized and popular anecdote. Dogs are not as socialized as wolves are, and your fido isn’t instinctively trying to be your overlord or being a pack leader.
In fact, amongst animal groups with established dominant members, advanced studies show that dominant members often assert their influence (or dominance if you will) without using force (aggression).
Dominance is not the only factor at play
In general, in a realistic multi-dog setting, not all dogs are equal. There is a social hierarchy.
The dynamics of the hierarchy are NOT fixed. It is fluid and relative.
For example, while one dog may place high value on a food resource and indeed get primary access to same resource, another dog may place similar high value on and by extension control over a preferred sleeping location.
Either dog would show classic signs of dominance with respect to the resource they prioritize and to which they have primary access. And as long as both dogs accept each other’s claim, there would be no conflict. As you’d expect, when both dogs place equal value on a resource, then all hell will break lose.
Still, aggression in dogs plays out in different ways and under different circumstances. It could be dog-to-dog, dog-to-human, general disobedience, or something else. And it may not be because of dominance. It could be because of fear, stress, anxiety, curiosity, play, boredom, et cetera.
Which is why it is important to:
Keep an open mind
Because each of any dog’s behavioral issues is unique and complex. You have to observe closely, replay events chronologically, identify triggers, and understand the behavior in detail.
It may not constitute the primary basis to determine the best course of action to take (as you’d soon find out), but it’d be invaluable in many cases and help in keeping track of progress.
In recent times, research has shown the personality dimension of dogs to be relatively consistent over time.
So is your dog a dominant dog, in a way that contrasts with the personality of other dogs?
For starters, a dog does not exhibit dominance all the time or in all situations. Alas, you know you have a special case if your dog is fiery come rain or shine. Such instances are rare and not the norm.
The average dog that exhibits what is arguably dominant and/or aggressive behavior quite often picks his fights. It may be exclusively on home turf, when owners are around, against other dogs while being innocuous to humans, or some other scenario.
Of course, the breed and erstwhile training would play a role in how a dog turns out; however, the pattern doesn’t deviate from the norm. A dog would show greater dominance/aggression in certain situations, while being less assertive/more submissive in other situations.
This understanding underlies the solution to resolving most unruly canine behaviors:
Surprisingly, both camps on the dog behavior divide agree on this basic principle. However, they unsurprisingly disagree on the best approach.
You already get why commonly understood lexicon like pack, pack leader, pecking order, alpha, alpha dog, top dog, aren’t fitting labels.
Nonetheless, the key to resolving most behavioral issues that have the semblance of dominance aggression in dogs is to have a comprehensive review of the roles of you and your dog in the relationship that you both share.
Regardless of the deep affection you have for your dog and the bold, apparent loyalty your dog has for you, the defining roles in your owner-pet relationship is that of you being a humane, fair authority figure and your dog being a trusted companion.
In this rational arrangement, you make the rules and your dog abides by them, you lead and he follows, you throw a ball and he dashes off to get it.
The bottom line is that you have to wean your dog off its bad behavior. And you do not have to become harsh, too physical, or excessively vocal, as those actions may worsen the situation. You only have to follow the guidelines shared in the next section, which is mainly predicated on the concept of using rewards to enforce good behavior and encourage good communication between you and your pet.
1. Be calm but assertive
The first step is to work on yourself. You want to inculcate good behavior in your dog and to do so, you need to be in the right frame of mind and give off the right vibe.
You have to be calm, but decisive, even when you want to pull your hair out in frustration after a momentary relapse by your dog. Appearing uncertain or adopting a derisive posture may likely increase the level of stress of your dog, which may cause him to behave in a more erratic fashion.
2. Set and enforce ground rules, limitations, & boundaries
Yea, some dogs bite their owners, and it isn’t a pretty sight.
Some estimates put the percentage at about 15% of dog owners being caught in the jaws of their canines (instead of a burglar). Sure, this is not a majority by a long shot, but the number is significant.
As you are about to rein in on the unruly behavior of Fido, you want things to go as smoothly as possible. Dogs are intelligent and have fantastic senses, but you are smarter.
And the smart thing to do is to avoid any situation that would trigger a battle.
After noting this, you would want to:
Take control of all important resources…
And do so smartly. Which means when furniture is off bounds, you may deny access to the room, barricade with uncomfortable books, or booby trap with the electrostatically charged Scatmat.
A leash would work too, but remember that when you take the leash, do so nonchalantly and blandly, then walk away dispassionately. If he follows you as intended, reward with a treat, because that’s a behavior you want him to repeat consistently.
An important resource is anything that Rover likes, ranging from toys, food, to playtime, and petting. He no longer gets whatever he wants on a whim, he’s had that opportunity and he blew it.
Now, you ration, and it should begin to sink in that access to any resource he desires is a privilege and not a right. And if he wants to get access, he should be responsive, mild-mannered, and well-behaved.
Complement this by:
Enacting limitations and rules
For the next couple of days or week, your canine belongs at your side or tethered to a tie down whenever others are with him in the house. This is as much as to enforce discipline as to keep him away from situations where he gets riled up.
You should also set some basic ground rules, such as:
• He doesn’t get food if he is aggressive or engaging in resource guarding
• He cannot block access-ways, such as doorways
• He must not dash ahead of you when you both get to a doorway—he should follow your lead
3. Establish the concept of permission and reward good behavior
Just as important as establishing rules, limitations, and boundaries is inculcating the concept of taking permission before going after or getting something he wants.
A common device to use is getting him to sit still and look at you politely before you give him his toy, let him out the door, or even give him a treat. You want to establish a chemistry that has order and predictability.
This will play down the urge to guard or get aggressive about a resource; because he knows, he wouldn’t get anything by being assertive anymore. But by being calm, submissive, and more importantly by politely seeking permission.
And when he behaves accordingly, do well to reward him with a treat and/or a pat. A reward is a positive feedback mechanism that encourages him to repeat desirable actions/behaviors.
4. Take advantage of meal time
Extend your rules to meals.
He should be calm, sit, and be patient for a few seconds (any interval within the 10 to 30 seconds window is okay) before you give him permission to eat.
Treats and tidbits shouldn’t be given freely anymore. Your dog should earn them, including praise and enjoyable interactive contact such as playing and petting; after replicating behaviors you want.
5. Regulate affection
This can potentially be a dicey, challenging step, because we instinctively want to shower our dogs with lots of affection.
But as hard as it may appear, you have to dole out affection on your terms. Which implies that if your dog is one to insist and push for affection, then you can use this as a medium to discipline your dog, by having him earn your attention. For example, this could be by having him do a brief down-stay or sit-stay first.
However, if your dog is more solitary and you tend to be the one initiating physical interaction, then you would want to hold off and ignore him. When he desires attention, he’d come to you, do the mandatory sit-stay, before getting some ‘we’ time with you.
6. React appropriately
Now, the undeniable fact is that in your course to enforce better behavior, there’ll be bumps along the road. At some point, your dog would prolly do things that’d question the efficacy of your therapy.
How you react is important.
You should not physically hit, punish, or persistently yell at your dog. That is counter-intuitive as mentioned above. Rather, you should display calm and assertive gestures. Grabbing the leash or collar in time and firmly, reiterates that you are in charge and a relapse is unacceptable.
On the flipside, when your dog displays good behavior, give a reward.
7. Consistency is key
And you should react appropriately consistently. Don’t excuse any instance of misbehavior.
Inconsistency destabilizes your attempt to enforce a legacy of order and predictability, which is necessary to eliminate bad behavior.
• Be patient
• Act quickly and decisively
• Do not engage in games that encourage aggressive behavior, such as Tug-O-War
• Care for your dog’s physical and mental wellbeing, which translates to proper amount of physical exercise, stimulation, and social interaction