Dog: Aggression Toward Family Members - Sometimes Referred to as Dominance or Status Related Aggression

aggressive dogThe terms dominance or status related aggression are confusing and outdated, although they are still widely used in the popular media. It is useful to spend a bit of time trying to understand why these terms are now generally rejected by those with a deeper understanding of dog behaviour. The terms give rise to mistaken beliefs about aggression within the dog’s normal social group and have led to a tendency for people to use punitive and suppressive training techniques, which raise serious concerns in terms of animal welfare.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not generally seek to be “top dog”, but would prefer to live in a social group where the humans are confidently relaxed, consistent in their behaviour and take control when the dog is unsure of the situation. However, if owners are inconsistent in their interactions with their dog and do not give clear signals as to what constitutes appropriate behaviour, then the dog may develop expectations which bring it into conflict with its owners from time to time. While this behaviour has been referred to as dominance aggression in the past it is not aimed atestablishing social rank, but rather has developed as a consequence of circumstances. The terms dominance aggression or status related aggression are therefore unhelpful and best avoided.

Dispelling the myth of the need for dominance aggression to establish a "dominance hierarchy"

A dominance hierarchy is a term used to describe an observed relationship between individuals within a group. In most situations there is no need for the more confident individual to assert its position through displays of aggression, since the other less confident individual gives clear signals that they are not interested in challenge and confrontation. Indeed it is the less confident individual that is giving away or avoiding “dominance” rather than the more confident individual asserting or taking a position of “dominance”.

Animals that live in groups, do so because of the advantages. There can be co-operative raising of the young, easier access to food and better defence against predators. Since group members offer benefits to each other, it is counter productive to fight among members and risk injury. Therefore, communication and a recognised system for the distribution of resources is beneficial. 

In nature, the strongest members of a group can have most freedom of access (i.e. they can choose when they want something) while the weakest must take the opportunity to gain access to important things like food and social interaction when it is given. However, in the domestic situation it is possible for dogs to acquire this freedom of access as a result of the habits of their owner, rather than through their own personality or physical strength. For example, the same dog may find it easy to gain access to comfortable resting places, such as the sofa, when one owner is present in the room but may not be able to access the same resting place if the other owner is present. The personality of the dog has not changed but its ability to have freedom of access to the resource has. Without clear and consistent rules and behavioural boundaries, the dog can build up a false expectancy of its ability to influence decisions about when it can have access to resources which can lead to confusion. Over time the dog may begin to display “aggressive behaviour” in situations that it does not understand and inadvertently finds that these displays are the most effective in resolving the confusion. As a result it begins to use aggressive behaviour in situations of conflict over resource access but this does not mean that he “wants to be top dog”. This is important as a proper understanding of the dog’s perception of the situation shows that these situations can be resolved by establishing clear and consistent positive communication, and that the traditional exercises for asserting “dominance” over the dog, through violence or “assertion”, are unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Far from being over-confident, there is now good evidence that many aggressive dogs are actually anxious and unsure of their circumstances. If you believe your dog is both confident and aggressive, professional help should be sought from a qualified specialist without delay as the consequences can be catastrophic, given the power of even a small dog.

It is important to understand that dominance is not a personality trait. “Dominance relationships” are often context specific; i.e. a dog may be confident in its ability to gain access to one resource, such as food, but not another, such as toys. Also a dog’s relationship with one individual is not necessarily predictive of its relationship with others. The same dog may be very confident in its ability to take a toy from one dog but unlikely to even try when it is with another. Some dogs can be opportunistic, and some are more prone to show aggression when they feel threatened, but that does not mean that they are seeking to be “top dog”. Both opportunism and aggression are not without risk, and whenever an animal tries to take control of a resource it will often be with a degree of anxiety. If the attempt is met with resistance this anxiety is likely to increase.

How does this apply to dogs in human households?

It is important to ensure that all of the dogs in the household feel relaxed in their relationship with you and confident that your behaviour will always be consistent. When there are no consistent house rules, and when dogs cannot predict the way in which their owners are going to respond, this can lead to anxiety. Dogs may develop an expectation that it is acceptable for them to take any resource whenever they feel the need. If everyone in a social group believes that it can do this, it is easy to see that conflict can then arise due to competition for those things that are considered to be important. Such “resources” usually include food, resting places, favoured possessions such as toys, mates, and territory. If something happens which a dog does not like, it must either accept it or register its disagreement, and the only way dogs can do this is with a series of aggressive displays. Dogs will not threaten if they know they are unlikely to get the resource in the end or if they believe that they may get injured in the process. The likelihood of confrontation is therefore controlled by expectation and this is why consistent house rules, which set realistic levels of expectation, are so important.   

How can I establish realistic expectations for my dog and prevent him from becoming apparently “dominant”?

The best way to establish suitable and realistic expectations is to be consistent, confident and positive in your interactions with your dog. This form of interaction should be established at the very start of your relationship with your dog. Do not be tempted to interact differently with your cute little puppy from how you intend to interact with your fully grown adult dog. The basis of the relationship is trust. If you can stop thinking in terms of “dominance” and think more in terms of being a “fair and consistent leader” it may help you to move away from the negative concepts of “assertion”, “the need for punishment” and “putting the dog in its place”.

When establishing realistic expectations there is no need for harshness or punishment but it is important to offer your dog consistent training and supervision.

  • Decide on house rules which every member of the family applies all the time – for example will your dog be allowed on the furniture? Will your dog be fed scraps from the table?
  • Teach good manners and self control – a dog that is sitting calmly cannot be jumping up or bolting out of the door.
  • Teach your dog to “say please” for things he wants – if he is used to sitting to be given things, he is less likely to try to help himself and possibly come into conflict with you.
  • Teach your dog to “leave” and give”. In this way you can prevent him running off with the remote control or your mobile phone.
  • Teach your dog to enjoy being handled so that he does not feel scared of touch. This will help him to be less likely to defend himself when handled.

How does aggression to family members develop?

The most common reasons for the display of aggression have already been dealt with, but it is important to remember that the early signs of aggression in the context of interactions with family members are usually subtle and may be missed. Dogs mostly use facial expressions and body postures to signal intent. In simplistic terms a relaxed body posture and a slow and rhythmic wagging tail show a friendly approach. This is the ideal form of interaction between dog and owner. A high wagging tail, eye contact and perhaps showing of teeth could be an assertive approach and a low body posture with a rapidly wagging tail tip and the presence of conflict behaviours, such as yawning and lip licking, are indicative of an anxious and appeasing approach. Both of these forms of interactions should raise concerns and you should not hesitate to seek advice further specialist advice to help you establish a more positive relationship interaction with your dog.  

Conflicts between owner and pet may begin with prolonged eye contact, growling and/or snarling over resources such as food, resting places, position and perhaps personal body space. Equally they can commence with your dog avoiding eye contact, displaying specific conflict behaviours (such as lip licking or yawning) and slowly lifting the lip. If you have been inconsistent in the way that you respond to either of these behavioural displays, or if two different family members react in different ways then this will lead to confusion. For example, if you usually react to the “aggressive” display by allowing your dog to take the item but on this particular occasion insist on gaining control of the resource, your dog may escalate the aggression to snapping, lunging and biting. If this intense “aggression” results in backing off, the dog will learn that its escalated behaviour is a more reliable means of keeping hold of food or toys.  

"Conflicts between owner and pet may begin with prolonged eye contact, growling and/or snarling over resources such as food, resting places, position and perhaps personal body space."

Owners often find this sort of behaviour inconsistent since the dog will not escalate the behaviour in every situation (i.e. is not consistently “nasty” in their opinion). However, the behaviour is relevant to the context, and increasing intensity of display is only necessary in those situations in which the dog perceives that there is a threat to its expectations. If a simple growl is sufficient to get the message across then there is no need for the dog to take it any further.

The body posture of the dog during the encounter can give important information about the emotion that is driving the behavioural response, but it is easy to misread this and make matters worse. Therefore you should seek qualified professional assistance to guide you through the process, especially as in many cases of aggression toward family members the dog will display a mixture of signals, which appear to indicate a fluctuation between confidence and fear.  

dog wearing a head collarWhat should I do if I my dog begins showing aggression to family members?

All aggressive challenges should be taken seriously and you should seek advice from your veterinary surgeon at the first sign of any problems, with a view to seeking qualified professional help. The earlier the problem is noticed the better the prognosis for successfully establishing appropriate communication between yourself and your dog. 

Dogs are capable of hurting and inflicting a great deal of damage with their bites. Physically confronting your dog who is acting in an aggressive manner is likely to result in the escalation of the aggression and subsequent injury to humans. Remember that the aggressive display is most likely to be the result of miscommunication and confusion so increasing confrontation is likely to worsen the situation. Punishment may lead to fear and anxiety in your dog and a perception that it needs to defend itself. If confrontational behaviour over resources has been present for some time it is likely that your dog has become confident that the aggressive displays will be successful. In these situations your dog is likely to intensify the display in the face of apparent failure rather than change its strategy. This explains what owners often perceive as their dog’s “refusal to back down”. The more threatening you become the more likely your dog is to believe that it needs to work harder to defend itself. 

Once you have identified that there is a problem the following steps can be very helpful in reducing the incidence of confrontation, but if you are in any doubt or do not see a rapid improvement in your dog’s behaviour you should seek qualified professional help:

1 Management starts with taking steps to remove the confrontation from your interactions with your dog. You will need to identify all situations that might lead to aggression, and then avoid or prevent access to these circumstances. For example, do not leave things lying around the house which your dog may wish to take control of (such as food or toys) and do not approach your dog when it is chewing on a chew toy or eating something valuable. Often the situations and responses are not predictable and therefore it can be very helpful to have a means of taking physical control of your dog from a distance. Fitting him with a long lightweight trailing line that is attached to his fixed collar can be extremely useful. The line is attached at all times when there is someone at home to supervise the dog. The idea is that you can pick up the end of the line and regain physical control without direct contact. Once you have hold of the line you can then manoeuvre your dog away from the situation or the resource. Most importantly you can then praise your pet for the cessation of the inappropriate behaviour.

At no time should family members attempt to "out muscle" your dog or force it to obey. This can result in serious human injury.

In the short term, if your dog takes up an undesired position in the home and the house line is not in position then it is best to ignore the behaviour. Certainly do not make a contest out of the situation. It is better to avoid conflict than exacerbate the situation and risk injury.

2. Identify those situations where your dog may show a desire to have access to important or valuable items or positions, even if he has not previously shown aggression in those situations. In order to reduce your dog’s expectation that access to these things is freely available it is good to establish some house rules. For example do not allow your dog to get up onto your sofa unless you give a certain command such as “jump up”. Establish distinct resting places for your dog, by providing it with an indoor pen or a basket, so that it has a safe and secure place to relax which is not in any conflict with your need to relax and feel safe your own furniture. Please ask your vet for our training handout if you need help in teaching commands to your dog, as these must be done in a positive and non-confrontational manner or else conflict may be exacerbated.

3.  In order to increase your dog’s tendency to expect instruction, it is helpful to increase your level of obedience training, such as teaching your dog to sit and stay. Make sure that the training is carried out using positive reward methods and increase your dog’s perception that compliance with commands results in an increase in positive interaction with you.

Begin training in safe and distraction free environments with rewards given for compliance. Do not reward anticipatory behaviour (i.e. if your dog predicts that you are going to ask it to sit and sits before the command is given). It is important that the reward results from compliance with a command, rather than taking the initiative. Once successful, these commands should be practiced in a variety of environments and with all family members. It is worth starting the training with family member with whom your dog is normally most obedient and then to have that member of the family stand alongside individuals with whom your dog is less obedient and repeat the commands if necessary. Treats should come from the individual who issues the first command.

"Do not reward anticipatory behaviour (i.e. if your dog predicts that you are going to ask it to sit and sits before the command is given). It is important that the reward results from compliance with a command, rather than taking the initiative."

4.  Reducing your dog’s expectation of free access to resources can be achieved by establishing a rule that all valuable items and interactions must be earned. For example, affection, attention, praise, food, treats, play and toys are rewards which should be earned. When rewards are given on demand, expectation increases, and the owner is rewarding the initiative of the dog or its demanding behaviour. The dog needs to learn that these resources will only be given when they are earned through obedience in the presence of the owners. Rewards are most effective when they have been withheld. Just as it would be inappropriate to try to train a dog with a piece of food immediately following a meal, it is of little value to try to use affection or play as a reward for a dog when it already receives these on demand. 

Remember that the important resources will vary from individual to individual. Therefore it can be helpful to draw up a list of all the things that your dog particularly desires and rank them in order of importance to him. You can then concentrate on asking your dog to earn these particular resources. For example, your dog can be taught that in order to receive food, petting, play, or walks it must first respond to one of several commands. It is important to have a variety of commands so your dog cannot pre-empt you, and if he does not respond to one command, you can simply ask for one of the others without telling him off. When your dog has a high desire for something he is more likely to comply with a command in order to get it. Remember that the purpose of this exercise is to change expectation and therefore a simple compliance is all that is needed. The level of complexity of the task should also be in proportion to the “treat” value of the resource. For example, it is appropriate to ask for a high level of compliance in order to gain access to a high value reward, such as a dog treat, but it is not appropriate to make a dog go through an elaborate sequence of difficult behaviours in order to gain access to its daily food ration, which is a basic resource vital to survival rather than a luxury extra. 

Simply ignoring a dog that is seeking attention, affection, play, or food can increase its state of anxiety. Therefore it is more constructive to teach the dog an appropriate way in which to gain access to these resources. If you have any doubts about how to do this please seek professional help.

white dogWhat can be done if my dog refuses to obey my commands?

The first thing to do in this situation is to consider carefully whether your dog understands what you are asking it to do? If your dog does not understand the command then the apparent “refusal” may be totally understandable. You will need to look at your training techniques and find more successful, positive ways in which to establish an association between the command and the action that you require.  In addition you should reassess the emotional state of your dog. If your dog is insecure and anxious it may not be able to comply with your commands. In this case you will need to use a different behavioural approach. You should ask your veterinary surgeon for advice about how to get professional assistance to accurately assess your dog’s behaviour before progressing any further with home based behavioural intervention.

If you are certain that your dog does understand your command and that its behaviour is a result of high expectation without any underlying negative emotional state, then you need to understand that each time your dog fails to comply with your commands it reinforces his expectation that compliance is not necessary in that context.

If you are experiencing problems with implementing the behaviour modification described earlier, it is advisable to seek help from an accredited behaviour practitioner or a veterinary specialist as soon as possible.

Aggression is a normal behaviour and therefore it cannot be “cured” but it can be managed to minimise risk. In some cases of aggression to family members, especially if identified early enough, appropriate behavioural exercises can bring about a rapid change and you may notice that your dog is also much more relaxed as well. However, in other cases, especially those involving high risk groups such as children or the infirm, professional support is necessary and you should ask your veterinary surgeon for advice. In some cases, medication may be necessary to aid the behaviour modification process, but no drug will “cure” the problem.

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