Dominance Aggression

By Robert Forto

Dogs do not see pack members as equals, instead, a hierarchy must be established to show which is of higher and lower rank to keep peace within the pack.  Any number of pack members living together, whether dog or human, must have an established hierarchy in the dog’s eyes, in order to get along.  This hierarchy, although flexible due to the level of motivation in a particular situation, is established and maintained through a variety of communication signals, through vocalization, body language and mute signaling.

When challenged, a lower ranking pack member must quickly demonstrate deferral or submission to the higher ranking dog, in order to avoid aggressive discipline and enforcement to the higher ranking dog. This aggressive enforcement is instigated by the lower ranking pack member failing to defer quickly enough to the higher ranking dog.  This aggressive display is called Dominance Aggression.

·         The dog is in the presence of a valued resource such as; the food bowl with or without food, human food, toys, bones, rawhide, garbage, stolen items, the owner, or sleeping place.

·         A person attempts to remove a valued resource such as those listed above.

·         The dog is approached.

·         The dog is spoken to.

·         The dog is verbally or physically reprimanded.

·         The dog is petted or handled or examined.

·         The dog’s nails are being trimmed.

·         The dog is picked up.

·         The dog is restrained.

·         The dog is disturbed while sitting or sleeping.

·         The dog is lying on an area perceived as a bed or den such as; couch, chair, owner’s bed, dog’s bed, blanket, under a table, etc.

·         A family member is approached, touched or spoken to by an outsider or other family member.

·         Human postures or communication perceived as controlling or challenging such as; direct eye contact, reaching or leaning over top of the dog, approaching or, speaking to the dog, verbally or physically punishing the dog, etc.

How Dominant Dogs Control Their Owners

·         Demanding food or attention.

·         Demanding to be picked up or put down.

·         Demanding play.

·         Being aloof when the owner offers attention.

·         Blocking the owner’s movements with her body.

·         Shoulder and hip slams.

·         Mouthing and biting.

·         Resisting commands.

·         Resisting discipline.

·         Resisting handling.

·         Protecting valued resources.

·         Growling, snarling.

·         Staring.

·         Mounting and pelvic thrusts.

·         Rarely exhibiting submissive body signals such as; lowering the body, looking away, rolling over.

How Owners Contribute to Dominance

·         Games without rules.

·         Allowing the dog to direct human behavior.

·         Rewarding demands for food or attention.

·         Allowing the dog on the furniture.

·         Inconsistency in training.

·         Lack of training.

·         Backing down from challenges.

·         Excessive attention and/or petting

·         Allowing the dog to invade their personal space uninvited.

When Is Dominance Aggression Most Likely to Occur

·         In dogs over one year of age.

·         In dogs bred from one or both dominant or dominant aggressive parents.

·         In intact, purebred dogs.

·         In confident, assertive, excitable dogs.

·         In breeds more prone to dominance ie; spaniels, terriers, toy breeds.

·         In dogs with a history of skin disorders or illness early in life.

Treatment for Dominance Aggression

The Re-Ranking Program

·         Ignore ALL demands. It is the job of the top ranking dog to make the decisions and direct the behavior of the rest of the pack.  By responding to the dog’s demands, no matter how subtle or insignificant, you are allowing the dog to perceive himself as a strong leader.

·         No freebees! The dog must earn absolutely everything of value from a drink of water to a car ride, by performing a previously taught command.

·         Remove all valued resources that elicit an aggressive response.

·         Follow the desensitization program for possessive aggression to prevent or cure possessive aggression.

·         Put the dog on a natural, non-performance diet.

·         Put the dog on a feeding schedule to make treats a more effective training tool.

·         All treats must be earned and used for training and rehabilitation only; it increases their value to the dog.

·         Never feed the dog while preparing or eating food.  In the wild, alpha eats first and can take food from anyone, by giving the dog your food, you are giving she alpha position.

·         Teach food bowl exercises to prevent or cure food bowl aggression.

·         Take back some territory in the home by not allowing the dog access, MINE! The dog must not have access when the owner is away. When the owner is home the barrier is removed and a leash is put on the dog.  If the dog approaches the barrier the owner will growl a warning, “OUT”.  If the dog crosses the barrier the owner walks the dog back out with the leash.

·         Less petting and attention will make the dog earn what she gets.

·         Ration games and only play them WITH RULES.

·         Make the dog hold a short down stay before allowing freedom in a fenced yard.

·         Leave a twenty to forty foot lunge line on the dog while enjoying free time in the yard, occasionally pick up the end of the lunge line and complete a recall.  When  the dog comes in, reward and release.

·         Do not allow the dog on the furniture.  A ten foot leash can be used for removal if she gets up with an “off” command (DO NOT grab her collar to for this correction.

·         Practice placement commands. Hold the ten foot leash, move away from the dog, give the command “come”, when she comes to you, reward and repeat three times.  Release with an “all done” at the end of the exercise.

·         Desensitize the dog to handling and restraint.

·         Teach the dog to “watch me” on command and to hold the eye contact for up to 30 seconds in the presence of major distractions, with the handler establishing and breaking the eye contact.

·         Begin a complete training program using positive reinforcement methods only to increase handler control over and respect from the dog.

·         Always reward good behavior and quick correct responses with something of value to the dog i.e.; treats, toy, game, walk, etc.

·         Teach the dog to “place” and “down stay” for up to thirty minutes, then release.

·         A gentle leader will increase handler control helping the dog to remain calm and focused.  It can be left on the dog indoors until control is established.

·         Use a ten foot indoor lead to increase handler control when necessary.

·         Begin training with the most dominant member of the family and gradually work your way down to the least.

·         List all the triggers for aggression.

·         Systematically desensitize the dog to each aggression trigger.

·         Use counter conditioning to replace unwanted aggressive behavior with a behavior that is incompatible.

·         Use creative avoidance to prevent aggressive episodes.

·         Use environmental management to ensure that the dog’s environment works for, not against, your rehabilitation program.

·         Never leave the dog unsupervised in the presence of anyone who is not a trained part of your rehabilitation program, especially children.

·         Once an obvious new hierarchy has been established you can relax with some of these rules, but if the dog begins to challenge again, even in subtle ways, take control back IMMEDIATELY.


Robert Forto is the host of The Dog Works Radio Show and is the training director of Alaska Dog Works. Robert Forto can be reached through his website at