Dominance aggression

There are seven types of aggressive behaviour in dogs: Social or dominance, territorial, pain-induced, fear-induced, maternal, predatory, idiopathic. The first six are described in Katherine Houpt (2005), Domestic Animal Behavior, 4th Edition, Blackwell Publishing. Dominance aggression is the most common type. It is motivated by a challenge to a dog’s social status or to its control of a social interaction. It usually develops in dogs at social maturity, between 18 and 36 months of age.

Dogs are social animals. They view their human families as their social group or “pack.” It is through social challenges among group members that a dominance hierarchy or “pecking order” is established in a pack. Dogs may exhibit dominance aggression because they are unsure of their place in the hierarchy and this causes anxiety. In a slightly different case, if a dog perceives its own ranking in the hierarchy to be higher than its owner’s, it’s likely that it will challenge the owner in certain situations.

Dominantly aggressive dogs frequently victimize young children in the household. They are often at eye level with the dog and are less confident dealing with it. Some dominantly aggressive dogs challenge the more forceful person in the household.

Dominantly aggressive dogs:

  • dislike being pushed from sofas and beds
  • act aggressively when stared at
  • dislike having their shoulders and back pushed on
  • may react aggressively when a person reaches over their head
  • may become aggressive when corrected verbally
  • intensify their aggression if physically punished

Some dominantly aggressive dogs lie in front of doors and furniture so that people will avoid these areas. Some lean against, or rest their paw on, their owners at every opportunity. Dogs with dominance aggression react to attempts to correct this behaviour by stiffening, “talking back,” or becoming aggressive. Dogs without dominance aggression react with solicitous behaviour, such as turning their head on their side, rolling over, whining, wagging their tail, and putting their ears back loosely.

Dominance aggression may also be directed at other animals.
Dog showing dominance aggression towards cattle. Photo: Sophie Atkinson