A Dominating Issue?

Last weekend I took a longish trip north from my home in Central Massachusetts give a talk at a progressive dog training center in Portland, Maine called Happy Tails. The audience for my talk, Canine Behavior 201, comprised of dog owners, trainers, dog evaluators, veterinary technicians and veterinarians. Quite an eclectic bunch. The topics I covered ranged from aggression to compulsive disorders, with case vignettes and medical material interpolated. To my relief (always), I think the talk went well and the reviews were positive.

However, at the beginning of the talk I found myself struggling to explain the current enigma concerning owner-directed aggression. It’s not that easy to explain. For example, what causes it? The classical explanation was that it is caused by a dog’s dominance over his master. I might have gone along with that a few years ago, but things have changed. More data have been gathered and the waters surrounding the dominance concept have become muddied (or clarified, depending on your point of view). The good thing about the frank dominance explanation for this type of aggression is that it is simple (“the dog thinks he’s in charge so you must show him who is boss”). People flock to hear simplistic explanations like this because they easily understand them (partly accounting for the popularity of some modern day TV shows).

But the tide turned when it was discovered that so-called dominant aggressive dogs had a higher incidence of fearful behaviors than their non-aggressive counterparts. This implied, at the very least, that dogs displaying owner-directed aggression were not super confident and were prone to anxious responding. It seems they may be more confused than dominant.

In light of this finding, some behaviorists have suggested that the concept of the household pack is dead – that pack mentality has been bred out of domestic dogs by selective breeding. For me the latter idea is hard to swallow, but it does seem reasonable that dogs displaying owner-directed aggression do not see their owners as other dogs and are not trying pull rank on them.

For years I have thought, and still think, that anxiety underpins the somewhat paranoid behavior of owner-directed aggression. You give your dog a treat and he wants to protect it from you - where’s the sense in that? Unless, of course, the dog is mistrusting, anxious that you may take it away and not give it back. It is trust that seems to be lacking in this equation and punitive measures will not improve that situation.

Some dogs (maybe most dogs) need strong and consistent leaders so they know who’s in charge but that does not necessitate the use of any strong-arm tactics. Former president Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” He makes a good point. Instead, leadership involves demonstrating fairness but firmness, consistency and consideration. There are behavior modification programs that achieve this end and – without raising hand or voice - make owner-directed aggression a thing of the past. I hope my audience understood. I hope you understand. If you don’t, please tell me and I’ll try again – perhaps with the help of your input.

PS. One of the next speakers at the Happy Tails training is the renowned Jean Donaldson. Then they plan to have Dr Ray Coppinger come to speak. As I left, they said they would like me to come back again sometime, perhaps as a double act along with Dr. Ian Dunbar. Ian and I have done that kind of thing before. How about it Ian?