The wording of the Title of this article was deliberately chosen. "Dominant Dogs and Aggressive Dogs", not "Dominant and Aggressive Dogs". Simply because a dog is dominant, does not necessarily imply that he is aggressive (not to the normal way of interpreting the word aggression, anyway). The word "dominant" means, according to the Oxford dictionary: RULING, PREVAILING, MOST INFLUENTIAL, OVERLOOKING OTHERS. A dominant dog, in his wild environment, would either be pack leader, or desire to be pack leader. A dominant dog can be dominated by a dog (or person) who is stronger physically or has a stronger personality than he has. He is quite content to be dominated, provided he knows where he stands. Some dogs that are not really dominant will try to be "pack leader" if no one else appears to want the job! This is where confusion often arises. The dog, in his mind, says, "Well, if you don't want to rule me, then perhaps I should rule you."

Someone has to be governor!! The Oxford dictionary shows the word "aggressive" as meaning: OFFENSIVE, DISPOSED TO ATTACK, FORCEFUL, or SELF-ASSERTIVE. Most dominant people are not usually violent! Because a dog is aggressive, it does not follow that he is dominant. Dominance can be shown by little things such as demanding to be petted, trying to continually walk in front, etc. Aggression can be caused by many factors other than dominance: jealousy, over-protectiveness (of owner, pack, territory, food or self), fear, insecurity and sex can all cause aggression.

Each week, letters and telephone calls are received about dominant or aggressive dogs. In the old days, there were many more aggressive and dominant dogs about, especially somestrains of Alsatians (as they were then called). The cure that was spoken of was for the new owner to take the dog into a shed, strip off to the waist and with a stick or whip, actually FIGHT the dog until one of them submitted. This was the tale that went about.

The story was probably grossly exaggerated, but it does show the way of thinking in those days. Indeed, until relatively recently, the method of the handler establishing his authority (leadership) over the dog was by harsh methods. A harsh, loud voice, the heavy jerks on the check chain, exaggerated hand, arm and body movements, even blows with the hands, feet and sticks. There is, of course, no need for these cruel methods and, generally, they are counter-productive anyway.

In his wild environment, a dog was a pack animal. This still applies with the small pack of owner/dog and family/dog. The pack leader in a wild pack would tolerate no insubordination from the pack members. Mostly just a look, with a threatening expression, or a growl was sufficient to subdue any challenger, or "wrong doer". Sometimes physical force was used. Body checks, where the pack leader slammed into the flank of the other dog, were the most used punishment; biting only being used as a last resort. Even then, the bite was generally inhibited (a fairly light bite).

If the subordinate did not accept his "punishment", and a fight ensued, this would be quickly terminated when one of the contestants gave in (submitted). In the wild dog environment, the conqueror is prevented by instinct from continuing to attack when his adversary rolls over on his back exposing his throat. Only "mental" dogs would kill another. It is in the interest of the pack for all members to be kept alive.

In our conditioning of the dog to be subordinate to us, we do not normally have to go as far as "body checking" and biting. Remember, however, that the pack leader was continually reminding the subordinate of his lowly position.

The pack leader ate first. The pack leader drank first. The pack leader walked in front. The pack leader went through gaps first. The pack leader walked in a straight line from "A" to "B", and any dog standing on the route got out of the way -- or else! The pack leader decided which "foe" or victim was to be attacked. The leader also controlled any aggression between members of his own pack. It is, therefore, very important that we establish AND MAINTAIN OUR POSITION AS PACK LEADER. With our knowledge of these criteria, we can adapt them for our own relationship with a dog. The following methods will do this for us with no unkindness. The more dominant a dog, the more he needs to be reminded of his position in the hierarchy.

  1. Tell the dog, "down". Place him in the "Down" position and keep him there for half an hour. If you allow him to get up when he decides to, he is being allowed to question your authority. You have said "down" and he has to stay down until you release him. If he tries to get up, you must physically hold him down. Depending on the size/strength of the dog, either one hand resting lightly on his withers (shoulders), or two hands, one firmly on his withers, the other through his collar. You decide when he can get up. If at twenty nine minutes, fifty-five seconds, just before you say "free", he decides and tries to get up, you must not give in, even though you were about to release him. He has just earned himself another minute! Half an hour may be boring for you, but you can watch TV, or read a book. Later on, when you are not actually holding him in the down, but still practicing the "long downs", you will have to be more attentive, as you will not feel him give you warning that he is about to move. When you have reached your preconceived time, release the dog with your "release word": FREE, Let's Go, etc. Whatever you prefer. If he has gone to sleep (some will), wake him before you release him, so that you are letting him go, not him eventually waking up, and then disobeying your original command "Down".

  2. Do not allow the dog to eat food until you tell him he can. Tell the dog "Sit", place food bowl down and, after a varying length of time (pause), tell him, "OK".

  3. Do not pet the dog when he demands it. He will do this by nudging you with his nose, or pawing at you. Before you pet him under these circumstances, make him earn the petting by obeying a command such as "Sit", "Down", etc. For the same reasons, do not let him crawl upon your lap. If you don't mind having a dog on your lap, that is up to you, but, you decide when he is to be allowed this privilege, not him.

  4. Do not walk around your dog if he is in your way. Make him move.

  5. Do not allow him to precede you through any door, gap, gateway or opening.

  6. Do not allow him to jump in or out of the car just because you have opened the door. He does so when you tell him.

  7. Enforce any commands you give. If he is on the couch and you say, "OFF", then he is to get off!! Ensure you are in a position to enforce any command before you give it. If he does happen to catch you unaware, and disobeys when you can do nothing about it (refused recall, etc.), do not repeat the command, but ensure that you can enforce it next time you give it. In the example "Refused Recall", don't call him again, he WILL come to you eventually. When he comes, you must praise him but, NEXT TIME he will be on a long line, thus ensuring obedience. If your dog challenges you, as when you go to take his food bowl away, do not make an issue of it on that occasion; back off slowly without any further argument. Next day, have the dog on a leash and check chain when you feed him and then take the dish. If he challenges you then, you are in a position to look after yourself and enforce his subordination.

  8. Do go to a Dog Club so that he learns to obey commands and mix with others and you learn under supervision.

  9. Do intervene quickly and ruthlessly if your dog shows aggression to another dog, person or to yourself. By INTERVENE, I mean act effectively BEFORE the aggression by the dog is put into action. Your action is with your harsh and firm voice (not necessarily loud), and the hard jerking of the check chain with the leash. The heaviness, or harshness of the jerk is determined by the dog's size, touch sensitivity (pain threshold) and temperament. If you are too gentle, you will just stimulate the dog to greater aggression or cause him to think you are a drip, wimp or wally and ignore you.

  10. DO NOT praise the dog when he ceases to show aggression after "9." above. If you have had to "intervene", then it is very important that you do not praise or fuss afterward. Please read this again and stick to it.

  11. Do praise the dog when he shows no aggression to that particular dog or person WITHOUT you having to "intervene".

  12. Do be able to take food, bones or toys away from your dog, but DO NOT practice this too often.

  13. DO practice giving him extra food, bones or toys when he already has some. Do this more frequently than taking things from him.

  14. Do not make his life a misery by keeping on practicing the points above, BUT do be consistent and any conduct which YOU consider undesirable must NEVER be allowed. It is no good if you sometimes permit certain things and at other times you don't. For example, it is no good allowing your dog to jump up on you when you are wearing old clothes and getting cross when he does the same thing when you've got your best suit on. It is not good giving him an old shoe to chew and then losing your temper when he chews your brand new ones. Any variations on your part will cause your dog to become confused. BE CONSISTENT. BE PERSISTENT.

Reprinted from OFF LEAD MAGAZINE (July 1988)
by Roy Hunter