Daily I am confronted by the pervasiveness of dominance theory as a describer of canine behaviour problems. As an explanation for canine behaviour it befuddles clients with advice like not letting dogs go through doorways first, getting them off high vantage spots like couches or beds and insisting owners take stuff from their dogs.
The theory suggests to caregivers that dogs are on a mission to rule the planet and take over the world, and that any hint of aggression is a dog’s signal to you that you are “below” them in some pack hierarchy. This kind of magical thinking gets owners all worked up into making sure their dog understands who is boss – suddenly rules are changed in households and dogs are being ordered about – because this is what “alphas” do.
Can you see how confusing this is to dogs? Dogs who like couches like comfy spots. Big deal. Dogs who like human beds like to be close to their people and the smells and coziness of being next to members of their social group. Dogs who exit doorways first are simply in a rush to get outside, because dogs find it hard to wait for good stuff, and may not have been taught to exit in any other way. Dogs who want to keep hold of something tasty they have been given are just normal, greedy dogs and maybe haven’t been taught to exchange in the first place.
Assigning dominance to dogs has resulted in may dogs being confused and mistreated. When a dog has an issue with aggression it is more likely to have come about through fear and anxiety. It may be genetically predisposed and have been reinforced through prior learning. There are many explanations for aggression to humans, but when the detective work is done – pain, anxiety, fear, conflict and learning are some of the possible causes – but dominance is not one of them.
Aggression is a tool that dogs use to keep scary things away.
It is what we call a distance-increasing signal that tells the receiver that I need space from you. Invariably signals to indicate this need for space have been given before the bite but many times humans have missed these. Sometimes humans have punished previous signals such as growls, as they make them uncomfortable, and hence the growl is forgone as either ineffective by the dog or not to be expressed. But, if the worry and fear remains, and the person continues to proceed, then the bite becomes more likely.
This is what caregivers should be spending their time contemplating. What makes the dog uncomfortable? List triggers. And then how do I change the emotional association with that object/event/person into a positive one. It is not curative to suppress a growl by admonishing it – since the fear remains. Cure only comes about through changing the way a dog feels. Actions are an expression of emotions. If you want the dog to be safe, then this is the kind of work that needs to be done. And in the meantime set up the environment so the dog is no longer coming into contact with the objects, persons or events that create that fear in the first place.