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Behaviour Articles
By Donna Brander, Animal Behaviourist

<Back to behaviour articles

This information is to be used as guidelines only. Decisions made about the future of any pet should be based on a professional assessment and a course of treatment that is personalised for the pet's individual situation.

Status-related aggression

Dogs are often allowed the run of the house with access to all of the sleeping areas. They barge their way to the front door in response to visitors, perhaps jumping on people and barking. Their possessions are all over the house and they play with them whenever they wish. They control games with their toys by  playing ‘keep away’, instead of giving them up to the owner.

Dogs also make demands on the owner by pushing at the owner’s hands, barking, crawling into laps, or jumping up on the owner. Pet dogs often control feeding times, and even what they are fed, by refusing commercial dog foods unless they have human food added to it.

These small acts of disobedience (which most of our pet dogs are allowed at one time or another) can escalate into growling and snapping over toys, food and sleeping or other areas, such as thresholds or the upstairs. Dogs which have inadvertently been given a high status within the family pack may also control the owner’s affection by not allowing themselves to be touched in certain areas such as the chest or back. Grooming is fraught with growling and snapping. If some or all of the above is familiar to you, you need to begin to take control of these situations where your dog is now in charge.

Status-related or dominant aggression towards people is one of the more common reasons for dogs to be presented to a pet behaviourist.  It may not be the most common problem in dog ownership but it is definitely one of the most upsetting when it occurs. To understand how this situation comes about, the owner must understand why status is important to some dogs and how we, as owners, have a tendency to exacerbate the problem.

Also, if a dog has had one experience of a very subordinate (or even abused) position within a household, the next family who obtains him may commiserate with him, giving him lots of toys and attention. The family think they are giving him “love” but the dog may think they are giving him a high rank within this new family and the problems begin.

One of the most important issues to a dog is the stability of the pack. Without leadership, the stability of the pack is threatened.  It is also of great benefit to be the leader. The leader gets to eat first, has the best places to sleep, has reproductive privileges and, in general, has all the best “stuff”. The leadership status is not a gender issue.  Both males and females can and do achieve a high status within the pack.

Status within the pack is generally achieved by subtle body language which is understood and respected by the other pack members.  The high ranking members of the pack do not constantly need to fight for their status, but status seeking members of the pack are acutely aware of weaknesses in the pack membership and will seize opportunities to usurp the leadership. These times of transition are usually short but intense, and cause a great deal of anxiety in the pack until the situation is sorted and stability is again resumed.

So how does this translate to the pet dog and his owner? It could be argued that the above scenario has little to do with the domestic dog. Domestic dogs have been changed from their original wild nature by their relationship with humankind. In the history of humans and dogs, dogs which had a tendency to aggressively seek status among humans were probably eliminated from the breeding program, so to speak. They would not have been tolerated by early humankind. So with this type of ‘selective’ breeding, truly mature or high status members of our domestic dog no longer exist. The animals that have been selectively bred as useful pets are those that remain puppyish throughout life. Sometimes this is physically obvious, as in breeds which keep the big eyes, snub nose and dropped ears of a young puppy. But what is more important, is that domestic dogs usually do not mature into truly dominant dogs.  For the whole of their lives, the nearest to maturity that most domestic dogs will achieve is that of a status-seeking juvenile, and that is the type of aggression that is discussed in this article.

All of this is important information for you to have as the possible owner of one of these status seeking characters.  We are a different species from our pet dogs, and the only way we usually relate to them is as part of our human family. That is acceptable to our dogs because they want to be part of our pack. Where the relationship goes wrong is when we exhibit our very human characteristic of showing affection by giving our dog privileges.

The privileges we give to our pets present conflicting (and inappropriate) indications of its status within the human pack.

To take control you have to take away some or all of the privileges which the dog now enjoys. This may mean removing  ‘possessions’, such as toys, chewies etc.

If food is a contentious issue, take a portion of food and your dog must ‘sit’ or ‘come’ in order to get a titbit. Nothing in life is free. Make demands of your dog in order for it to receive affection, walks or games.  Demands made on you, e.g. pawing or pushing at you, barking for attention, etc. by your dog should be ignored by your turning away or even leaving the room. You are the “top dog” and demands are not made on you!

Take control of sleeping areas by moving the dog’s bed around or even taking it away until you are ready for your dog to lay in it.  If your dog sleeps in your room it should be by your invitation; a special treat with no access except by your invitation.

Begin to take control of threshold issues by attaching a 6 ft. line to the dog’s buckle collar (not a slip collar).  Let him/her drag this around in the house while you are there, and tread on this line as you both go through thresholds.  This is to remind the dog that you are in charge and have the right to go first through thresholds.

Hopefully, this will give you some ideas of what has gone wrong in the relationship between yourself and your dog.  You do NOT want to confront your dog physically. What you do want to do is ‘speak’ to your dog in a language that he/she understands. This means understanding your dogs nature and, therefore, understanding what is significant to it.

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