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News Flash: "Dominance Aggression" Doesn't Exist

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

When it comes to aggression, there is no “one size fits all.” At it’s core, aggression is simply a category of behavioral responses designed to increase distance between the user and the target and/or to control a situation causing the user emotional or physical distress. It doesn’t speak to the underlying motivation, of which there are many. Below are just some of the aggression diagnoses that are commonly used:

  • Fear based aggression

  • Conflict aggression

  • Redirected aggression

  • Arousal based aggression

  • Resource guarding aggression

  • Territorial aggression

  • Interdog aggression

  • Predatory aggression

Every one of these types will have specific underlying motivations and many have further subcategories. The one that I really want to focus on today, though, is conflict aggression.

Whale Eye
Staring Portuguese Water Dog

Before I really dove into the world for animal behavior, this type of aggression really confused me. Professionals always indicated that “aggression is based out of fear,” but any time I saw conflict aggression, the animal looked pretty confident to me. I remember the first time I recognized conflict aggression working in general practice. My patient was a Portuguese Water Dog who needed an intranasal Bordetella vaccine. As I walked up to him (staring him dead in the eye of course… ugh), I reached out to grasp his muzzle, and, “without warning,” he bit me.

There were none of the traditional “I don’t like this” body language:

  • No ears back

  • No leaning away

  • No lip licking

  • No looking away

He seemed like he was just sitting there. Now that I know better, I can look back on this memory and recognize a LOT of aggressive body language:

  • Stiff, not moving

  • Staring

  • Tense mouth

  • Dilate pupils

  • Visible whites of the eyes

If you can use your own mind’s eye to envision this interaction with me, it’s no wonder that conflict aggression used to be called “dominance aggression.” Other times this type of aggression shows up is when you’re trying to get the dog off the bed or couch. If you walk up and pet them while they’re resting. If you accidentally nudge them while they’re sleeping on your feet.

We know now that dogs do not create dominance hierarchies with other species. In fact, no animal does. There are social structures among their own kind, but that doesn’t translate to others. Instead of being a dominant based behavior, I think of conflict aggression as a type of “person bubble protection.” As a chronically exhausted mother of two crazy boys, I can absolutely relate to that. I’m trying to sit on the couch at the end of a long day and the last thing I want is for little kids to crawl all over me. I want to be present, but I don’t want my bubble to be invaded. As a result, I might “snap” and tell them to knock it off. It’s not fear based in the way we would traditionally think of, but it is based out of a negative emotional state. Maybe I’m frustrated, overwhelmed, overstimulated, angry, irritable, etc. It’s not fear. I’m not worried they’re going to hurt me; I just want to be left alone right now.

Exhausted Mom

The same is true for our dogs. There are times that they want to be present, but maybe not bothered. Dogs that spend time in the same room as us clearly want to be nearby, but that doesn’t mean they want to be “glommed” on all the time. As a result, they will give warnings to encourage you to stay away. However, if those subtle warnings are missed, they will escalate their communication to make it clearer.

Recognizing canine body language is the key to building positive, healthy relationships with our dogs. They are masters at reading us, but we rarely are with them. The best way to prevent and treat aggressive behaviors is to become fluent in "dog." Thankfully, there are a variety of resources available to help you do just that:

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