The third prong of our working definition of aggression is behavior used as a means to secure or change social standing in the dog’s environment. This is a touchy subject that has led to a huge level of distraction and many misguided training methods over the years.
Dogs are presented as pack animals. The traditional human perception of a canine pack is very male-oriented and hierarchical. There is a clear “alpha” male that rules all from on top. He is expected to make all the decisions and get the benefits of being King; the best food, the best female, the best place to sleep. He is expected to make all the pack’s decisions. The “alpha female” is the next in the pecking order. She is expected to be his best girl, get the best cast offs from her King, and to keep the others in line. Sooner or later, as one of the upcoming males matures, or if another better male enters the pack’s territory, there may be a showdown. The males face off and, a la “The Lion King” or any spaghetti Western movie, the dust clears with one male on top and the other either dead in the street or slinking off in shame. There can be Only One.
But reality is not so clear. This male-dominated, strictly hierarchical pack concept was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries by observing wolves, many in captive situations. Much of this observation was done by male scientists, themselves a product of a male dominated, hierarchical society and set of disciplines.
Current research, even in wolves, is not necessarily so clear. There does appear to be a generalized “alpha male” in wolf social groups. In the wild, however, the day to day decisions regarding hunting, travel, and activity seem to be much more loosely made. The “alpha” male does seem to have preferential breeding access to females, but the strict, cast-in-concrete rule of a single King does not reflect reality.
The male-dominated hierarchical stratification of command has been overlaid by some on domestic dogs in our homes. They see dogs as set into rigid rankings, only overturned by fight, deference by an aging “alpha” dog, or death. They also see dogs as needing a clear, physically dominant human “ruling” over the pack as the subordinates quietly plot the leader’s overthrow.
Progressive trainers, behaviorists and animal psychologists are now applying the newer assessments of wolf behavior and pack structure as a more fluid, democratic process into our practices with our companion dogs. It no longer appears that your pet is waiting a sign of weakness to overthrow your “rule” and challenge the social order in your home. Rather than seeing the place of a human as the forcible, physical dominator of a submissive pack, a more cooperative relationship is developing. This less authoritarian relationship is based on clear communication, limits taught by reinforcement and repetition, and consistency in permitting behaviors.
Based on this new data, past appraisals of attacks as “dominant” must be reexamined. In my research I have yet to see a single fatal dog attack that was clearly a result of a dog and a human facing off for “dominance”. More common is a dog that attacks from fear or lack of socialization. This is a reaction to a perceived threat. A lesser number of dogs have attacked due to resource guarding behavior. Either way, the attacks are not the result of “dominance aggression” or an attempted coup.
This does not mean that dominance and dominance aggression do not exist. There is, particularly between breeding age intact animals, a matter of social standing and some of this is sorted out through aggression. After all, our definition of aggression includes using aggressive behavior as a means to adjust or establish social order. It is just not the driving force in canine/human interactions that some believe. Dogs clearly know that humans are not dogs. Our relationship is more complex and more a result of cooperative social evolution over time.
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