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Unravelling dominance in dogs

02 April 2017
12 mins read
Volume 8 · Issue 3


Aggression is the canine behaviour most likely to lead to relinquishment or euthanasia. Understanding how dogs socially interact and manage conflict is therefore of particular importance to veterinary professionals. Traditional approaches to the prevention and management of canine aggression advocated owners assert themselves as ‘pack leader’ through routine control of all resources and correction of any perceived challenge for them. At its most extreme this included physical punishment and steps to inhibit any initiative by the dog, including free movement and social interaction. The theory evolved from early to mid 20th century research into captive wolf behaviour, embellished by subsequent generations of dog trainers and behaviourists. However, more recent research into the behaviour of non-captive wolves and domesticated dogs, both in the home and living ferally, has brought the dominance theory into question. Perhaps more importantly, progress in the fields of animal welfare and training have highlighted ethical concerns and risks associated with the punitive methods of handling and training recommended by advocates. Modern approaches to modifying and managing the behaviour of the domestic dog use scientific principles to understand the motivation for their behaviour. Change is then facilitated through management of triggers, changing the dog's emotional response to them and manipulating things the dog wants, to encourage preferred behaviour.

Problem behaviour in dogs is potentially life-threatening. In a recent study of 5095 deceased dogs, 4% had been euthanised on behavioural grounds at a median age of just 4.2 years old and unwanted behaviour was the number one reason for eu-thanasia in dogs under 3 years of age (O'Neill et al, 2013). Dogs euthanised by rescue shelters are also predominantly destroyed on behavioural grounds (Bollen and Horowitz, 2008). Prevention, accurate diagnosis and effective treatment of problem behaviour should therefore carry equal weight to the care of an animal's physical health. The first step to achieving this is understanding the natural behaviour of the dog and the factors that can influence it. As aggression is the behaviour most likely to lead to relinquishment or euthanasia, understanding how dogs socially interact and manage conflict, with both humans and other dogs, is of particular importance.

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