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Animal Instincts

Biting the Hand That Feeds

The truth about “dominant” dogs

In the early nineties, a client came to me at Tufts’ Animal Behavior Clinic with a man-sized problem. Her handsome neutered male Dalmatian was biting either her or her husband an estimated 43 times a week, sometimes breaking skin. The husband wanted the dog put to sleep, not only because of its ongoing behavior but because it had tried a Lorena Bobbitt move on him. Naked and dripping wet from the shower, he had stepped over the dog while it was resting. Well, you know what they say about sleeping dogs . . . . Anyway, the woman somehow got her husband to hold his peace until she had paid me a visit.

The diagnosis du jour back then was “dominance aggression,” defined as aggression toward family members over resources, food, or stolen items. Such aggression was thought to arise in response to admonishment, punishment, or postures or gestures perceived to be threatening. In discussing the phenomenon, trainers would refer to pack structure and alpha status as if they were the protoplasm of dog-human relationships. Then they would recommend ways to let the dog know unequivocally who is boss—steps such as “alpha rolls” (rolling the dog on its back and staring into its eyes) and choke chain “corrections.”

But I had always thought that unruly hounds like my client’s Dalmatian were, above all, anxious. And while I agreed that physically punishing a dog could stop an unwanted behavior in its tracks, I did not believe that this approach was appropriate, humane, or effective over the long term. As Dwight Eisenhower said, “You do not lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.”

So I instructed my client and her husband to radiate confidence and avoid any unnecessary confrontations that would fuel their dog’s anxiety. They were also to make the dog work for a living. No more would food come as manna from heaven. Instead it would be earned—by sitting on cue, for example. Ditto treats, games, and petting. I call this the Smith Barney approach, from the old commercial (“We make money the old fashioned way. We earn it.”) Because of the severity of the dog’s problem, I also prescribed Prozac.

The result was immediate. The dog displayed no further aggression for six months. But then one day, the woman’s husband, perhaps still smarting from his earlier experience, grabbed the dog by the jowls and, for no good reason, lifted it to eye level. The dog bit him. Provoked though it was, this last bout of aggression was the last straw for the owners, and the dog was euthanized.

Research has vindicated my skepticism about dominance aggression. It has been shown that “dominant” dogs are indeed anxious, and that they exhibit many fearful behaviors like separation anxiety and thunderstorm phobia. The pack concept has also been debunked. We now know that although dogs may view each other as members of a pack, they most likely do not see us in the same light. Some behaviorists have coined the term “conflict-related aggression” to describe the troubles of dogs that appear to be excessively dominant.

The truth is that we humans are probably more aggressive than most other species. How many of us have gone through life without ever raising our voice? How many have never gestured at or struck someone? Very few, I suspect. So why should we expect our dogs to be totally placid? The odd growl for taking away a bone or messing with the food bowl should not bother us. Even a lip lift, a snap, or a mild laying on of teeth might be acceptable under some circumstances. Granted, multiple biting incidents, especially those severe enough to bruise or puncture skin, must be dealt with immediately, but 70 percent of dogs with conflict-induced aggression improve greatly within two months following a behavior appointment at the Cummings School. Ninety percent of such dogs are so much better that their owners no longer consider them a problem. And the results are long lasting.

The old school of “one bite and you’re out” is finally giving way to a greater appreciation of issues between dog and owner. We’re starting to see the wisdom of Mark Twain’s words on the subject: “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

One of the world’s leading animal behaviorists, NICHOLAS DODMAN directs the Animal Behavior Program at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and is the author of four bestsellers in the field. He is the editor of Puppy’s First Steps: The Whole Dog Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Puppy (Houghton-Mifflin).

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