Dominance vs. Aggression


We've got a very dominant Border Collie that likes to be the boss over all the other dogs she comes in contact with. Right now she's only 8 months old but I'm afraid she will become aggressive with us as soon as she matures a little bit more. So far she hasn't even growled at myself or the children but I've heard it's only a matter of time before a really dominant dog decides to take over the household and becomes severely aggressive. Is there something we can do to prevent this?


It's important to understand that not all aggressive dogs are dominant and not all dominant dogs are aggressive. The two can go hand in hand (and often do) but are not mutually determinative.

There are 2 forms of dominant dogs. A dog that is dog-dominant and one that is human-dominant. Again, they often go together but aren't conditioned upon one another. I have a dog that is a royal bitch when it comes to any other dog - no one would dare stare at her funny. She puts all the pushy newcomer rescues in their place and has yet to meet her (Border Collie) match. However, she is a complete softy when it comes to humans. Any harsh words or tone from someone - even a nasty glance - and she is over on her back with her legs in the air. I also have rescues that come through here that are kings of their human pack families, but in the company of a few steadfast Border Collies, they cower in the corner.

In my opinion, there are 4 basic forms of aggression in dogs (though there are actually TONS of variations of these forms of aggression, resulting in many more different types of aggresssion. Protective aggression for example is a variation of protection aggression, etc.)- fear-aggression, possession aggression, dominance aggression, and (un)natural aggression.

Natural aggression is where the dog just has something mentally wrong and "snaps", letting loose with a flurry of aggression. This can be psychological but more than likely a chemical imbalance or defect in the brain. These dogs are generally euthanized (and should be). (We just don't know enough to cure them.)

Dominance aggression is what you suspect it is - aggression when a member of lower rank tries to challenge or push someone of higher rank. The higher rank individual shows the aggression to squelch the uprise. This is where your confusion rises from, as this can be observed readily and we tend to use the terms interchangeably - though they are not. Lower ranked, though not unmatched, dogs will also show aggression in an attempt to take over that higher position. A dog, in relation to a human pack member, should never occupy either of these. They should always be of lower rank and not so close in dominance as to be able to challenge the authority with aggression.

Fear aggression results from a fearful dog resorting to its last defense - one of physical force. This is the old "backed up into a corner" idea - be it physically or psychologically. You don't always have to have one backed in a true, physical corner or scared to death to get the reaction. Even though there may be other avenues of action available, the dogs doesn't know of them or have the skills to see them and thinks it has no other options. Striking out of fear can become a knee-jerk reaction for them over time.

Possession aggression comes as a result or byproduct of fear or dominance aggression - a "hands off my stuff" reaction to the threat of losing something. It is almost always food or treats that are at issue but it can also be toys, leashes, attention, or even a place to lie down. Dominant dogs display this as a bossy way of keeping their things. Fearful dogs do it as one final attempt to keep possession over the item before giving in.

As long as you are consistent in your treatment of your dominant dog and not allow her to begin to think that she is slowly vying for the role of leader, you shouldn't have much of a problem.

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