Welcome to the all-new Vetlearn

  • Vetlearn is becoming part of NAVC VetFolio.
    Starting in January 2015, Compendium and
    Veterinary Technician articles will be available on
    NAVC VetFolio. VetFolio subscribers will have
    access to not only the journals, but also:
  • Over 500 hours of CE
  • Community forums to discuss tough cases
    and networking with your peers
  • Three years of select NAVC Conference
  • Free webinars for the entire healthcare team

To access Vetlearn, you must first sign in or register.


  Sign up now for:
Become a Member

Veterinarian Technician July 2005 (Vol 26, No 7)

Ain't Misbehavin' Problem Puppies—New Theories on Dominance

by Julie K. Shaw, KPA-CTP, RVT, VTS (Behavior)

    Behavior problems in dogs are usually learned and can often be prevented. Technicians should be aware of common behavior problems and why these problems occur so they can educate clients about proper punishment and reward techniques. This article discusses common reasons behavior problems occur in puppies and specifically how the dominance paradigm (i.e., owners should be the leader of their dog pack) can be detrimental to these puppies and their owners.

    The Dominance Theory

    When a dog shows signs of aggression, people automatically tend to say that the dog is being "dominant." The dominance theory, which stems from the concept that dogs are descended from wolves and, therefore, must conform to a similar social hierarchy, is treated by many veterinary behaviorists as a myth. Originally based on studies conducted on wolf packs in the 1940s, the dominance theory made several assumptions1:

    • The human family replaces the dog pack.
    • The dog tries to gain the top position over the family members.
    • The dog may become aggressive toward lower-ranking members of "the pack."

    Three significant flaws were evident in the early research:

    • The initial wolf studies were short term and only focused on about 1% of a wolf's life, namely, hunting.2
    • The sweeping conclusion that dogs have social hierarchies similar to wolves was made from this information and then generalized to dogs and to the human-canine relationship.
    • The researchers observed what are now known to be ritualistic displays and misinterpreted them as forcible dominance displays. For example, researchers determined that a higher-ranking wolf forcibly pins a "subordinate" wolf to the ground. It is now known that the "subordinate" wolf is not forced to the ground but voluntarily assumes the position as part of ritualized appeasement behavior.2

    Ian Dunbar, PhD, BVetMed, MRCVS, CPDT, veterinarian, animal behaviorist, dog trainer, and writer, made the observation that trying to understand dogs better by looking at wolf behavior is comparable to humans attempting to improve their parenting skills by observing primates.1

    The dominance theory complicates the relationship humans have with dogs. In the past, puppies were considered dominant when they demanded petting, pushed through doorways, jumped up to greet people, or guarded objects. It is now understood that when a puppy demands petting or paws at its owner, it is simply performing a conditioned behavior. The puppy is rewarded for pawing when the owner gives it attention. Pushing through a doorway is simply an indication that sitting at the door has not been taught. Jumping on visitors is a greeting behavior and is conditioned by people responding to the behavior with touch and attention. Guarding of a resource, such as a toy or food, is almost always initially related to fear or anxiety but becomes conditioned through avoidance conditioning. The puppy becomes more confident after experiencing the success of getting out of the stressful situation and eventually no longer shows anxiousness. Guarding of a resource can be an early indication that a puppy is at risk of developing conflict-related aggression.

    The New Human-Dog Relationship

    Dominance aggression has been defined as aggression toward household members in situations in which the social position of the dominant dog is challenged. It was believed that dominance aggression was seen most commonly in intact males between 2 and 3 years of age. It was thought that dogs demonstrating dominance aggression were confident, pushy dogs that showed confident body language.

    In 1999, research from the Ontario Veterinary College and the Atlantic Veterinary College showed that aggression toward family members is not typically a problem of intact male dogs.3 Although male dogs were overrepresented, neutering had no influence, and females of small breeds were more likely to bite. The research also indicated that aggression toward family members is typically a puppy problem (puppies less than 1 year of age) and was seen as early as 3 to 4 months of age.

    In this study, dogs often demonstrated conflicting rather than confident body language and trembled and slinked away after an attack.3 Owners reported that the dog seemed remorseful, and they often described the dog as having a "Jekyll and Hyde" personality. It is common for these dogs to show conflict and anxiety behaviors during a behavior consultation.

    Dogs that were aggressive to family members were likely to have had a serious illness in the first 4 months of life,4 were not walked off the property often, and showed a high level of excitement, reactivity, and fearfulness. Dogs often performed ritualized conflict behaviors in the owner's presence.5

    An Alternate Explanation to the Dominance Theory

    Whenever dogs are uncertain or uncomfortable in a situation (i.e., conflict situation), they learn to use aggression to avoid the situation (i.e., avoidance conditioning). Dogs can become less fearful because they learn how to avoid the fear-provoking situation.

    Common situations in which dogs may become aggressive include being picked up or restrained, confronted, stared at, or punished. Dogs also may show aggression if someone reaches over them or makes them move off of a couch or other space. They may become aggressive over food items or other objects.

    Dogs that are aggressive often have owners who have a strong anthropomorphic involvement with their dog, such as giving the dog special meals, giving frequent treats not in a consistent manner (see Hyperexcitability), or allowing the dog to sleep in their bedroom. The individuals are usually first-time pet owners who lack knowledge of training or have used punishment-based training methods. The owner's interactions with the dog are frequently inconsistent and unpredictable.

    Common Behavior Problems

    Applying the dominance theory to common behavior problems can have detrimental effects. For example, a puppy that is already fearful or aggressive should not be pinned to the ground because this tactic will only serve to intensify the puppy's current state of anxiety. Understanding the causes of common behavior problems is key to learning how to treat these problems.

    Fear and Anxiety Issues

    Some puppies are generally fearful of their environment, whereas others may have specific fears of people, objects, or other dogs. The following are common reasons puppies are presented for fear and anxiety:

    • Genetic factors can contribute to fear and anxiety in puppies that are less than 8 weeks of age. Puppies do not learn from bad experiences until after 8 weeks of age; therefore, puppies this young should recover from a frightening experience without making an association with the frightening stimulus. Some puppies also have a genetic predisposition to becoming fearful during their first or second fear period (8 to 10 weeks or 6 to 18 months of age, respectively). The prognosis for puppies with genetic fear issues is usually poor.
    • Lack of socialization can also contribute to fear and anxiety. A puppy's socialization period (4 to 14 weeks of age) is a sensitive time in its development. If not socialized properly, a puppy may become fearful of any environmental stimuli that it did not encounter during this time.
    • Trauma, which can include punishment or aversive or physical abuse during the socialization period, can ruin a puppy's behavior for life. The socialization period is also the first fear period; therefore, a puppy in this age range is very sensitive to the development of lifelong fear issues. A second fear period occurs about the time of puberty, during which a puppy can also be permanently damaged psychologically by a fear-provoking experience.
    • Learning can also play a role in the development of fear and anxiety issues. Puppies begin to learn from aversive situations after 8 weeks of age. Often, fears are very specific and can be attributed to specific events. A puppy may have a frightening experience when handled roughly by a child and therefore learns to avoid children. Because these fears may be quite specific, they can be treated more easily.

    Conditioned Unwanted Behaviors

    Conditioned unwanted behaviors are behaviors that have been conditioned through classical or operant conditioning. Hyperexcitability and play that is too rough or inappropriate are both examples of common conditioned unwanted behaviors seen in puppies. Traditional punishment, such as grabbing the puppy's muzzle, is rarely effective in these situations and is likely to cause adverse side effects, such as increasing anxiety.


    Although some degree of hyperexcitability may be normal in certain breeds (e.g., terriers), this behavior is often conditioned in some puppies. Puppies exhibiting these behaviors are often conditioned by the owners when they give the puppy attention during excitable periods. Owners who constantly interact with their puppy often cause it to continually seek attention. The puppies are virtually never "off duty." Hyperexcitability can be reduced greatly by ignoring inappropriate behavior; interacting in a consistent manner, such as by giving a command, waiting for the puppy to respond, and then giving a reward (command-response-reward); and teaching appropriate behaviors, which owners can then substitute for an inappropriate response (response substitution). Hyperexcitability can also be reduced dramatically by walking the puppy away from its property twice daily for mental stimulation.

    Inappropriate Play

    Owners and family members often inadvertently reward inappropriate play with attention or even punishment. Common inappropriate play may include tugging of clothing, jumping, and excessive mouthing of family members. Traditional punishment such as pinning the puppy to the ground, grabbing the puppy's muzzle, spanking, or shaking a can filled with pennies is rarely, if ever, needed. This type of punishment is almost always administered inappropriately and can frighten the puppy; some puppies even find aversive attention rewarding.

    Aggression Toward Family Members

    Owners often become frustrated and angry when inappropriate play and hyperexcitability continue. They may increase their punishment of the play behavior to the point that the puppy becomes confused and frightened, which creates a motivational conflict (the puppy wants to play with the owner but is frightened at the same time). This scenario can easily lead to an aggressive situation.

    Other Factors

    If a puppy learns through proper methods — and not by using the dominance theory — and if there is clear communication between puppy and owner, behavior problems can be prevented. Owners can prevent puppies from learning how to avoid potentially frightening situations by intervening before the learning process can progress to aggression. Poor communication between owner and puppy can also cause behavior problems through rewarding un­wanted behaviors, using punishment inappropriately, or attempting to become the "leader of their puppy's pack" (i.e., the dominance theory).


    Puppies often learn how to avoid frightening situations through avoidance conditioning. Avoidance conditioning occurs when a behavior can prevent a negative stimulus (or what the subject thinks may be a negative stimulus) from occurring. For example, if a puppy has learned that being picked up suddenly can be frightening, it may learn that growling when it is approached prevents the potentially frightening stimulus from occurring. Puppies that misbehave as a result of avoidance conditioning are very re­sist­ant to change. Virtually all aggression by puppies less than 16 weeks of age is fear based (not dominance related) and learned through avoidance conditioning.

    Poor Communication

    Conditioned Unwanted Behaviors

    Owners often condition unwanted behavior because they do not understand basic learning theory. For example, they may push a puppy down when it jumps up. The owners believe they are reprimanding the puppy, but the puppy finds this interaction rewarding. Owners often tell their puppy what not to do instead of telling the puppy what to do. Owners sometimes interact inconsistently with their puppy by talking to them and generally treating them like children, which inadvertently rewards many of the behaviors the owners find inappropriate.

    Inappropriate Use of Punishment

    Positive punishment is adding something (e.g., physical punishment, shaker cans, squirt bottles) to decrease a behavior. This type of punishment is rarely needed with a puppy, almost always makes behavior problems worse, and is rarely administered properly (e.g., incorrect timing, used inconsistently, improper associations with the behavior and the owner, improper intensity).

    Negative punishment is removing something the puppy wants in order to stop a behavior. An example would be withdrawal of the owner's attention from a misbehaving puppy. The use of negative punishment is much less likely to inflame existing behavior problems or inappropriately reward unwanted behaviors.


    The dominance theory often damages the human-animal bond because owners believe their puppy views them as a lower-ranking pack member. Owners often feel they need to practice techniques such as "scruff shaking," "alpha roll overs," and other domination techniques to control their puppy. These techniques increase anxiety and fear for both the owner and the puppy and are counterproductive in the treatment process. Owners are often relieved and compliant to the treatment plan when they understand that the puppy is not trying to dominate them but is anxious and uncertain.

    Fox M: The Behaviour of Wolves, Dogs and Related Canines. New York, Harper and Row, 1971.

    Guy NC, Luescher UA, Dohoo SE, et al: A case series of biting dogs: Characteristics of the dogs, their behaviour, and their victims. Appl Anim Behav Sci 74:43-57, 2001.

    Luescher A: Canine aggression toward owners: Conflict-related aggression. Vet Tech 24(3):170-175, 2003.

    Mech DL: The Way of the Wolf. Stillwater, MN, Voyager Press, 1991.

    Scott J, Fuller J: Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog: The Classic Study. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1965.

    1. Buitrago P: Debunking the dominance myth: SVBT Newsletter 4:2, 2005.

    2. Murie A: The Wolves of Mount McKinley. Washington, DC, US Government Printing Office, 1944.

    3. Guy NC, Luescher UA, Dohoo SE, et al: Demographic and aggressive characteristics of dogs in a general veterinary caseload. Appl Anim Behav Sci 74:15-28, 2001.

    4. Serpell J, Jagoe JA: Early experience and the development of behavior, in Serpell J (ed): The Domestic Dog, Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp 79-102.

    5. Guy NC, Luescher UA, Dohoo SE, et al: Risk factors for dog bites to owners in a general veterinary caseload. Appl Anim Behav Sci 74:29-42, 2001.

    References »

    NEXT: Calving Problems in Beef Cows


    Did you know... Providing basic behavioral services can help increase practice revenue and imporove patient health.Read More

    These Care Guides are written to help your clients understand common conditions. They are formatted to print and give to your clients for their information.

    Stay on top of all our latest content — sign up for the Vetlearn newsletters.
    • More