Dominance versus Aggression – Why They Are Different

Here’s a pop quiz. I’m going to offer up two words and want you to note the first thing that comes to your mind.


Here goes:

Dominant dog

What was the first image that came to your mind?

Probably something that looks a bit like one of the pictures at the top of this post, right?


When it gets to the point where a dog is baring its teeth and moving towards a bite, that’s aggression. All too often people are quick to call a dog “aggressive” when the truth is that it’s just exhibiting dominant behavior. Conversely, if I had a nickel for every time someone called merely “dominant” behavior an “attack” or “aggressive” I’d be up to my eyeballs in nickels.

This is particularly grievous when I hear folks talking about how Pit Bulls or Bully Breeds are “aggressive” dogs. They’re not. At least not by nature. They are, however, deeply dominant dogs, because that’s how they’re wired. Pit Bull Terriers, as pretty much all of the Bully Breeds were created as working dogs – dogs designed for specific tasks. Any breeds created for “work” (this would include hunting and sporting breeds, herding breeds and any other general working dog) have a deeper level of dominant tendency than others. This is a direct function of the fact that the dog was specifically created to accomplish something -guarding/protecting, hunting, herding, etc… As such, if there is no clear leader, these dogs will fill that space. They have to. For any dogs that fall into these categories, when dominance goes unchecked or – in the worst scenarios – gets fostered, encouraged and even trained and rewarded, then you get a dog that will lay its teeth on anything and due to its sheer size and power, serious damage will be the result.

But I digress.

Let’s set the record straight.

First and foremost EVERY dog has dominant traits. Every one of them. From the smallest of teacup Chihuahuas to the most giant of Mastiff breeds, every dog has within it some innate sense of dominance. This is because in a dog’s world there is no direct peer parity. There is no “I’m exactly the same as you”. There is only an understanding of place in the pack as being above or below another. This is not to say that every dog wants or tries to be alpha. Just as in the human world not every person wants to be the CEO or leader, not every dog wants to be the top of the pack. Their entirely hierarchical understanding of the world, however, does mean that constant jockeying for place is part of their existence. As noted above, there are some breeds (many actually) where the inclination to the higher end of the dominance scale *is* innate to who they are.

How that dominant behavior manifests depends entirely on the individual dog – a more introverted dog may exhibit dominant traits by laying in your path in a hallway, nudging up against you demanding attention, submission peeing when someone comes in the house. A more extroverted dog will have the behaviors manifest in more obviously dominant ways – always jumping on people, pulling on the leash when you walk, not coming when called and that sort of thing.

Dominance isn’t one thing but rather a sliding scale of myriad behaviors that exist on a very long and very wide spectrum. It is only when that behavior evolves into the dog laying its teeth on something (or someone) that it has become “aggressive”. In today’s society we are very quick to call something an ‘attack’ or ‘aggression’ when the truth is, especially for dogs who don’t have language or reasoning skills, the use of snarling, snapping and such merely reflects communication along a spectrum. Granted it is on the more extreme end of the spectrum, but it does not indicate that the dog is aggressive.

Summing up, dominance is an innate quality of all dogs.

Aggression is different. Aggression is a socialized, behavioral manifestation based on some experience a dog has. Sometimes the experience is environmental (a dog that’s abused, lives on the street and has to fend for itself, goes through a trauma) and sometimes that experience is taught (dogs that are bred for their extreme dominance and then taught that attacking is the right answer and in some cases given the taste for blood to make them more vicious).

Just the other day we had someone come to Hydrant Club for an assessment. Their dog, a four-month-old, unaltered, male English Bulldog, had presented signs of extreme dominance when they came for their initial assessment. The English Bulldog is one of those breeds that has a deeply innate sense of dominance – they were bred for “bull baiting” a barbaric practice that inclined this particular breed to a deep sense of dominance that can easily incline into aggression. This secondary visit was to determine if he would pass muster for spending time in daycare for training purposes. On coming to the front door and walking past the daycare dogs, the entire pack triggered to the new dog outside. This is, of course, entirely normal. Dogs will always respond to a dog (or other stimulation) outside a fence. Where the situation shifted a bit was in the intensity/energy of their response (which was intense and sharp with the dogs refusing to stand down) as well as the bulldog’s response (which was to bristle, bark and take a physically challenging position in return). A calm, behaviorally stable dog might bark or alert in response but would walk on without having to challenge back.

Think of it this way. You’re walking through a crowded space (bar, restaurant, mall, county fair), and someone brushes up against you, jarring your shoulder and shoving you off balance a bit. You pause as does the other person. Do you shove them back? Do you haul off and punch them in the face? Of course not. Most likely they didn’t even mean to do it, and so they would likely apologize. If they don’t apologize, you might think them rude, but again you don’t just hit them. More directly, if someone were to shove you with intent, is your first response to punch or hit them back? If so, I might suggest some anger management or deep breathing, as a “stable” (aka responsible and socially appropriate) response would be to pause, step back and stand your ground and assess before attacking.

The next step in the Bulldog’s assessment was entering the building to meet our initial screening dogs (a 70 pound Labradoodle, a 20 pound terrier mix and a 13 pound poodle mix). Opening the front door to Hydrant Club’s lobby the dogs inside alerted (engaged and forward body language with welcoming tail wags and cautious carriage of ears), at which point the bulldog barked sharply (a warning bark) and took a defensive posture. One of the dogs inside responded with a sharp bark and sharp move forward to which the bulldog responded with a highly dominant growl bark. There was no “aggression” in the interaction – merely a standing leader of a pack warning a newcomer that a dominant approach wasn’t welcome. A balanced, stable dog entering would have stood its ground and showed deference to the stronger energy. That was the point at which the humans escalated the energy by each lunging forward, one of them yelling out to which the Bulldog and Terrier mix both responded with sharper barks and growls. There was no contact and the situation was diffused quickly, but the Bulldog’s initial behavior and responses indicate a level of dominance already moving into the “red zone” of aggression. With proper education for the hyumans

Compare the above situation with another assessment of an English Mastiff puppy of precisely the same age as the bulldog – also unaltered – which took place yesterday. Walking up the path to our Clubhouse, the daycare dogs in the outdoor yard all ran to the fence with mid-range tone, alert but welcome barks. The Mastiff puppy continued walking up the path, looking over at the dogs, tail relaxed and wagging, ears forward and entire body language relaxed. The dogs at the fence ceased barking almost immediately and stood with equally relaxed body postures. Entering the lobby, the initial screening dogs all approached and surrounded the puppy. He stood entirely still, tail at mid level with slight wag, ears relaxed and body posture entirely deferential. As each of the dogs sniffed him, he turned to touch noses, and then as they stepped back he engaged each of them individually with slow, respectful energy.

Yes these are two distinctly different breeds the innate characteristics of which are different, but behavioral stability has no breed requirement. In fact, there are some breeds for which establishing a strong and solid baseline of balanced behavior is even more crucial due to the innate dominant tendencies those breeds might have.

This is why whether you have a purebred or a mixed breed dog having some knowledge of what type of dog you have is so important. Having this information is not about being able to show off that you have some sort of exotic or special pup, but rather being able to better understand the behavioral inclinations of your dog and thus being able to better handle them. In fact knowing before you GET the dog can help you find a dog that actually fits with your own temperament … something if done by more people might just result in fewer dogs ending up in shelters due to owner/pup mismatching … which is a rant for another post.

For the sake of this discussion though, two things to remember:
Dominance is innate to all dogs – regardless of breed. How it manifests is a combination of breed/breed mix as well as an individual dog’s personality
Aggression is a socialized behavior that comes either from circumstance or training and can in almost all cases be addressed and resolved.