Dilemma of the Day: “Dominance Aggression”?

I originally included these thoughts in my recent blog post, “Discussing Dominance Theory (Deep Breaths, Everyone)”. However, in an attempt to keep the information more organized and make everything an easier read, I am giving the aforementioned its own post right here.

I agree completely with what Patricia McConnell wrote in her blog post, “Dog Training and the ‘D’ Word,” on April 14th, 2010. She said,

I don’t use the word “dominance” when talking to people about training their dogs. There’s just no profit in it. Even given that dominance is about “priority access” and “social freedom,” but not about how to get it, I still see nothing but the potential for confusion and misuse. Given that in general parlance dominance means “total control,” and that it is so often equated with force (completely inappropriately), I avoid the term as if it were toxic. Which is exactly what I think it can be in this context.

I’m currently very hesitant to incorporate any use of, as Dr. McConnell would say, “the D word.” I literally tense up/growl inside every time I hear someone throw around the words “dominance” and “alpha.” What a headache.

That being said, I only look at “dominance” as a concept that refers to specific interactions between dogs and dogs, not dogs and humans. I have recently been thinking about the term “dominance aggression,” which Dr. McConnell mentioned in her book The Other End of the Leash. (It was published in 2002, and I wish that I could personally have a discussion over tea with Dr. McConnell regarding her most current thoughts on the matter.)

At one point, Dr. McConnell wrote about doing a series of tests with a dog to determine “how he reacts to something mildly aversive” and “what he does when [she starts] to take away his treasure” (133). Dr. McConnell explains:

One of the ways that a dog can react is to go still and “hard-eyed,” a look that correlates with pure offensive aggression–not defensive aggression motivated by fear, not submission, and not passive helplessness. I see it from dogs who aren’t willing to concede an inch and who are signifying their willingness to back up a threat that they have just made. I see it in the few dogs that I think can be accurately described as “dominant aggressive,” like the wolf-dog hybrid whose look I interpreted as “Don’t you ever do that again” and who disciplined me with a single, hard bite to make his point. (133-134)

Emphasis mine.

So… here are some thoughts that I have been mulling over. How are we defining dominance aggression? Is it ever truly accurate/helpful to use this label? If so, would we only be using it to talk about individual incidents, or would it ever be safe/appropriate to use it as a general diagnosis of a dog’s aggression issues? What would be the cause(s) of dominance aggression (such as genetics, lack of socialization, lack of impulse control, and so on)? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter and find more helpful resources.

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