Gun Dog Dominance or Insecurity

Gun Dog Dominance or Insecurity

Mistaking one for the other can have tragic results.

Background to Problem
The breeder contacted me about a 15-month-old male retriever from his most recent litter, saying the dog had aggression issues with food. He said he had personally observed the dog in the home, in the field while hunting with other male dogs, training with other dogs present as well as people, and while walking in a dog park with other dogs and people, including children, with no hint of aggression problems.


He contacted all the owners of the other pups from this large litter with none of them reporting any aggressive tendencies. Only this one dog growled when being fed, which had escalated to snarling and then to vigorously defending his food when it was put down for him.

The owner tried to correct the dog by grabbing him over the muzzle and removing him from his food by hauling him back by his collar while verbally reprimanding. This action seemingly resulted in the rapid escalation of the problem.


I spoke to the owner of the dog by phone, and he verified what the breeder had written and answered other questions about the dog's home life. The owner added a major reason for concern--the imminent adoption of a two-year-old boy. There were no other children in the home.


Making things more precarious, the dog was to be sent to a trainer for several weeks for finishing while the owner was away finalizing the adoption process. Two weeks later, the report from the trainer was forwarded to me.

The trainer and his kennel people could not safely feed the dog, as he growled and snarled first when food was put down, later when they were just approaching and eventually escalating to where he would not allow them to enter his kennel. They had to resort to locking the dog into the outside run and putting the food inside before allowing him to re-enter after they were safely out of the kennel. However, the dog then started urinating into adjacent pens through the wire.

Adjacent runs had to be left vacant. The dog then began growling at everyone who passed by his run. The trainer concluded the dog was showing dominance issues. The trainer then attempted "collar training" for retrieve training, but the dog either cowered or snarled at the trainer. The dog finally bit the trainer on the arm when being forced into the transport crate in a pickup truck.

Assessment, Options
The trainer is not having much success with your dog; he definitely has gone downhill since being with the trainer. I am certain your dog does not have a dominance issue as your trainer suggests.

I think it is the dog's major insecurity kicking in. He has learned that if he growls, it drives most people away. If the growl doesn't work, he goes to the snarl. If that doesn't work, he bites. He has learned that he has to escalate the severity of his threat as the pressure increases.

I assume "collar training" is using the e-collar to force the dog in the direction the trainer wants him to go. This makes your dog feel even more insecure. Insecure dogs are like paranoid people, always afraid someone is going to take their stuff or hurt them. His urinating all over everything in the kennel is like someone who puts up fences with barbed wire and broken beer bottles to keep everyone out.

It has little to do with dominance over dogs and nothing to do with dominance over people. Insecurity-initiated aggression is too often mistaken for dominance aggression. In reality, dominance aggression rarely occurs, but is just misinterpreted as dominance. More often the dog is being defensive.

From what the breeder said in his original letter to me, the dog has no problems training or hunting with other male dogs in the field, clearly indicating this is not a dominance thing at all. He also has no problem with people in a training/hunting situation. His only problem comes from being put under physical, and therefore, to him, mental pressure--like when he was grabbed over the muzzle, moved off his food and reprimanded; or when the trainer worked him on the collar or forced him into the pickup. He was put into a corner and so ran through his repertoire of responses, including biting the trainer.

There are several courses you can take. The most practical solution would be to take the dog back to the breeder if he will take him back. My reasoning for this option is that I think you and your wife will be on edge every minute the dog and your new son are in proximity. The dog will pick up on your anxiety and not know what the problem is.

I expect that you will try to keep your dog and your little boy separated as much and as far apart as possible, which means isolating the dog. That will not be the best thing for getting the dog back to normal, and the worst scenario could happen.

Another course you can take is to hire a professional animal behaviorist who specializes in dog behavior problems. The person could come to your home to work with the dog and the child in your normal, everyday mode of living, setting out a program for you and the dog to follow. The person would get the situation smoothed out, get the dog back on an even keel and give you a program that you, your wife and your young boy could follow so everyone, people and dog, feels safe.

This would need to be someone who specializes in these kinds of behavior problems. Expect to pay between $150-250 or more an hour for the person's time. I don't do this myself except very locally because I don't have the time, but also because I don't like charging that kind of money to individuals for a service they can do themselves if they know how.

Your other option is to try doing it yourself, which could be risky. The dog must have his place that is inviolate and is his exclusively where he feels secure, a place where he can go when he gets upset, not a place for punishment or "time outs." He should also be coming to you and sitting quietly whenever he wants something, be it petting attention, going outside to the bathroom, feeding, receiving fresh water or anything.

He should not be commanded to sit, but rather, this is something he has to do to request assistance from you ("you" means collectively everyone in the family). He has to learn to ask with confidence, and that if he works, he gets rewarded.

If he growls, ignore him, walk away and let him know you are not interested in his growling. When he has asked you to be fed by sitting beside his feeding spot or the food bin, prepare his food, set it down and leave him alone. If he growls, ignore it and walk away.

Under no circumstances should you even acknowledge his growl. If you do acknowledge it in any way, it will reinforce the behavior. This is the mistake your trainer made, which caused it to escalate. We want it to extinguish.

I don't think he will hurt your son if he is not pushed too hard or doesn't

get into a close-encounter-type situation. Your son will have to be trained also, so he doesn't cause problems unintentionally--very difficult for a two-year-old. He will need to understand that the dog has his space and the boy has his.

Both spaces are inviolate to the other. If you choose this third approach and need more specific suggestions, e-mail me. Or better, you might choose to combine the second and the third. I suspect both options are preferable to the first.

Follow-Up
The owner elected the third option. Within days of the son's arrival, the wife was sitting with the dog beside her. The child approached quickly and the dog bit him in the face.

The dog was euthanized as the only option to prevent more severe consequences. There was no time to initiate corrective measures. The dog's insecurity was never addressed.

For solutions to your dog's behavioral problems or behavior-related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at edbailey@uoguelph.ca

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