Dominance Aggression

Avoid the pack-leader philosophy when dealing with an aggressive dog and try good old-fashioned bonding--the results may surprise you.

(Problem) We are at a loss about what to do with an aggressive Chesapeake female. Before wasn't so much an issue but now we have a new baby in the house and things are getting worse. The dog is trained at roughly SH level and will run tests this summer. We train with groups and I am friends with field trialers, breeders and hunters, and I hunt the dog myself.

After some initial advice as her aggressiveness began to pop up as a puppy (pack behavior, top-dog stuff, tons of obedience training, kennel command, "Okay" command for eating, watching for subtle top-dog stuff like bumps when coming to heel, paws on feet, etc.), we are now at a loss about what to do. I judiciously use an e-collar in training, introducing it in the last six months. She is force-fetched. Her breeding history is fuzzy at best.

The dog goes absolutely nutty when I go to her kennel to get her out. She happily and quickly responds to the kennel command going in but growls and lunges when I try to get her out. She is most happy when free to "hang out" with us but with a baby in the house I no longer trust her to do this. We made every mistake in the book in the first six months but have since worked hard putting time and money into addressing this problem but nothing seems to help.

I think the dog is still confused about her place in our pack, and is naturally pre-disposed to being aggressive in her challenges concerning the pack order. For example, when I tried to remove her from the car (rear kennel) she came out happily but pulled a treat out of my hand. We then approached the house and she attempted to lead going up the stairs, and when I tried to pull her back, she snapped at me.

We are considering putting the dog down if we cannot get a handle on this, but I'd rather try and work through it instead. Most people would have given up on this dog a long time ago but I'm determined to save her. When I now bring her out of her kennel I usually open the door and ask her to fetch a bumper, but then she lunges, bites, rolls her lips and snaps at the bumper, then finally she takes it and I bring her out under control then release her. Once outside, she's her old self and happy and responsive.

(Initial Response with Questions) I suspect that she has some issues other than dominance aggression and they show up as dominance. I have doubts that behavior modification alone without the help of some mellowing-out drugs will get you far and you sure don't want to be experimenting with what could be your child's life. But I have some questions for you.

(Questions and Replies) As well as you can recall, can you tell me when her attitude first started? Was she demanding as a pup at, say, 10 or 12 weeks of age?

Upon recent reflection, we took her far too young--six weeks. She has always been assertive and demanding as a pup. In puppy obedience classes, she would "act up" and bark when sitting still--kind of like, "Hey, look at me...I can do that too."

When using the e-collar, did it cause an increase, a decrease or no change in her overall aggressive behavior when you shocked her above a painful threshold?

It caused an increase but when shocked she was submissive. It did help with prompt whistles, sits and the "here" command...sort of polished up her training. But we did see some wild responses around the house, with one attack on my wife and a couple on me.

With my wife, the dog protected a feedbag that was empty. With me, it was when I entered the home...she felt territorial and she sort of "stood up to me"...just sat calm and still and then came at me. Our reaction in these situations has been to protect ourselves and get her to her kennel without hitting her. When she was a puppy, my response to her aggression was to meet it with equal or greater aggression. As I became educated and began to train, I saw how detrimental this approach was.

I adopted Butch Goodwin's philosophy of training from the inside out and trying to meet her aggression by getting into her head instead. With a lot of hard work, we had her well behaved for eight months and she was the perfect housedog prior to the e-collar.

She did show fear of the collar and transmitter before training...running the other way at the sight of it. The collar hasn't gotten above level 3, as I was well aware of many e-collar abuses; therefore, we did a complete collar-conditioning program...but obviously this could be an issue with this dog.

Are you her first owner or did someone else have her before you got her? Had she been returned to the breeder as far as you know? We are the only owners. Picked her up from a "backyard breeder." Looking back, we were as ignorant as I suspect the breeder was about dogs, breeding and temperament.

Is she aggressive toward other dogs in the training group or toward any other people in the group? If so, do you notice any "type" of person or dog she is uneasy around? Did your wife do any of the obedience training or were you the only person involved? How does she act toward your wife?

She is submissive and playful around other dogs. She has spent nights in a friend's boarding kennel and he found her to be well-behaved and submissive around his own dogs. She did get "beat up" by a male Chessie but that has been her only dog-to-dog incident and it occurred at a kennel. She is friendly toward all other people. My wife does obedience with her. The dog loves my wife.

Is she as aggressive toward your wife as she is toward you? Does your dog show any other aggressive tendencies such as territorial or defensiveness?

She is more aggressive toward me. She is possessive of her food. I primarily feed her and stand in the room as she eats watching for any problems. We do obedience before and after feeding and she eats on the "Okay" command. We then put her in her kennel to reinforce that this is our territory, not hers. Feeding has gone well and is not a problem.

Are you the principal caregiver for the dog?

Yes, but my wife is good with her and does lots of small obedience stuff around the house, asking her to perform prior to a treat or whatever.

How does she act toward your friends, toward strangers, toward your vet?

She is extremely friendly toward strangers and family and is known for going crazy with excitement when people come to the house. I personally see this as a more subtle form of aggression, as she will paw at someone to pet her, sit on their foot or leg, and that kind of thing. But it has never manifested itself with an overt behavior such as a lip roll, growl, etc. With the vet, it is a nightmare. Her ears go back and she looks anxious and fearful. I now muzzle her and e

ssentially put her in a headlock as the vet quickly puts in the needle.

Last two weeks: Since a rather depressing incident described in my previous email (snatching food and snapping at me) we left her in the car that evening as she was growling and rolling lips. I opened the kennel in the car the next morning and she attacked me and I defended myself with a stick, hitting her. She then went to her outdoor kennel on command. She sat there for several hours and then came out finally under control and with her ears forward and eyes and demeanor positive and happy. Since then, we've tried to include her more in the "pack" around the house, very carefully mind you.

We've let her sleep on her pad at the foot of our bed, for example. She has been an absolute doll since then. I should mention that up to that point, every time we left her we'd come home to an angry threatening dog. Not so lately. When we do leave her, we put her in a sunroom with her kennel in it but leave the kennel door open (sun room door closed). I try and tire her out with training prior to us leaving for extended periods as I've read that a tired dog can understand why the pack is leaving her if she's tired out.

We also make sure she is well fed and "full" when we leave her. So far, as I said, we are seeing a much happier dog. However, it is obviously a fine line between trying to include her and being safe for everyone, including her. We try to avoid situations where she may mess up, and are cautious about putting her in situations that she might not be able to handle.

(Solution) Thank you for answering the questions I posed. I think I read it right when I said that there was more than dominance aggression in the problems your dog is having.

A major part of the root cause is, as you suggest, taking her from the litter so young. This didn't give her a whole lot of primary socialization and she obviously didn't get the proper secondary socialization when she was in litter.

You took her when fear was developing and she quickly learned that offense is the best defense. Then you made a lot of mistakes by fighting back, which caused the fear aggression to escalate to the point that she anticipates something fearful (hurtful) coming at her so she reacts aggressively first. Who has hurt her most, you and your vet? So, who does she fight with most?

Another thing that has hurt your relationship with her is your ideas on this thing of the pack. This is a misinterpretation of dog behavior by the "dog whisperer" groupies. True, dogs do form packs, both wild and domestic dogs, but these are transient social groupings for a specific purpose. The pack is based on a leader/follower social relationship. It is a cooperative relationship. Getting together to hunt something is this sort of relationship.

From that point of view, a hunter and his cooperative dog could be considered a pack because it is based on a cooperative leader/follower relationship. Dominance order ranking is based on a dominance/subordination relationship. To think that dogs and people can form a pack organization based on dominance is really nonsense and behaviorally not feasible, if for no other reason than we don't have the necessary tools to be a dog and so cannot send the same social signals.

Dogs and humans bond, usually on a one-to-one relationship or at best, one dog to a family of people, and the people are not equally bonded to the dog. The dog doing something under duress is not a cooperative leader/follower relationship with its roots in bonding; it is a rank order based on a dominance/subordination relationship.

You have the same idea that a whole lot of people have in that leadership is a dominance relationship. It isn't in a pure dog pack and isn't in a pure people pack and it sure isn't in a dog and people relationship. I don't know where you got the idea that allowing a dog to go up the stairs first is your being subservient to a dog, or that a dog standing on your foot and leaning against you is a show of dominance. Rather, it is really care soliciting.

Imagine how confused your dog gets when she asks to have her ears rubbed as a show of affection and gets yelled at or punished for it. I know the Internet and the popular dog books by self-styled behavior experts are full of jargon and tricky clichés but the reality is it is mostly off-the-wall nonsense.

What I think your dog's problem is, as I alluded to above, is the poor early socialization processes, which we can do nothing about, and learned fear aggression--which you can do something about. You need to try a bit of Child Psychology 101 on her. You need to bond with your dog so you are both on the same page in the workbook. You need to back off and stop nagging.

Your feeding regimen of training before and after her big meal every day would drive a saint to drink. Keep changing the routine so she has to think about some things and not the same sequence every day. Let her go up the stairs first in a playful fashion once in awhile. Or let her go up, call her back and go up again together, then again differently so she follows next time.

When she stands on your foot, or rather, on a visitor's foot, have the visitor scratch her ears. Challenge her intellectually by varying everything you want her to do. And don't use the e-collar, even as a potential threat. A sharp whack upside the head or shocking her until she yodels like Patsy Kline won't do it.

You were worried about what she will do with your child. She will become a good mother if you let her. She will be especially good with your wife in charge. And she will be fine if you ease up on the by-the-book and by-the-numbers "dog whisperer" training.

I am not giving you specific steps to follow for fear you will take them as gospel and not alter them to suit the dog and her mood of the moment. The best advice I can give is for you to not give her any cause to be fearful for about a month, be upbeat with her rather than suspicious of her, keep her guessing about what fun comes next and stop trying to fit her into an artificial pack format. Then I think she will be okay.

(Result) Thanks so much for the fantastic advice. Interestingly the last three weeks or so we've really tried to include her and ease up on everything and the results are as you predicted--excellent. The baby has been here now for four months. So just to clarify, the solution is to ease up, work on her bond with us, especially me, and back off the popular "pack" mentality approach to the relationship--be upbeat and keep it fun.

(Reply) There you go!

For solutions to your dog's behavior problems and behavior related training problems, you can contact Ed Bailey at

More Health & Nutrition

Health & Nutrition

Hunting Older Dogs

Dave Carty - October 12, 2016

There's one thing you can count on about young dogs; sooner or later they turn into old...

Health & Nutrition

The Right Dog Food

Tony J. Peterson - January 17, 2017

No die-hard bird hunter looks beyond October. Whether it's the mid-month pheasant opener...

Health & Nutrition

Nutrition Guidelines for Your Gun Dogs

John Holcomb, DVM - May 08, 2018

When is comes to gun dog nutrition guidelines, there should be no cutting corners.

See More Health & Nutrition

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.