Myths about dog aggression: part IV

This week we've been discussing myths about dog aggression. Without further ado, let's get into myths 7 and 8! MYTH #7: AGGRESSION = DOMINANCE Wow,...


This week we’ve been discussing myths about dog aggression. Without further ado, let’s get into myths 7 and 8!


Wow, this is a big one. Not helping the situation is the fact that one of the most famous public faces of “dog training” perpetuates this myth in the techniques he recommends to his television audience (under the umbrella of a disclaimer, of course). Whether or not dogs are pack animals merits (and will receive, in the next few weeks on the Dogster Guide to Behavior and Training) is a topic worthy of its own blog entry, so I’ll try not to delve too deeply into those murky waters right now.

At best, painting every aggressive dog with the “dominance” paint brush oversimplifies aggression. At worst, the techniques used traditionally to deal with dogs who have been perceived as “dominant” may actually exacerbate the problem and put the dogs and their people at an increased risk for injury.

Reactivity and aggression may have myriad causes, including territoriality, barrier frustration, resource guarding, fear, pain, anger, etc. Identifying the cause is the key to identifying the solution. There are a lot of great articles online about the “dominance myth,” here are a few you may enjoy written by veterinary behaviorists:

Rethinking the causes of canine aggression

American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior: Position Statement on the Use of Dominance Theory in Behavior Modification of Animals

The Dominance Controversy by Dr. Sophia Yin

Don’t worry, we’ll come back to this later in the series.


OK, really? Anyone worth their salt as a trainer or behaviorist know that the laws of learning transcend the boundaries of species. Dogs, chickens, horses, whales, even hermit crabs are all susceptible to the laws of learning as defined by operant and classical conditioning. So, if leash walks cure aggression, why aren’t they implementing “walk all day long” programs to violent criminals, lions, or parrots that bite?

Because leash walking does not “cure” aggression. In fact, it is possible for dogs to get a) too much or b) the wrong kind of exercise which will actually increase the dog’s stress level. I know plenty of dogs that don’t get nearly as much physical and mental stimulation as they need and are not aggressive or reactive. Sure, lack of these things can cause an increase in stress which may lead to an increase in reactive dog behavior. HOWEVER, I’ve yet to meet a single dog “cured” of aggression by leash walking him, even if you’re walking fifteen miles a day until your legs nearly fall out from under you you’re so tired.

Any good trainer or behaviorist addressing a reactivity or aggression problem will advise that the owners implement a stress reduction protocol which may include the incorporation of more physical and mental stimulation/exercise. Dogs that are highly stressed are, by their very nature, more likely to bite. Stress reduction does not cure aggression, but it is an establishing operation which may even the playing field and set the dog/handler team up for rehabilitative success.

Behavior modification treats aggression and reactivity. Leash walking does not.

While I’d like to say that there are only 8 popular myths about dog behavior, the fact is that many remain. We’ll talk about some more of these tomorrow and follow into next week on this series. Until then, happy training!

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