Back to the English Homepage Dog dominance and aggression

© Dr Joel Dehasse, 1999 - URL address:


Dog aggressive behaviour disorders and dominance aggression


Dr Joël Dehasse, DVM, Behaviourist

3 avenue du Cosmonaute, B-1150 Brussel, Belgium

Lecture given at the 9th Annual General Meeting, 1st ASEAN Small Animal Scientific Confress - Small Animal Practitioners Association of Malaysia - Selangor Darul Ehsan (Kuala Lumpur) 18th September 1999



Aggression is part of the normal behaviour package of a dog. Dominance aggression is presented in hierarchical competition with people. It involves anxiety. Treating involves a strategy. Frequently the treatment will combine a therapy consisting of suppressing the dog’s access to the dominant privileges and medication relieving the dog of anxiety or reducing impulsiveness and dangerousness.


Aggression is the most frequent reason to consult a behaviourist veterinarian for a dog. Nearly 50% of all presented disorders include an aggressive pattern. Of these disorders, several may be called dominance aggression. The definition and treatment of dominance aggression will vary depending on the overall model the veterinarian is using but specific peculiarities are common to all models.

Dog behaviour disorders and pathologies

There are two kinds of behaviour disorders: nuisances and pathologies. Nuisances are normal behaviours inducing problems in the environment of the dog, frequently with the owners. Pathologies are defined as the incapacity of the animal to adapt to the environment with production of altered behaviour patterns, causing an interference with the normal behaviours and social interactions.

AGGRESSION: definition

An aggression is a threat or a hit on someone's cognitive or somatic integrity. Aggressivity is a reactive state with a tendency to produce aggressions. Studying aggression implies to analyse the sequences of the aggressive acts and to verify their wholeness, to identify the kind of aggression and its context, and evaluate the control of the biting and dangerousness of the animals in the environment where he is living.

Authors have tried to put forward models to describe and predict aggression. All these models are just … models and will vary with the thinking school a behaviourist veterinarian is affiliated with. The behaviourist veterinarian world has still to agree on definitions. To simplify complex things, let’s say there are competitive aggressions and defence aggressions. Hierarchical aggression is an example of competitive aggression. Irritation, fear, maternal and territorial aggressions are examples of defence aggression. There are also atypical aggressive sequences found in primary and secondary hyperaggressions and in neurology related disorders. 

Table of contexts and Agres02.htmand circumstances of aggressions


Context, circumstances


Attempt to acquire hierarchical privileges: control of space, sleeping area (bed, furniture, place on the carpet, ...), social or sexual partner, etc.


Provoked by  frustration, hunger (food defence), pain, tactile stimulations despite a threat from the dog (asking to stop the interaction)


Defence expressed by a lactating bitch (with puppies around or with objects during a pseudocyesis).


In a (physically or mentally) inescapable and dangerous situation.


Hunting and capture of prey.


Stopping the intrusion of dogs or people in (a part of) the group territory.


Table of sequences Agres03.htmof aggression.


Different parts of the sequence



Threat - controlled attack – appeasement



Threat - controlled attack – appeasement



Short intimidation - direct attack

Uncontrolled, repeated


Typical sequences of hunting behaviour



Direct attack



Unpredictable - sometimes attack then threat




Karen Overall (3) defines dominance aggression as “abnormal, inappropriate, out-of-context aggression consistently exhibited by dogs toward people under circumstances involving passive or active control of the dog’s behaviour or the dog’s access to the behaviour”. This definition is mixing notions of competitive and irritation aggression and is definitely pathological because it is abnormal or out-of-context. The problem arises with the individual who defines this inappropriateness.

But the value of this definition is in the words “control” and “access”. Access and control are definitely linked to competition. Control of the access to a behaviour by an owner against the dog is linked to irritation aggression.

Both aggressions are more frequently seen in hierarchy disputes.


It is impossible for a dog not to be hierarchised. The dominant has a upraised and access to privileges (food, sexuality, social contact and attention, space control, parenthood, resting place, leg-lifting). The dominated dog shows a down posture and let the dominant have access to privileges. The challenger is challenging a dominant figure. The hierarchy is stable but dynamic, because it may change with the capacity of the dominant dog to keep control on its privileges by postures and by competitive aggression.

The hierarchical status is not defined by genetics, even if aggressiveness and impulsiveness (both partly genetically determined) are part of the capacity to control an access to a behaviour. The hierarchy results from dyadic relationships inside a group (pack, family or interspecific family-pack).

Hierarchy disturbances arise from instability of the dominant figures to control one or several privileges or from double contrary messages. If the owners give an authorisation then an interdiction for the same situation, context, access to a privilege or behaviour, then the dog has problems to understand his place in the family-pack. Being submitted to these contrary messages inside a system the dog cannot escape create anxiety. The dog suffering from dominance aggression is also suffering from a generalised anxiety disorder.

Treating hierarchy disorders

It is quite impossible to treat dominance aggression without treating the dog and modifying the system he is forced to live in. The frame of life must be easy to understand and reliable. The dog must not have priority access to the privileges of dominance. The owner(s) must have them. And (s)he (they) must be able to keep them. This therapy has been called directed social regression by Pageat (4).

If the dog shows any sign of anxiety, a medication may improve his state and his understanding of the new family-pack rules. Selegiline (at 0,5 mg/kg once a day) is a medication without any side effect and that may relieve the dog of emotional or mood disturbances and of self-defence aggression. But selegiline does not seem to help in competitive aggression. If the dog is impulsive, a SSRI like fluvoxamine (at 1 to 2 mg/kg twice a day) (2) will be more potent. If the dog is dangerous because of atypical or instrumental aggression or feebleness of the system to control it,  neuroleptics may be useful (under an expert authority). This is only a two way treatment. In fact, the treatment will result from a whole strategy (1).




1. Dehasse J. 1998. Stratégies thérapeutiques (Therapeutic strategies). Proceedings of the 5th ESVCE Annual Conference, XIXth SAVAB National Meeting, 29-32.

2. Dehasse J. 1999. Retrospective study on the use of fluvoxamine in dogs. Proceedings of the AVMA, New-Orleans, July 12.

3. Overall K. (1997). Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. Mosby.

4. Pageat P. (1998). Pathologie du comportement du chien. Editions du Point Vétérinaire, Maisons Alfort.



Aggression, dominance aggression, fluvoxamine, hierarchy, selegiline.