Canine Dominance Facts

 Dominance is a pack-relative social behavior.  As pack animals, dogs expect all relationships to be unequal, in other words, somebody has to be in charge. Expecting otherwise is foolish and naive. Many new handlers are "shocked" that a dog would "bite the hand that feeds them," because they are looking at the dominance behavior not with an understanding of canine behavior but as a human would interpret similar behavior on the part of another human. Dogs are not capable of being grateful. They react to their environment based on the stimuli they receive, their genetic makeup, and their learned patterns of behavior.

 Dominance aggression is usually shown by male dogs (85% of cases) and is most intense as social maturity is approached (2-2.5 yrs). Social maturity takes a lot longer to arrive than sexual maturity. This means that with the typical dog in a police training program, you can expect dominance aggression to rear its head later in your relationship than sooner if you are starting with a young dog (12-16 months).

Dominance aggression is both genetic and learned. The genetic component is formed while still in the womb when a testosterone surge “masculanizes” the brain. If no testosterone surge occurs, a female brain is created. Therefore, castration has little effect on correcting this behavior. However, since the behavior is also partly a learned behavior, extinction, to some degree is still possible.

 Dogs tend to direct their dominance aggression toward those that are threats to their social position (i.e. the K9 handler, or family members if the dog is allowed to interact with the family). Because family members interact with the dog less often than the handler, they are often perceived as passive and generally submissive from the dog’s point of view, thus easy targets for the dog to exert and "try out" dominant aggressive behaviors. For these reasons we suggest limiting all free interaction with the family, and only supervised, limited interaction until all the obedience training and drive focusing training is completed.

Common Triggers of Dominance Aggression: K9 Handlers must learn how to desensitize their dogs to these triggers.

n      Affection

n      Placing or removing collars/leads which initiate control on the dog.

n      Punishment (staring/discipline).

n      Withholding rewards (e.g. keeping the dog under obedience when he thinks he may do bite work).

n      Grooming (Postural)

n      Can be context driven (e.g. place associated)

n      Can be psychologically dominant and physically submissive (e.g. allow physical touching/handling).

n      Handler Over-protectiveness.

n      Can be psychologically dominant yet physically submissive.  


If you are having problems with dominance aggression with your police dog, email Jerry at for a copy of his power-point presentation on the subject which includes strategies for reducing this response in your police K9.