If your dog has a tendency to snap or growl at you when you wake it up or try to move it off the couch, you could be dealing with dominance aggression. This common form of aggression can be highly dangerous and requires the help of a professional, such as an animal behaviorist.
Dominance aggression typically occurs in male dogs, between 18 and 36 months old, that have reached social maturity. In rare cases, female dogs between eight weeks and eight months old can also exhibit this type of aggression if there is a lack of estrogen or too much testosterone during social and sexual development.
If your dog bites, growls or snaps at people on a regular basis, it is displaying aggressive behavior. If your dog demands attention by mouthing or nudging you, ignores commands or guards toys and food, your dog is also acting dominant. Your dog might exhibit other signs of dominance, such as refusing to jump down from furniture it's not allowed on, making you walk around it or baring its teeth.
Assertiveness can be mistaken for dominance. Confident or pushy dogs should not be considered dominant unless they exhibit aggressive behaviors, such as growling or snapping. Assertiveness describes a type of personality rather than a behavioral problem. Confident dogs are generally easy to train, while dominant dogs can be very difficult to work with.
Dominance aggression can be categorized as an anxiety disorder since it is linked to social situations. Your dog's behavior reflects its perceived status in the social hierarchy of your home. If your dog is used to being in control, it will continue to use dominance aggression in order to assert its authority. Your dog has learned that it can intimidate you and other family members in order to get its way and will expect you to obey all the time. These cases of dominance aggression rarely occur, since most dogs maintain a submissive or neutral status in their homes.
Inconsistent punishment or training can confuse dogs and lead to insecurity. If your dog isn't sure of its role in the social hierarchy, it might display aggressive behaviors in order to find out where it belongs. Instead of biting or growling at all family members, your dog will target certain people at different times to gauge their reaction in each circumstance. As your dog becomes more certain of its status, the dominant behavior will increase. Your dog might also exhibit a strong desire for attention as a way to test its uncertain boundaries. If you reinforce this behavior by petting or giving your dog the attention it wants, the aggression will become worse.
Seek immediate help from a qualified professional, since working with dominant dogs can be a challenging and difficult experience. Under specialized guidance, your dog will become desensitized to situations that cause aggressive behavior. A professional will help you modify your dog's behavior to eliminate dominance aggression and prevent it from developing again.
When you're at home, avoid triggering aggressive reactions in your dog as much as possible. Block off areas of the house that could cause conflict, such as bedrooms and the living room, so that your dog won't have access to beds or the couch. Respond to aggressive behavior in a cheerful voice to relieve tension. Encourage good behavior by rewarding your dog with praise and treats as soon as it occurs. Put a muzzle or head halter on your dog when you take it for a walk so that you have better control over your dog's behavior.
Never physically punish a dog with dominance aggression. Doing so will cause your dog to regard you as a threat and make its aggressive behavior worse.
Never leave a child, even an older one, alone with your dog if it has shown any signs of dominance aggression. Even though your dog might act affectionate while you're in the room, your dog's unpredictable behavior could result in a fatal injury if you leave.