Tough temperaments

Dominance, aggression viciousness -- there is a difference


Computer programmers talk about bits, bytes, and friendly mice, and politicians have gridlock and entitlements. Scientists of various stripes have their isms and protocols and "windows of opportunity"; journalists seek "usually reliable sources "and "deep background informants"; and environmentalists tout ecotourism and homeostasis in a heterogeneous environment.

The development and use of special terms helps bind together those who work in a specific discipline or practice particular hobbies. The specific jargon is frequently misunderstood by those outside the circle, and so it is with a variety of terms referring to dog behaviors.


Aggression or aggressive behavior is manifested by some type of attack involving teeth that is often preceded by a warning growl or stiffening of the body, usually accompanied by ferocious snarling and blood loss. Dogs can be aggressive when defending their territory or possessions from animals or humans. Although a reason for aggression can often be readily identified, this behavior should not be ignored or excused lest it become viciousness and endanger life and limb.


Dominance or dominant behavior is common to some breeds and many intelligent, independent individual dogs. Dominant dogs have a great deal of self-confidence that they use to get what they want, whether another dog's biscuit or a place in the master's bed. Dominant dogs refuse to obey small children and control meek adults with a glance, a growl, or a subtle body check. They should never be left alone with children. The behavior must be controlled with obedience training so that it does not escalate into canine tyranny or aggression.


Submission or submissive behavior is manifested by shyness or a willingness to give way to other dogs and people. Submissive dogs may urinate on themselves when excited or fearful. Mildly submissive dogs wilt when scolded and need physical contact with humans for security; severely submissive dogs try to avoid eye contact and may become fear biters, especially if cornered or stared at by children. Submissive dogs need light discipline and plenty of confidence-building and reassurance.


Temperament is the general attitude a dog has towards other animals and people. Temperament is inherited but can be modified or enhanced by the environment. Thus a puppy with a dominant temperament can become a confident, outgoing adult dog or a domineering, even aggressive animal, depending on the attitude of the owner and his ability to train the dog.


Socialization is a process by which puppies and dogs are taught to get along with other animals, particularly other dogs and cats, and with humans and to adapt to new circumstances. In its simplest terms

a submissive puppy that has never walked on a surface other than a concrete kennel floor will probably be fearful of other surfaces, and a dominant puppy may be nippy with children if not taught at an early age to respect short people with high-pitched voices.


Viciousness is characterized by unprovoked attacks on other animals or people. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to see the difference between dominance, aggression, submissive aggression (fear-biting) and viciousness.


If behavior is depicted on a scale of one to 10, submission would occupy spaces three-through-five and dominance would be six-through eight. Extreme shyness would be two, and fearfulness would be one; aggression would be nine and viciousness would be 10.

Puppies fall into the middle range from moderately submissive to moderately dominant. The breeder can tone down a dominant puppy or increase the confidence of a submissive puppy through socialization of the litter.

A puppy that attempts to teethe on a human body part is neither aggressive nor vicious. He may, however, be dominant and must be taught that such mouthing is unacceptable. The human attached to the bitten body part should holler "Ouch!," remove the pup from the grasped appendage, and substitute a chewable toy for the hand or ankle.

A puppy that mock-attacks with barks and growls and grabs clothing is not aggressive or vicious, he is merely attempting to play. Some puppies have frantic, high energy play "fits" where they grab anything within reach and are difficult to calm. These puppies must be taught that such behavior is unacceptable. They should be prevented from biting and pinned to the floor until they relax. Sometimes, a 15-minute stay in a crate is necessary to resolve the situation, especially if a child has been nipped.

Puppies should not be screamed at or physically punished for this behavior. Screaming raises the excitement level, and hitting with hand or object or clamping the tiny mouths shut escalates the situation and can put the pooch on the road to fearfulness or aggression.

Puppies that growl or bark at other puppies and then attack with ferocity are not aggressive or vicious but they are attempting to assert dominance. Puppies seldom injure each other in such circumstances, and it is well to let them work out their relationship if they will be seeing each other often.

Many breeds of dogs have dominant temperaments, especially the working breeds and terriers. Some people consider any scuffle involving puppies or young dogs of a dominant breed to be proof of aggressiveness or viciousness, but they are wrong. However, they have contributed to a false picture of several breeds with their proclamations. The breeds with dominant temperaments were developed to be independent, courageous, and intelligent to carry out their jobs of guarding palaces, people, and livestock, hauling sledges across frozen tundra, or hunting ferocious game.

Dominance is a byproduct of those qualities; aggression and viciousness are akin to antisocial or criminal behavior.

Breeds with submissive temperaments are among the most sought after family dogs. These are breeds that were developed to work in close harmony with man and often with other dogs and they readily accept the supremacy of man.

Finally, although some breeds are generally dominant, there is still a range of dominance and submission within their ranks. For example, a dominant Akita or Rottweiler is far more imperious than a dominant Labrador Retriever, and a submissive Labrador is apt to be far more acquiescent than the submissive Akita or Rottweiler.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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