|Henna & Banjo. Photo credit: Lizi Angel
Having read numerous posts recently on social media dog groups concerning problems between dogs who live together or who meet regularly for walks or 'play dates', I felt compelled to put together a few words on the topic of dominance. Fast forward several weeks and it turned out to be a lot of words, and so you may want to grab a cuppa before you start reading!
These dog-on-dog problems included:
- A larger, younger female dog using physical intimidation to turf a smaller, older male dog out of his bed at night.
- Two neutered female dogs in a mixed sex household of seven. The older bitch was aggressively intimidating the younger (also newest) one and aggressively play-fighting with her during walks. The owner deemed the behaviour as out of character because she was normally a submissive dog.
- Two entire male dogs who, after returning home from time away with their owners, had had several non-injurious fights that appeared to have been triggered by access points to and within the home. The fights were escalating in intensity to the point that one had started to hide from the other when in the house, but the dogs remained friendly with each other on walks.
- A large, spayed female dog who, during regular dog walk meet ups stood over smaller dogs whilst growling, snarling and snapping at them, but not biting them. The owner described his dog's behaviour as pinning, but not with her mouth.
- Two neutered male dog playmates whose owners wanted them to have ‘sleepovers’, but on trying this a couple of times the resident dog had discharged aggressive threats towards his friend, who had reciprocated the behaviour.
The owners of all these dogs described their dogs' aggressive behaviour as dominance, which responders were quick to shout down with cries of “dominance has been debunked!”.
It is true that using dominance theory, which arose from research that studied the behaviour of a captive group of unrelated wolves and came to underpin the ‘alpha’ and ‘pack leader’ ideologies of dog-human/human-dog social interaction, is wholly inappropriate. But in describing social aggression – ritualised intimidation and threat behaviour intended to eliminate competition from a familiar without harming it – dominance remains the accepted and correct ethological term in the field of animal behaviour, whether referring to dogs, humans, birds, fish, or any other social species. Dominance is one of the four main motivators of social behaviour used to explain agonistic interactions, the other three being submission, aggression and fear. There is field-wide agreement among academics about the existence of a ‘dominance behavioural system’ in all mammals and regarding the ultimate goal that this system serves, namely, control over social and material resources. When unrelated dogs are forced to share the same living space in which resources such as food, comfort, attention and personal space are controlled by us and are therefore at a premium, in terms of explaining behaviour intended to eliminate competition from a familiar, i.e. ritualised aggression, i.e. dominance, we shouldn’t dismiss the findings of the captive wolf research completely. But dogs are not wolves, I hear you cry. Correct! However, forcing unrelated dogs to live together with limited space and access to resources is just as much a recipe for the need to eliminate competition from familiars as forcing unrelated wolves to live in a resource-controlled, captive environment. It’s unnatural for both species.
|Captive wolves. Photo credit: High Country News
The wild wolf’s strategy of life is to stay together in family groups (packs) and hunt large prey for the best chance of survival – a strategy that requires individuals to maintain peaceful social bonds with one another. This relies largely on non-confrontational communication and a high level of social self-awareness, with individual wolves having to coordinate, cooperate and compromise with one another in order to stay alive and well. For example, to maintain control of feeding and whelping territories, rather than patrolling fixed boundaries or fighting, each wolf pack howls to signal its presence within an area. As a rule, individual wolf packs stay out of one another’s way.
|Howling wolves. Photo credit: EcoWatch
Usually, a wild wolf pack is made up of family members with one, unrelated breeding pair. This breeding pair take a natural position as head of the pack, which largely consists of their own offspring. Sometimes, non-family members will be accepted into a small pack, and when a large pack becomes unsustainable (when the energy expended on hunting is greater than the energy gained), an individual, and occasionally a small group of closely bonded individuals, may break away and form new packs with other, similar individuals or 'splinter' packs. Whatever the blood-ties though, through the routine of daily life, individual wolves learn familiarity with one another and create exclusive rituals. Through the repetition of ritualised behaviour, posturing and play, a social hierarchy is established and maintained without bloodshed. That’s right – wild wolf packs have social hierarchies – however, these hierarchies are largely situational. For example, if a pack dines on moose (large prey) everyone eats at the same time, but when the meal is a smaller animal, the breeding pair ensure that the youngest family members eat before their older siblings. How do they do this? By using dominance – ritualised aggression intended to eliminate competition from familiars without harming them. Additionally, factors such as temperament type and blood cortisol levels play a role in determining rank and access to privileges such as breeding and food within the family group, but the main takeaway from observational studies of wild wolf packs is that their social behaviour reliably includes dominant and submissive displays in four main areas: dominance posturing by the breeding male over all other pack members, passive submission by the breeding female towards the breeding male, dominance displays by the breeding pair during food allocation, and active submission by all but the breeding male as a food-begging/food-gathering motivator.
|Three juvenile wolves displaying active submission towards an adult wolf (right).
Photo credit: Michael Cummings/Getty Images
Like the wolf, the domestic dog is a genetically predisposed social animal, but unlike the wolf pack that predominantly consists of related animals and is solely lupine, dogs have adapted their social behaviour to live independently yet communally amongst humans and other dogs. The domestic dog’s strategy of life is to stay near humans for the best chance of survival. In adopting this strategy, dogs moved away from conspecific family (pack) living. This applies to companion dogs that are owned and confined, free-ranging dogs including those that are owned but loose, lost or abandoned stray dogs, semi-feral Village Dogs, landraces such as the Indian Pariah Dog, street dogs (encompassing all free-ranging dogs and those born on the street), and to the extent that they feed off human refuse but avoid people, feral* dogs.
The vast number of Village Dogs (the natural ancestors of modern dog breeds) around the world that scavenge human rubbish dumps fit the profile of the domestic dog as a non-pack animal well. Some dogs do form closely bonded pairs based on mutual affection, but solitary dogs and bonded pairs space themselves out within the larger canine community and remain largely separate from one another. Each has its own feeding territory, the control of which is largely maintained by barking as opposed to patrolling boundaries or threatening or fighting with close neighbours. In this respect, Village Dogs echo the way in which wolves maintain their feeding territories – by voice, rather than force.
|Village Dog on a rubbish dump. Photo credit: Dominika Zarzycka
That's not to say that the domestic dog is not a hunter because it is, but domestic dogs are facultative, scavenger carnivores and so as a rule, do not mass together to hunt large prey. Solitary feral dogs are the exception to this and will occasionally come together to hunt in groups. Commonly consisting of two males and up to eight females, the larger of the two males will bark loudly until enough dogs join him. As the group travels together they stop frequently to test dominance, and a definite order can be identified during both travelling and feeding. Aggression is rare though, and when it does occur it is more likely to involve unfamiliar dogs. Feral dog groups are also short-lived and generally do not last beyond two-and-a-half weeks.
|Feral dog pack hunting. Photo credit: N M Nandakumar/BBC
The grouping behaviour of stray dogs sits somewhere in the middle of that of Village Dogs and feral dogs. Stray dog groups tend to be smaller than those of feral dogs, with males outnumbering females by two or three to one. Stray dogs also show a high level of plasticity in group behaviour. This plasticity is reflected in the population densities of stray dogs, which ranges from 127 to 1304 dogs per km2. Plasticity in group behaviour leads to group stability. Free-ranging (loose but owned) dogs tend to be solitary, however, around two-thirds of their interactions with other dogs develop into temporary groups of between two and five dogs.
Whilst domestic dogs may not be true pack animals, they still share many identifiable behavioural patterns with wolves, the majority of which are to do with communication with other dogs. When solitary Village Dogs cross paths on neutral territory, one of several things may happen. The dogs may avoid one another, meet briefly and move on, meet and engage in play, or one dog may use dominance-posturing and/or dominance-fighting and/or aggression to eliminate competition from the other dog. Dominance – ritualised social aggression – is a normal and necessary aspect of dog behaviour and communication, just as ritualised submission (social fear) is its opposite. If one dog shows submission or flees (i.e. there is no counter-challenge) the ‘winner’ may then either walk away, see the submitting dog off by chasing it and biting its rump or anus, continue to 'bully' the submitting dog with ritualised dominance and/or aggressive threats (e.g. if larger and therefore can easily overpower the submitting dog), injure it, or kill it. If met with a counter-challenge, the challenger may submit or flee, or it may stay and fight. If the latter happens, the outcome is dependent on the physical and psychological strength and stamina of the individual dogs involved, and what ends the fight may either be one dog's submission, flight or death.
|Two Indian Pariah Dogs (INDogs) in a dominance stand-off over the remains of a calf carcass.
In this fleeting snapshot of communication, the dog on the left is more dominant than the dog on the right.
Photo credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images
Although Village Dogs, feral dogs and stray dogs tend to display different group behaviour, this varies between populations and by location. For example, stray and feral dogs in some Italian villages have been observed to move about as individuals or in small groups, whilst at same time belonging to larger groups that defend shared territories against dogs from other groups. Some individual male dogs in the small groups remain near their mothers, chasing away intruders that get too close to her puppies. An observational study of stray dogs in a town in West Bengal, India, revealed wolf-like behaviour otherwise uncommon in dogs, such as male dogs regurgitating food for puppies, females coming into heat once a year instead of twice, monogamous females, and den-sharing and communal rearing of puppies by more than one female. In another study, feral dogs residing near a garbage dump in Rome were observed to live in territorial groups of between 25 and 40 dogs, display wolf-like behaviours such as competitive interactions over food and mating, and in one group, a fixed linear hierarchy among the adults was clearly identifiable. However, whilst grouping behaviour, group size, and the presence of wolf-like behaviour varied between the dogs in these studies, ritualised dominant and submissive behaviours along with within-group dominance hierarchies were common to all. Within-group conflicts were generally resolved using ritualised, non-injurious aggression (dominance!) and submission, whereas non-group members were attacked and sometimes killed (aggression). Dominance and submission are what enable dogs to cohabit peacefully together in groups. Dominance and submission are what prevent injuries and death.
Why using dominance theory to explain human-dog/dog-human interactions is wrong
Due to domestication, dogs have developed ways of communicating specifically with us – communication that is not displayed between themselves. For example, through their interaction with humans, dogs have learnt to give us friendly, open eye-contact by the bucket-load – something that they don’t do with one another. Dogs have also learnt to 'smile' at us – a familiar appeasement-greeting behaviour unique to the dog's interaction with humans. And through studying our faces, dogs have learnt 'left-gaze bias', meaning that they understand that the right-hand side of the human face displays our emotions more truthfully than the left. Humans and dogs are the only species on the planet to understand and use left-gaze bias specifically to read human facial expressions. The connection that dogs have with us is remarkable and unique. Like his early ancestors who scavenged food scraps from human villagers, today's dog still relies on us for his basic survival, but his evolved understanding of human, non-verbal language enables him to better communicate with us and to choose us as his social partner, not his 'pack'. Dogs know that we are not dogs, and having chosen to leave pack-life behind they have spent tens of thousands of years adapting their social behaviour to proximate life with mankind. Dogs are the ultimate dual-species socialisers.
Based on the dog's true social inclination and strategy of life being that of the predominantly solitary, scavenger carnivore that stays near humans for the best chance of survival, the notion of any dog stepping into the role of pack leader upon recognising that his human isn’t leader material, is laughable. If we were to go along with the notion that domestic dogs are pack animals and view our mixed-species families as packs that need a leader and therefore pack leader also means pack provider, we should be able to rely on the family dog to lead us on the daily hunt and scavenge for food. Even if we could keep up with him, many days we'd end up going hungry, unless we wanted to fully enter into the spirit of things and eat road-kill, poop and leftovers out of bins (and in which case we'd get ill and probably die).
|Dog eating garbage. Photo credit: Luiz Paulo Machado Filho/Shutterstock
We absolutely should familiarise ourselves with canine body language, but we need to spend less time trying to 'speak dog' back to them and more time recognising that much of the dog's social behaviour towards us differs from the social behaviour displayed towards his own kind. Dogs do not view humans as competition for the position of ‘pack leader’. The dog’s use of social aggression (dominance) to control space, resources and the movements of others is self-serving. If we take this kind of behaviour to mean that a dog is being the 'pack leader', switching roles would mean that we would never give our dogs food or water, never allow them to move, never allow them to be comfortable, never allow them to 'have' anything – and that would be abuse.
Dominance, submission and social hierarchies
As a self-serving strategy for gaining and maintaining control over resources such as space, beds, toys, food and people, some dogs use ritualised aggression – dominance – to eliminate competition from familiars without injuring them. This is because when we force dogs to share the same living space with each other, personal space, comfort, objects, food and human attention are often at a premium because they are controlled by us and therefore limited. These things become a source for competitive behaviour – just like they did for the captive, unrelated wolves that were forced to live together without access to limitless resources. It’s important to understand that this kind of forced living arrangement coupled with limited access to resources is not natural or normal for either species. When unrelated dogs are forced to share the same living space and resources, they can and do form pecking orders motivated by dominance and submission for access to resources – just like the captive wolves did. Different species, shared behaviour, same result.
Many dog owners and modern-day trainers are happy to accept that dogs are sentient beings. But it’s also as important to accept that dogs are socially intelligent. Social intelligence is the capacity to understand the actions of oneself and of others. Social intelligence is learned – it develops from experiencing successes and failures in social encounters. Research has found that dogs and 2-year-old children show similar patterns in social intelligence, much more so than children and one of our closest relatives, chimpanzees. Additionally, self-report, observational and biological studies into the dominance behavioural system have found that very young children are aware of their own and others' ability to control material resources – an ability referred to as ‘resource holding potential’. Given the similarities in social intelligence between dogs and toddlers, there is good reason to believe that dogs too are aware of their own and other’s ability to control material resources. This places ‘resource guarding’ in a different light to that of the fear-based explanation** when considering dogs who guard resources from other dogs – that through experience and dominance behavioural system learning, some dogs are aware that their own ‘resource holding potential’ is greater than that of others.
However … another really important thing to understand alongside all of this is that although dominance is associated with social power in the context of eliminating competition from familiars and controlling their movements, the behavioural attributes of dominance such as ritualised aggression, intimidation and threat are socially aversive and thereby decrease the social influence of dominant individuals. This is another very good reason why using dominance in dog-training is not only wrong, it’s completely counter-productive because it weakens the human-canine bond by impeding the dog’s ability to cooperate with us, particularly when it comes to task-based learning, problem-solving and consensus thinking (teamwork). Over the past couple of decades there has been a huge shift towards ‘force-free’, ‘dog-centred’ and ‘trauma-informed’ approaches to general dog care, grooming and training – all of which are grounded in the indisputable fact that dogs experience positive and negative emotions such as pleasure, joy, pain and distress, and should not be subjected to training and handling methods that intimidate, frighten or hurt them – approaches that formed the very basis of my own work with dogs when I started out as a dog behaviour psychologist nearly twenty years ago. But what is being pulled along with these approaches by some is the notion that no matter what the social situation might be, all aggressive and threatening behaviour towards other dogs is fear-based and there’s no such thing as dominance. This simply is not true and denies dogs their social intelligence – their conscious awareness of their own and others’ ability to control social and material resources, and consequently their choice to use ritualised active and/or passive submission (intended to appease another dog) or ritualised dominance-posturing and/or dominance-fighting (intended to subordinate another dog without injuring it) to either avoid or eliminate competition from a familiar when material and social resources are in limited supply.
It is also just as usual for this type of interaction to not occur, simply because the dogs involved are not temperamentally competitive, they tend towards submission, they naturally form affectionate bonds with one another and therefore are not inclined to actively compete for resources, or individually, they all have strong bonds with their owner who they have learnt meets their primary needs and treats them fairly. A group of any number of dogs that share the same living space may consist of a mix of bonded pairs and individuals that largely prefer their own company – something that I have observed many times over in multi-dog households. Where a social hierarchy between a group of resident dogs does exist, often it will pretty much take care of itself and is subtle, being maintained without noticeable enforcement – the dog who moves another from a sleeping spot by laying down and pawing at it until it moves. However, regardless of whether or not competition for resources is a factor, when a true social hierarchy does exist between dogs who share the same household, it will probably be one of three basic types – despotic, linear or triangular. A despotic hierarchy sees one dog using dominance to eliminate competition from all the others, however, it’s the submission of the other dogs to the despot dog that maintains the hierarchy and keeps it stable. A linear hierarchy sees a sliding scale of submission, with each dog's submission to the one above’s dominance maintaining the hierarchy's stability. The third type of hierarchy, the triangular hierarchy, does not see submission from any dog. Although referred to as triangular, this hierarchy can involve any number of dogs. A triangular hierarchy is extremely unstable, with all dogs competing and fighting for control of resources.
Importantly, none of the three hierarchy types involve a dog as 'alpha’ or ‘pack leader'. Moreover, true hierarchies between dogs are largely based on submission – not during competition for resources, but during aggressive play which includes many of the behavioural components observed in actual fighting but without the intention to subdue or injure, and/or dominance-fighting intended to subordinate another dog but without injury. Even the despot who appears to magically command some sort of respect from his subordinates does so with subtle challenges and threats. The others yield to him because they are either naturally submissive enough not to challenge him, not reactive enough to rise to his threats, or submission has become a learned response due to previous experience (failures), but this is far from the 'calm submission' that those who ascribe to ‘pack leader’ ideologies would have us believe. In fact, any animal that is continually forced into behaving submissively towards another shows permanently high circulating levels of cortisol, one of the hormones involved in the stress response. This is how the primary female wolf of the pack ensures that she is the only one who is mated, by working to keep her female pack mates in a perpetual state of submission around the time of her yearly season, causing their blood cortisol levels to rise, which in turn prevents them from ovulating. And this is also why, when I worked with multi-dog households, that one of my primary focuses was on dissolving hierarchical relationships between dogs where one or more individuals were having their movements and lives constantly controlled (dominated!) by another.
So, although pecking orders (based on competing for resources) and true social hierarchies (based on submission during aggressive play) often do exist among dogs that share the same living space, it's not a natural state of being. It's forced. We cause it to happen by bringing individual dogs together to live in close proximity with one another and by giving premium value to primary need resources. Just like the captive, unrelated wolf group in Schenkel’s original study, captive unrelated dogs will compete – sometimes aggressively – for control over social and material resources. This isn’t dominance theory because that relies on the notion of an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’, but in ethological terms it is dominant behaviour, which, dogs being a socially intelligent mammalian species, is motivated by the dominance behavioural system. The ability to exert control over resources such as food or a safe spot to sleep, without bloodshed, is vital to individual survival (self-serving). However, whilst dominance, submission and stable social hierarchies are conducive to peaceful group living, these are not what bond individuals together. Bonding develops through mutual affection and cooperation, not competition (this also applies to human-canine bonding).
|Tilly & Beau - a bonded pair of rescue dogs of different sexes, ages, breeds and backgrounds.
Photo credit: Lizi Angel
theory that came to underpin ‘alpha’ and ‘pack leader’ ideologies of dog-human/human-dog
social interaction is a pile of crock because dogs are neither trying to control
us nor lead us. The use of dominating behaviour (intimidation and threat) in
dog training has no place. It shuts dogs down emotionally, damages their
confidence and trust in us, and inhibits their ability to cooperate with us and
therefore learn. However, as socially intelligent mammals, dogs have a
dominance behavioural system that evolved in the context both of competition over resources and
the need for peaceful group living. Dominance – as the correct
ethological term for one of the four main motivators of social behaviour used to explain agonistic
interactions – has not been debunked. Dominant and submissive posturing and behaviour
serve to regulate aggression and conflict, whilst generally governing
who gets first access to resources. When unrelated dogs are
forced to share the same living space, some individuals may compete for control
over resources and pecking orders may arise. Sometimes a true social
hierarchy based on dominance and submission during aggressive
play may be established. It is incorrect to use ‘dominant’ and ‘submissive’
to describe a dog’s personality because dominance and submission are not
personality traits. However, when describing a dog’s relationship or
interaction with another dog in a given context at a given time, dominant and
submissive are the correct ethological terms. Importantly, the ultimate purpose
of both dominant and submissive posturing and behaviour is the same – to
prevent a threat and/or to change the outcome of a social encounter. If
appropriate responses do not occur in either case, i.e. the threat doesn’t
go away or increases, the submissive dog is as likely to escalate to aggression
as the dominant one. However, whilst dominance serves
to eliminate competition for control over social and material resources, it reduces
social influence. In contrast, submission, which serves to deflect attack
during agonistic interactions, increases social influence. Social influence is the
ability to adjust one’s behaviour to meet the demands of a social environment –
to conform, to follow, to socialise, to cooperate – and also to lead.
What’s wrong with dominance? Nothing, when used to describe:
- one of the four main motivators of social behaviour used to explain agonistic interactions between dogs (the others being aggression, fear and submission)
- a dog’s relationship or interaction with another dog in a given context at a given time
- ritualised aggression intended to eliminate competition from another dog over control of social or material resources
- ritualised aggression during play intended to subdue another dog
- actual fighting intended to subordinate another dog without injuring it
Dominance is real. Dominance is fact. Dominance is science-based.
To take this vital element of canine-to-canine communication away from our dogs
is to deny them their social intelligence and ability to live together peacefully.
Owners should not be shouted down and made to feel wrong for calling their
dog’s assertive, confident, non-injurious aggressive behaviour towards other
dogs, dominance, by people – many of whom are dog trainers and ‘behaviourists’
– who clearly lack any knowledge of ethology (the study of animal behaviour)
and therefore don’t understand what dominance is, and the vital, self-serving and survival
function that it plays in agonistic social interactions. Remove dominance and
submission and what you are left with is aggression and fear – neither
of which support peaceful or stable group living. Can you even imagine what that would look like?!
If after reading this article you are still sitting in the dominance-denier camp, or you are on the fence and need more evidence to convince you that dominance is a real and very much normal part of canine-to-canine communication and social interaction, please feel free to read the work of the highly esteemed academic authors in ethology (canine and otherwise) mentioned below.
Abrantes, R. (2010) Dog Language: An Encyclopedia of Canine Behaviour. Wakan Tanka Publishers.
Beaver, B. (2009) Canine Behaviour: A Guide for Veterinarians. Second Edition. Saunders.
Bekoff, M. (2012) Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs, and Other Animals. Psychology Today.
Bekoff, M. (2016) Dogs Display Dominance: Deniers Offer No Credible Debate. Psychology Today.
Cafazzo, S., Valsecchi, P., Bonnani, R. & Natoli, E. (2010) Dominance in relation to age, sex, and competitive contexts in a group of free-ranging domestic dogs. Behavioural Ecology, 21 (3): 443–455.
Coppinger, R. & Coppinger, L. (2004) Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behaviour & Evolution. Crosskeys Select Books.
Johnson, S., Leedom, L. & Muhtadie, L. (2012) The Dominance Behavioural System and Psychopathology: Evidence from Self-Report, Observational and Biological Studies. Psychology Bulletin, 138 (4): 692–743.
Lindsay, S. (2000) Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour & Training. Volumes I, II & III. Wiley-Blackwell.
MacLean, L., Herrmann, E., Suchindran, S. & Hare, B. (2017) Individual differences in cooperative communicative skills are more similar between dogs and humans than chimpanzees. Animal Behaviour, 126: 41–51.
Rodriguez-Santiago, M., Nuhrenberg, P., Derry, J. & Jordan, A. (2020) Behavioural traits that define social dominance are the same that reduce social influence in a consensus task. Biological Sciences, 117 (31): 18566–18573.
Schenkel, R. (1947) Ausdrucks-Studien an Wölfen: Gefangenschafts-Beobachtungen [Expression studies in the wolf: captivity-observations]. Behaviour, 1: 81–129.
Schilder, M., Vinke, C. & van der Borg
Smuts, B. (2010) ‘Domestic Dogs’ in Breed, M. & Moore, J. (Eds) Encyclopedia of Animal Behaviour. Elsevier Ltd. 562–567.
Trisko, R. & Smuts, B. (2015) Dominance relationships in a group of domestic dogs. Behaviour, 152 (5): 677–704.
Van der Borg, J., Schilder, M., Vinke, C. & de Vries, H. (2015) Dominance in Domestic Dogs: A Quantitative Analysis of Its Behavioural Measures. PLoS ONE, 10 (8): 1–18.
Zuroff, D., Fournier, M., Patall, E. & Leybman M. (2010) Steps toward an evolutionary personality psychology: Individual differences in the social rank domain. Canadian Psychology, 51(1): 58–66.
* Feral – a group of animals that have been together long enough that their innate behaviours, physiology, or anatomy have changed from the original domesticated version. True feral dog populations are low (2.5% of the free-ranging population). Feral dogs have a greater flight distance than free-ranging strays and Village Dogs and usually become very aggressive when forced to interact with humans.
** The neurobiology of aggression is a vast topic (far too huge to go into here as a footnote), but in a ‘related-to-this-article-nutshell’, emotional or ‘affective’ aggression is linked to escape behaviour, and escape (flight) is generally prepotent over attack. This is from where the term ‘fear aggression’ sprung. However, ‘fear aggression’ is technically incorrect because a dog cannot be simultaneously fearful and aggressive. ‘Fear aggression’ would be pathological and highly abnormal. Fear and aggression simply cannot occur at the same time. The correct term for affective aggression in response to a feared or aversive outcome is ‘active defence’. Active defence is used by some dogs to control (avoid or escape) a feared or aversive outcome. Many forms of canine aggression directed at humans are motivated by avoidance dynamics (usually of an aversive or feared outcome) as opposed to ethological causations such as dominance-related competition. Some dogs will react non-aggressively and will flee or freeze (passive defence), attacking only as a last resort if escape is prevented, whereas others may use affective aggression as a learned, active defence coping strategy. Many dogs who resource guard use active defence to maintain control of (avoid losing) a resource when the source of social conflict is a human – this is reflected in the fact that many owners get bitten, often badly, when trying to remove items from their dogs’ possession because what is being emotionally expressed by the aggressive dog in this type of scenario is anger/frustration. However, when the source of social conflict for control over a resource is another dog, dominance (ritualised aggression intended to eliminate competition from a familiar without injuring it) is the more likely strategy due to the source of competition being another dog, the dogs’ dominance behavioural system and social intelligence, and dominance being essential both to individual survival and peaceful cohabitation with other dogs.