Letters to the Editor

Differing views on the cause of aggression in dogs

In the article dealing with attitude of dog owners regarding aggression toward children,1 the authors state that a “common misconception among dog owners is that dogs are driven to assert social dominance over people of any age, including children, and will be aggressive when their social rank is threatened. This paradigm has largely been abandoned by veterinary behaviorists….” That may well be true, although I know of no vote having been taken on the subject, but their use of the word “largely” clearly suggests that they recognize that there is professional disaccord on the subject. I find myself in that group.

That dogs and humans have some similar attributes goes without question. Most veterinarians would agree that dogs have feelings and emotions. Few would question that within the canine world, there is social dominance and submission or that within the human world, social dominance and submission are well-recognized and professionally understood behaviors. Further, I believe it probable that dogs and people get along so easily and naturally because we share so many mutually understood traits and behaviors that are common to members of socially organized species.

More specifically, if dogs and people share inherent social dominance and submission within their species, it seems reasonable to allow, nay expect, that these two species would easily understand each other in the social dominance department. That is, if dogs push, growl, and bite each other to establish or maintain social dominance within their species, and we and they understand each other on other behavior subjects (eg, stroking and playing), then it becomes not at all unreasonable to understand that a dog with a leadership attitude would push, growl, and bite to establish its self-perceived dominant place within a dog-human family.

Later on, the authors state, “The mistaken idea that dominance is the underlying cause of aggression has important consequences because owners who attempt to gain ‘dominance' over already anxious dogs may worsen the dogs' tendency to bite.” This statement apparently suggests that the typical owner's way to attempt to gain dominance is to out-aggress the dog with some sort of verbal or physical control or punishment, such as painful physical abuse or the “alpha roll.” While possibly effective if carried to extreme, such assault techniques are entirely unacceptable for dog owners and would be highly unlikely to be suggested by any veterinarian or responsible trainer.

Happily, if one does correctly recognize that a given dog is indeed attempting to enforce its own dominance (leadership) over a human, child or adult, it is easy to literally take this leadership attitude away from the dog with completely socially acceptable, nonviolent techniques. Because these techniques are gentle and mostly inapparent to the dog, this desired leadership reversal happens without any dramatic confrontation.

Deshler B. Cameron, DVM

Nevada City, Calif

1.

Reisner IR, Shofer FS. Effects of gender and parental status on knowledge and attitudes of dog owners regarding dog aggression toward children. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:14121419.

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The authors respond:

Dr. Cameron's premise that humans and dogs compete for social dominance is certainly a commonly held view. He states that since the two species share characteristics of social dominance, they understand each other's social language. We respectfully disagree and suggest that humans do not intuitively understand dog behavior. This lack of understanding, sustained by the popular media, is an important basis of our article. Dogs that are aggressive to familiar people are more likely to respond with aggression when confrontational training methods, such as forced submission, are used.1 It is precisely this approach that can lead to severe injury to people of all ages, including young children (who are as dependent as pets on the judgment and benevolence of adult humans).

The concept of dominance in dogs toward people is based on a misunderstanding of dog behavior. That dogs continually assert dominance or leadership to each other is fallaciously based on captive wolf behavior.2 Dogs are not wolves, and the behavior of captive wolves is not the same as the behavior of free wolves. That dogs exhibit the same behaviors to humans as they do to other dogs is a consequence of a limited behavioral repertoire, not an indication that human family members are included in a dominance hierarchy.

Veterinary behaviorists are aware that assertions of dominance by alpha rolling, dominance downs, and other such “training” techniques are closely related to the provocations that result in biting.3 From the perspective of clinical veterinary behavior, the body language and context of dog aggression to people most often reflects fear, not self-confidence or assertiveness. Thus, defensiveness, rather than dominance, is the issue. Furthermore, in almost all cases, there is sufficient evidence of other fears or anxieties to justify a clinical diagnosis of generalized anxiety.4 Dogs “push, growl, and bite each other” defensively out of fear. Sympathetic arousal (rather than social dominance) is the more rational explanation for the clinical signs that accompany aggression. Any diagnosis is properly understood as a hypothesis to be tested by the results of treatment, and experience has shown the unfortunate results of treating dogs' aggression to humans as an expression of dominance.1

Management of canine aggression includes safety advice and avoidance of provocations, along with predictable, reward-based interactions so that underlying anxiety is lessened and aggression reduced. When children are the primary victims, of course, prevention and avoidance are most important. We see this as a model of learning and not a leadership reversal any more than one reverses leadership with a chicken being trained to peck piano keys at the circus. Dr. Cameron states that it would be assaultive to out-aggress the dog. We appreciate and agree with this comment. Unfortunately, this course is recommended by many trainers, and some veterinarians as well, and is of course touted by the popular press and media. An evolved view of dog behavior can ultimately result in improved welfare for dogs as well as enhanced safety for children, whose well-being was the focus of our study.

Ilana R. Reisner, DVM, PhD, DACVB

Frances S. Shofer, PhD

Department of Clinical Studies School of Veterinary Medicine University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, Pa

  • 1.

    Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR. Safety and efficacy of behavior modification techniques used by dog owners, in Proceedings. Annu Sci Symp Anim Behav Am Coll Vet Behav Am Vet Soc Anim Behav 2008;24.

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  • 2.

    Schenkel R. Expression studies of wolves. Behaviour 1947;1:81129.

  • 3.

    Luescher AU, Reisner IR. Canine aggression toward familiar people: a new look at an old problem. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 2008;38:11071130.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Tejeda A, Heiblum M, Ruiz de la Torre JL, et al. General anxiety diagnosis in dogs: behaviours as probable clinical signs, in Proceedings. 14th Annu Meet Eur Soc Vet Clin Ethol 5th Annu Meet Eur Coll Vet Behav Med Comp Anim 2008;3940.

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Thoughts on the benefits of personalized medicine

The JAVMA News article titled, “Getting the right drug at the right dosage”1 was an excellent depiction of personalized medicine. As the article pointed out, personalized medicine will benefit both animals and humans.

One way that it will benefit animals is consequent to the fact that if one human cannot predict what a drug or disease will do to another human, it will be almost impossible for a different species to do so. This is already being discussed vis-à-vis drug development. The current method of drug discovery and development is clearly inadequate, as the probability that a new chemical emerging from lead optimization will make it as a drug is 0.2%.2

Many drugs that harm animals are safe and effective in humans and vice versa.3,4 Diseases and treatments in animals may or may not mimic diseases and treatments in humans.5–7

On the basis of our current knowledge of evolutionary biology and complex systems, none of this should be surprising.

Jean Greek, DVM, DACVD

Ray Greek, MD

Americans For Medical Advancement Goleta, Calif

  • 1.

    Medco Health Solutions. Getting the right drug at the right dosage. Personalized medicine brings precision to drug treatment. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:12121213.

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  • 2.

    European Commission. Innovative Medicines Initiative: better tools for better medicines. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2008.

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  • 3.

    Heywood R. Clinical toxicity—could it have been predicted? Post-marketing experience. In: Lumley CE, Walker S, eds. Animal toxicity studies: their relevance for man. Lancaster, England: Quay Publishing, 1990;5767.

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  • 4.

    Knight A, Bailey J, Balcombe J. Animal carcinogenicity studies: 1. Poor human predictivity. Altern Lab Anim 2006;34:1927.

  • 5.

    Stump DS, VandeWoude S. Animal models for HIV AIDS: a comparative review. Comp Med 2007;57:3343.

  • 6.

    Varki A. Sialic acids in human health and disease. Trends Mol Med 2008;14:351360.

  • 7.

    Nguyen DH, Hurtado-Ziola N, Gagneux P, et al. Loss of Siglec expression on T lymphocytes during human evolution. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2006;103:77657770.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1.

    Reisner IR, Shofer FS. Effects of gender and parental status on knowledge and attitudes of dog owners regarding dog aggression toward children. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:14121419.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1.

    Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR. Safety and efficacy of behavior modification techniques used by dog owners, in Proceedings. Annu Sci Symp Anim Behav Am Coll Vet Behav Am Vet Soc Anim Behav 2008;24.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    Schenkel R. Expression studies of wolves. Behaviour 1947;1:81129.

  • 3.

    Luescher AU, Reisner IR. Canine aggression toward familiar people: a new look at an old problem. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 2008;38:11071130.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Tejeda A, Heiblum M, Ruiz de la Torre JL, et al. General anxiety diagnosis in dogs: behaviours as probable clinical signs, in Proceedings. 14th Annu Meet Eur Soc Vet Clin Ethol 5th Annu Meet Eur Coll Vet Behav Med Comp Anim 2008;3940.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1.

    Medco Health Solutions. Getting the right drug at the right dosage. Personalized medicine brings precision to drug treatment. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2008;233:12121213.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 2.

    European Commission. Innovative Medicines Initiative: better tools for better medicines. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, 2008.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 3.

    Heywood R. Clinical toxicity—could it have been predicted? Post-marketing experience. In: Lumley CE, Walker S, eds. Animal toxicity studies: their relevance for man. Lancaster, England: Quay Publishing, 1990;5767.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 4.

    Knight A, Bailey J, Balcombe J. Animal carcinogenicity studies: 1. Poor human predictivity. Altern Lab Anim 2006;34:1927.

  • 5.

    Stump DS, VandeWoude S. Animal models for HIV AIDS: a comparative review. Comp Med 2007;57:3343.

  • 6.

    Varki A. Sialic acids in human health and disease. Trends Mol Med 2008;14:351360.

  • 7.

    Nguyen DH, Hurtado-Ziola N, Gagneux P, et al. Loss of Siglec expression on T lymphocytes during human evolution. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 2006;103:77657770.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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