Conflict aggression, also called dominance aggression, can be a scary and difficult behavior for dog owners to manage. Puppies exhibit this aggression when testing limits and establishing dominance ranking within the family. They naturally strike out to see who is in charge of food, treats, territory, or toys. While it may be a challenge, if you can understand the cause, there are steps you can take to correct the behavior before it gets out of hand.
What Is Conflict Aggression?
Conflict aggression is a common type of aggressive behavior encountered by first-time puppy owners, and it may be due to a misunderstanding of canine communication. There are many kinds of dog aggression, but conflict aggression typically occurs when a pup is learning its place in its new family, among people and other dogs. The behavior may manifest as aggressively guarding food, toys, or a piece of furniture. This type of aggression very quickly gets worse if you punish the puppy, so different strategies must be employed.
Symptoms of Conflict Aggression in Puppies
Puppies and especially adolescent dogs under a year of age are most likely to exhibit conflict aggression. Ninety percent of conflict-aggressive dogs are males that develop problem behaviors by the time they reach 18 to 36 months of age, which corresponds with canine social maturity. Female conflict aggression often tends to develop during puppyhood.
Pups that show obvious conflict aggression at times—snarling, growling—may act very submissive in other situations. For example, they may cower around other dogs. You'll want to watch the puppy's body language for clues. Conflict-aggressive pups may keep their ears and tails down (submissive signals) and tremble after an encounter. Owners may describe them as acting guilty or remorseful.
Causes of Conflict Aggression
While the cause of conflict aggression isn't always clear, a few common triggers include:
- Hormones: Testosterone makes males dogs react more aggressively. During adolescence, male pups have a much higher testosterone level than they do once they reach adulthood. But, female dogs can act aggressively, too, thanks to hormone imbalances.
- Misinterpretation: Behaviorists speculate that a first-time instinctive display of conflict aggression may arise from fear or disagreements that take place during play that gets out of control. It can also occur when a dog feels threatened near its toys or food bowl (by an older dog, for instance)—even if the other dog means no harm.
- Idiopathic Aggression: Idiopathic means that a cause for the aggression can't be identified. This type of aggression is characterized by a dog that changes temperament quickly, from happy to aggressive. It may show signs of submission but still attacks with excessive aggression that's out-of-sync with the situation. Idiopathic aggression most often affects young dogs (under three years of age).
Diagnosing Conflict Aggression in Puppies
There isn't an official diagnostic process to identify conflict aggression; observation of the pup's behavior will serve as evidence of the condition. A veterinarian of dog behaviorist can help confirm the presence of irrationally aggressive behavior in a puppy.
Watch for aggressive reactions such in certain "normal" situations:
- Picking the dog up or restraining it, such as for nail clipping
- Reaching over the puppy near a toy or food bowl
- Telling a pup to get off furniture
- Tug-of-war or wrestling games
Treatment and Prevention
While dog aggression cases can be dealt with by professionals, patient and dedicated owners can work to correct aggressive behaviors by employing targeted strategies:
- Identify and avoid triggers to prevent confrontations. If the dog protects toys, remove them from the general environment so the puppy has nothing to guard.
- Don’t challenge the pup, and don't punish.
- Require the pup to earn rewards with good behavior. Create interactions based on your request (e.g., "Sit!") and the payment (the dog sits), which earns it the desired reward (treat/verbal praise). The dog should get nothing—treats or attention—unless it earns it by responding positively to your command.
- Use happy words or phrases to change your puppy's mood. For example, if the dog is growling or posturing, speak sweetly and see if its mood changes.
- Confine a problem pup to a single room, an exercise pen, or a crate to better control its movements and access to trigger areas.
- Neutering males can help.
- Consult a veterinary behaviorist before having a female spayed because conflict-aggressive female dogs tend to get worse if they're spayed.
Prognosis for Puppies with Conflict Aggression
The best prognosis for a pup with conflict aggression comes with the dedicated attention of an informed owner. Aggressive pups need more than love and petting, and they also respond very poorly to anger or frequent punishment. First-time dog owners who don't know how to address this situation, or are unwilling to try, will likely end up with an unhappy dog that never behaves well. Often, such pups are abandoned or re-homed when frustrated owners give up. In these cases, pups may become more aggressive and mistrustful, increasing the likelihood that they will be euthanized.