Power-dominance Ideation and Treatment Protocols

The power-dominance motivation attributed to canine domestic aggression is widely accepted as a leading cause of intrafamilial aggression. Appeal to social rank as a cause of aggression is a central theme guiding much of the applied and popular dog behavior literature, with most authors rehashing the narrative account or tweaking it to justify their particular dominance-oriented treatment program. However, instead of helping family members to understand the causes of dog aggression, such emphasis on dominance and rank may serve only to perpetuate a malevolent interpretation of canine intent and purposiveness that places undue and inappropriate focus on causes that are predominantly beyond an owner’s control and rarely significant for the treatment of domestic aggression problems. Instead of interpreting the etiology of intrafamilial aggression problems and their treatment in terms of adversarial hierarchical dynamics, counseling and training activities are better served by focusing on the antecedent events and establishing operations specific to interactive exchanges triggering reactive behavior, insofar as these behavioral elements are accessible and subject to change by means of social exchange.

The dominance narrative not only has obscured the causes of aggression problems but has also resulted in a considerable amount of conceptual confusion that continues paralyze research, concealing far more than it reveals by way of a simplistic explanation regarding the causes of aggression. The anthropic dominance bias frames an excessively myopic and simplistic perspective on canine social behavior, giving rise to circular diagnostic labels and treatment rationales based on the dominance narrative. The effects of this misconception are not just of theoretical interest, because the dominance narrative and unfounded assumptions arising from it are used to justify a variety of highly intrusive and aversive practices in the name of rational therapy. The dominance narrative frames autoprotective and challenging dog behavior in a manner that contributes to the use of abusive emotional deprivation, aversive physical control and restraint tactics, and unproven pharmacological and surgical procedures. A leading cause of ineffectual management and treatment is the habitual targeting coercive tactics at quashing the “dominant” dog’s attitude or perception of rank. The default use of drugs to treat such problems is especially problematic because it appears to shift the domain of causation from the dog’s attitude to its physiology — a domain of causality that is sufficiently vague for both the owner and the behavior modifier to promote magical thinking about the efficacy of such treatments.

Although some dogs with severe aggression problems may be victims of inadequate socialization and training, their care and training are frequently not that much different from the way many millions of other dogs are treated that do not develop aggression problems. Given the notable lack of (1) formalized-threat sequencing, (2) the severity of attacks, (3) the explosive and situational inappropriateness of attacks, (4) the benign nature of the provoking challenges or threats, and (5) the general incompetence exhibited by the aggressor and the victim, diagnosing such attacks as “dominance aggression” seems akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole and calling it a perfect fit. Most dogs with serious aggression problems do not appear to have been victimized by physical punishment. Instead, aggression seems to emerge under the influence of a genetic predisposition and the incubation of nervous or insecure attachments, interactive conflict and tensions, entrapment dynamics and social ambivalence, adverse dietary and environmental conditions, inadequate exercise and play, excessive confinement and restraint (isolation), suboptimal attention and tactile stimulation, autonomic dysregulation, or the absence of appropriate training and play. In short, as the result of an emergent reactive coping style, selective attention and impulse-control capacities may be degraded and impaired, causing the dog to become increasingly inattentive, uncooperative, aloof, or impulsive — attributes often claimed to be evidence of dominance problems.

These various issues stress the danger inherent to approaches that take anthropic ideas and symbols such as dominance and reify them into substantive causes or proximate relations in order to rationalize intrusive and aversive behavior-change procedures that ironically are not too dissimilar from the real causes of aggression. A substantive body of human research indicates that perceived power and dominance ideation promotes a number of cognitive and behavioral effects on how parents, teachers, and caregivers cope and respond to the challenging behavior of vulnerable dependents (), findings that are directly relevant to how family members and professionals cope with the management and treatment of problem canine behavior. The designation of low perceived power or high perceived power is based on the relative importance that owners place on accessible and controllable behavioral causes versus causes that are predominantly under a child’s control or causes that are perceived as being uncontrollable by both a dog and its owner (e.g., disease model). For example, the attribution of stubbornness as a cause of uncooperative behavior is an indicator of low perceived power, since the lack of cooperation is perceived predominantly as being under the control and intent of a stubborn dog or child. Similarly, consultants and trainers operating under the influence of a low-perceived-power construct may attribute a dominant attitude and other highly speculative causes to explain the etiology of aggression and challenging behavior. The tendency to attribute attitudinal causes associated with the dominance ideation may be linked with excessively intrusive or aversive training strategies or reliance on unproven nutritional or psychopharmacological protocols.

Low-power owners (like low-power parents with regard to their children) tend to explain their dog’s misbehavior in terms of causes that lie outside of their control or understanding. The low-power behavior modifier may perpetuate this perception by searching for causes of the problem in the dog’s attitude or distant history that resonate with the anthropic dominance myth. From the very outset of such therapy relationships, the dog’s behavior may be framed in terms of power-ascendant motives and a preoccupation with finding ways to leverage power and control over it. Instead of highlighting how social ambivalence and inconsistent control efforts may have contributed to the problem, the counselor may assign an attitudinal cause to behavior and give the owner a diagnostic label with which to justify abusive deprivational and emotional treatment procedures that resonate with and confirm the owner’s powerlessness. Unfortunately, by locating the causes of aggression in a dominant attitude or perception of rank, the trainer/consultant may only succeed in strengthening the owner’s private distortions and belief, thereby perpetuating problematic power-dominance dynamics. The seeking and getting of a diagnostic label may tap a primitive urge to possess a magical name, causing a low-power owners or supplicant to seek out the wisdom of a low-power behavioral hierophant, hoping for a revelation, a magical name, a vision of the future, a potion, or a set of rituals with which to placate the mysterious forces causing the dog to misbehave. With the possession of a name, the low-power owner may feel empowered by virtue of the arcane scientific authority and significance attributed to it. Obviously, the practice of diagnostic labeling is extremely problematic, and especially so when the name shifts from a merely descriptive significance to causal significance; that is, the diagnostic label is no longer used to specify a collection of symptoms but now implies explanatory power to identify a physiological or phylogenetic cause. The interpretations used by low-power behavior modifiers are often little more than descriptive platitudes and elaborate myths that lack coherent causal significance. Unfortunately, the nominal fallacy (i.e., confusing naming with explaining) is widely committed in the context of treating canine adjustment problems.

The autoprotective perspective is more parsimonious and consistent with the collection of known facts than is the dominance account (see Antipredatory Strategy and Auto-protection versus Dominance). Although an oversimplification itself, the antipredator hypothesis is a much less harmful over simplification than is the dominance myth. The antipredator model puts the owner in an instrumental role, thereby correctly emphasizing that human-dog interaction and, in particular, human action, rather than malevolent canine intent and power-dominance motivations, are the primary causes to blame (if any) for domestic aggression; dogs, like most prey animals, rarely go out of their way to instigate aggressive contests, at least not without significant agitation and due cause for such anomalous behavior. In general, dogs are not in need of therapy to modify a distorted “perception of rank,” but the dog and its owner may need to learn how to build relations conducive to cooperative exchanges and autonomic attunement while integrating secure social and place attachments. Like a dog living under social ambivalence and dispersive tensions, an abused child may also adopt an antipredatory orientation toward the parent and acquire the habits of a frightened prey animal but secretly harbor or surreptitiously act out fantasies of cruelty on the dog. As the child enters into power relations with other children and the family dog, the parent’s predatory model may become apparent in the child’s abusive and ambiguous relations with the dog, perhaps causing him or her to become increasingly exploitive and intrusive toward the dog while extracting pleasure from its distress and victimization. Children that treat dogs abusively and communicate ambiguous affection and play signals might, therefore, reflect some of the same dynamics expressed in the reactive behavior of the dog. The child and the dog may mirror and express similarly reactive behaviors, ambivalence, and impulsivity flowing from exposure to the same parental emotional or physical abuse.

The relationship formed between the owner and the behavior modifier appears to exert a profound influence on the owner’s perception of control, depending on the nature of the causes (accessible versus inaccessible) attributed to the problem, and the treatment strategy selected to resolve it. The typical treatment strategy adopted is based on either a proactive open-stance orientation directed toward accessible causes or a reactive closed-stance orientation directed toward inaccessible causes (i.e., relatively uncontrollable or unknown). A major ethical and welfare consideration recommending the auto-protective account of canine domestic aggression is that it avoids evoking anthropic dominance ideation and the biased framing of challenging dog behavior in terms that encourage the use of abusive or ineffectual treatment programs aimed at coercing a change in the dog’s “dominant” attitude or perception of rank. The dominance narrative is widely associated with the use of abusive emotional deprivation, traumatizing physical punishment and restraint tactics, and unproven pharmacological interventions. The cynopraxic approach emphasizes counseling and therapy aimed at facilitating improved attention and impulse control, integrating affectionate and playful relations, supporting autoinitiated behavior and emotional autoregulation, and promoting a gratifying life experience — changes that naturally reduce the risk of domestic aggression. An important goal of cynopraxic counseling and therapy is to empower the owner with basic skills and dog sense to promote a fair balance of control and appreciation of the dog’s needs, while improving the dog’s ability to engage in interactive prosocial exchanges rather than resorting to reactive antisocial behavior. In particular, play represents a potent tool for adjusting the social imbalance contributing to impulsivity and reactive behavior. Comprehensive cynopraxic training and behavior-therapy efforts serve to promote changes that facilitate a functional equilibrium at virtually every level of behavioral organization. These social changes are brought about by the integration of secure attachments and an enhanced quality-of-life that benefits both the dog and the family members.