Assumption pet is aggressive because of abuse likely wrong

Q: Our small mixed-breed dog Molly is always trying to dominate us. Every time we try to pick her up, she puts us in our place by trying to snap. It seems like everything has to be on her terms. She’s a rescue dog and we think she acts like this because she was abused. Please help us.”

A: As with so many other questions along these lines, yours exemplifies the preponderance of animal behavior misinformation that’s insinuated itself into our pet culture. In this case, it raises the twin issues of dominance and physical abuse-related aggression in dogs.

Myth No. 1: Aggressive pets are trying to dominate us. This is not always true. In fact, it’s usually quite the opposite, in a way. Aggression is much more likely the result of fear than anything else. Nevertheless, people seem to prefer to believe that aggressive or difficult pets are attempting to control their environments rather than reacting to its stresses.

The observation of wolf hierarchies largely informs this dominance concept. And that’s an attractive paradigm, especially for those of us who like to see the wild in our pets. Unfortunately, it has not been shown to be an apt model in the case of most domesticated dogs.

The trouble with this particular misconception about dogs –– widely disseminated by certain popular media personalities –– has led to the more widespread use of aggressive, punishment-based training techniques that can lead to even more serious behavior problems than they purport to address.

Myth No. 2: Physical abuse is at the root of fear and aggression in pets. If only I had a nickel for every time I’d been informed of my patients’ history of abuse. … Sure, it’s possible. But if every pet whose owner believed their pet was formerly physically abused was correct in their speculations, we’d have to assume that pet abuse is far more prevalent than we believe it to be.

What does it matter, you ask? Here’s the problem: Pet owners who are undeterred in their belief in abuse as the root cause of any given behavior problem tend to ignore or deny the possibility that the condition is progressive and/or treatable.

Not only does that mean pets will fail to receive treatment for their conditions, but pets with anxiety-based disorders that do tend to get worse over time will likely continue to deteriorate. Please consider seeing a credentialed behavior professional. Ask your veterinarian for a referral today.

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is Send questions to