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JAVMA, Vol 234, No. 10, May 15, 2009 Views: Letters to the Editor 1253
Letters to the Editor
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the AVMA.
The cost of restoring the
environment and biodiversity
Since I spent time as a young
boy long-lining bullfrogs and
fishing for bass with hand-caught
leopard frogs, the recent paucity
of frogs in my favored bogs drew
my attention to the comments of
Dr. Val Beasley in the March 15,
2009, One-health wonders feature.1
As Dr. Beasley points out, this is a
problem that goes far beyond frogs
and encompasses multiple prob-
lems such as “[h]abitat loss and
degradation, crowding, inbreed-
ing, toxic chemicals, overharvest,
exotic invasive species, climate
change, and infectious diseases….”
Dr. Beasley suggests that some of
these problems can be addressed by
changing methods for animal pro-
duction, and if bringing multiple
small livestock operations “higher
in the watershed” would indeed
help move the world toward rapid
recovery of biodiversity, I and most
wildlife managers would welcome
those changes. But at what price
for milk-drinking and meat-eating
Americans like me?
Douglas H. Erbeck, dvm, phd
Crystal, Minn
1. Osborne M. One-health wonders. J Am
Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:721–722.
More on canine dominance
Thank you to Dr. Weiss1 for
initiating a discussion of the per-
vasive misconception that the be-
havior of dogs toward humans can
largely be explained by the con-
cept of dominance. Unfortunately,
overcoming the “master-slave”
misconception of human-canine
interactions involves a paradigm
shift for some veterinarians, dog
trainers, and others. The basis
for this shift, however, is compel-
ling, given the extensive evidence
that a simplistic explanation of
behavior based on dominance is
inconsistent with our understand-
ing of canine social behavior,2
particularly aggression.3
An understanding of canine
aggression is critical for companion
animal practitioners to promote the
safety of their staff and their clients,
especially children. Observation of
canine communication signals and
outcomes often reveals motivational
factors for human-directed aggres-
sion that are most accurately de-
fined as resource guarding, conflict,
or fear, rather than “dominance.” In
other cases, medical causes, includ-
ing neurologic, ophthalmologic,
and pain-related disorders, contrib-
ute to cases of aggression but may
be misinterpreted as “dominance.”
Historical, behavioral, and medi-
cal information are necessary to
make an accurate diagnosis so that
established management techniques
that reduce risk and teach dogs ap-
propriate responses can be recom-
mended to clients.4,5
Veterinary behaviorists agree
wholeheartedly with Dr. Weiss’
statement that “you don’t need to
beat, choke, or pin a dog….” Such
methods are inhumane and anti-
quated. Veterinary behaviorists have
grave concerns that the popular
dog trainer mentioned in Dr. Weiss’
letter, who can be seen on Internet-
accessible videos and television
programs dragging dogs by their
collars and pinning them down,
promotes unsafe and fear-inducing
methods. In addition to negative
welfare implications, confrontation-
al “dominance” techniques, such
as the “alpha roll” and “dominance
down,” can lead to an escalation
in defensive (“keep away”) aggres-
sion and subsequent injury to the
person applying them.6 Besides
being risk-laden, these approaches
do not address important underly-
ing motivational factors that drive
Veterinary behaviorists are
highly trained veterinary specialists.
Like members of other AVMA-ap-
proved veterinary specialty colleges,
members of the American College
of Veterinary Behaviorists complete
years of advanced training, conduct
scientific research, engage in clini-
cal practice, and publish scientific
papers and case reports in peer-re-
viewed journals. Members of the
American College of Veterinary Be-
haviorists welcome the opportunity
to discuss controversial issues, as
raised by Dr. Weiss, in a respectful
manner and on the basis of scien-
tific evidence.
Barbara L. Sherman, phd, dvm, dacvb
President, American College
of Veterinary Behaviorists
Raleigh, NC
1. Weiss T. Thoughts on canine domi-
nance aggression (lett). J Am Vet Med
Assoc 2009;234:731.
2. Jensen P, ed. The behavioral biology of
dogs. Wallingford, England: CAB Inter-
national, 2007.
3. Luescher AU, Reisner IR. Canine ag-
gression toward familiar people: a new
look at an old problem. Vet Clin North
Am Small Anim Pract 2008;38:1107–
4. Horwitz DF, Neilson JC. Canine and
feline behavior. Ames, Iowa: Blackwell
Publishing, 2007.
1254 Views: Letters to the Editor JAVMA, Vol 234, No. 10, May 15, 2009
5. Beaver BV. Canine behavior: insights and
answers. 2nd ed. St Louis: Saunders,
6. Herron ME, Shofer FS, Reisner IR.
Survey of the use and outcome of con-
frontational and non-confrontational
training methods in client-owned dogs
showing undesired behaviors. Appl
Anim Behav Sci 2009;117:47–54.
It is disappointing to see yet
again the persistence of misconcep-
tions about social dominance and
dominance aggression and the use
of poorly defined buzzwords such
as “confident demeanor” in discus-
sions about how best to create mu-
tually beneficial and safe relation-
ships with dogs.
The ideas about social domi-
nance that have been part of tradi-
tional dog training almost since its
inception and that have regained
popularity because of Cesar Millan
bear little resemblance to findings
presented in the current scientific
animal behavior literature. And
yes, there is such a body of scien-
tific literature, even though it often
seems to take a backseat to popular
charismatic television personalities.
In his recent letter,1 it appears
that Dr. Weiss may have com-
bined several different ideas. Social
dominance is often described in the
scientific literature as a resource
allocation system and involves sort-
ing out which individuals usually
have priority access to resources.
Leadership refers to those indi-
viduals that tend to initiate group
activities, such as hunting or
foraging, and these individuals are
often not the animals in the socially
dominant role. Control, on the
other hand, is typically not used
in the scientific literature but often
is applied informally as a measure
of how responsive a dog is to its
owner’s (usually verbal) directions,
such as sit, come, or stay.
As an illustration, my Irish Set-
ter Coral never challenges me over
food, toys, or any other resource;
while on a walk, I often allow her
to lead me to a bush that she wants
to sniff; and I have varying degrees
of control over her, depending on
the circumstances and how many
birds are within pointing and stalk-
ing range.
Having served as an expert wit-
ness in five fatal dog bite cases and
in several other cases involving seri-
ous injury, I can confidently state
that none of the dogs’ behavior in
the fatal cases could be categorized
as “dominance aggression” and that
the behavior of the dogs in the seri-
ous injury cases could only rarely
be labeled as such.
Aggression is categorized (al-
ways somewhat arbitrarily) by the
context in which it occurs and the
body postures of the dog. Dogs are
often erroneously labeled as exhib-
iting dominance aggression when
in fact they are quite fearful. Most
often, this occurs because people do
not carefully observe or accurately
interpret canine communication
signals and are not familiar with
what the term social dominance
really refers to.
Beyond this, a recent article2
by L. David Mech, PhD, who has
studied wolves for 40 years, calls
into question the alpha wolf termi-
nology that is the basis for so many
outdated dog training ideas that in-
volve confusion about the concept
of a pack leader.
When it comes to the area
of animal behavior, if Dr. Weiss’
comments reflect the beliefs of the
general veterinary community, it is
not the behaviorists who stand to
lose credibility, it is the veterinary
community as a whole.
Suzanne Hetts, phd, caab
Littleton, Colo
1. Weiss T. Thoughts on canine domi-
nance aggression (lett). J Am Vet Med
Assoc 2009;234:731.
2. Mech LD. Whatever happened to the
term alpha wolf? International Wolf
2008;winter:4–8. Available at: www.
winter/alphawolf.pdf. Accessed Apr
15, 2009.
Dr. Weiss brings up an excel-
lent topic for discussion in his
letter of March 15, 2009,1 which
supports the “dominance” theory
of dog behavior and endorses the
philosophy and methods used by
Cesar Millan, star of the televi-
sion show, “The Dog Whisperer.”
Because of the current abundance
of dog training information, which
varies drastically in quality and
credibility, the general public and
even veterinarians are often con-
fused about what techniques are
humane, scientifically supported,
and effective.
In particular, the current scien-
tific literature does not support Dr.
Weiss’ statement that “the concept
of dominance is fundamental to un-
derstanding most canine behavior.”
The concept of dominance does
indeed play a role in understand-
ing a small part of canine behavior.
However, most problem behaviors
are unrelated to dominance, and
most dogs with problem behaviors
are merely untrained or behav-
ing in “normal” ways that owners
find unappealing. In most cases of
aggression, fear is the underlying
motivation, not dominance.2 Addi-
tionally, the concept of dominance,
as it is portrayed by Mr. Millan, is
based on decades-old descriptions
of behavior among wolves in un-
natural groupings in captivity and
does not represent the behavior of
wolves in stable packs in the wild.3,4
Studies of feral dogs are illuminat-
ing in distinguishing the substantial
differences between wolf and dog
social behavior.5
Having reviewed Mr. Millan’s
televised training techniques,
I must object when Dr. Weiss
writes, “We are on common
ground in our belief that you
don’t need to beat, choke, or pin a
dog to demonstrate your leader-
ship.” Mr. Millan pins dogs on the
ground, restrains dogs wearing
choke collars with their front feet
off the ground, and uses shock
collars and other confrontational
techniques on his show. Confron-
tational techniques have been
shown to increase the likelihood
of aggression in dogs,6 which puts
both dogs and owners at risk.
With regard to losing credibil-
ity, I am concerned about the advice
clients receive from veterinarians
who are not up-to-date in their
understanding of dog behavior.
Recommending or demonstrating
techniques like the “dominance
down” on fearful puppies and dogs
can unwittingly contribute to future
aggression that may remain vet-
erinary-specific or may generalize
to aggression directed toward all
unfamiliar people. Taking a mo-
ment or two to desensitize dogs in
these situations can make a world
of difference in the dogs’ behavior
later in life.
I applaud Dr. Weiss for writing
about this important topic. There
JAVMA, Vol 234, No. 10, May 15, 2009 Views: Letters to the Editor 1255
are excellent books, videos, and
continuing education opportuni-
ties for veterinarians who wish to
learn the basics of humane, effec-
tive, and science-based techniques
to help deal with problem behaviors
and preserve the human-animal
bond. I hope we have not gotten to
the point where we, as veterinar-
ians, abdicate our responsibility in
helping our clients to a television
personality. E. Kathryn Meyer, vmd
President, American Veterinary
Society of Animal Behavior
Rockville, Md
1. Weiss T. Thoughts on canine domi-
nance aggression (lett). J Am Vet Med
Assoc 2009;234:731.
2. Luescher AU, Reisner IR. Canine ag-
gression toward familiar people: a new
look at an old problem. Vet Clin North
Am Small Anim Pract 2008;38:1107–
3. Mech LD. Alpha status, dominance,
and division of labor in wolf packs. Can
J Zool 1999;77:1196–1203.
4. van Kerkhove WA. A fresh look at the
wolf-pack theory of companion-animal
dog social behavior. J Appl Anim Welf
Sci 2004;7:279–285.
5. Boitani L, Francisci F, Ciucci P, et al.
Population biology and ecology of
feral dogs in central Italy. In: Serpell
J, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution,
behaviour and interactions with people.
Cambridge, England: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1995;217–244.
6. Herron M, Shofer FS, Reisner IR.
Survey of the use and outcome of con-
frontational and non-confrontational
training methods in client-owned dogs
showing undesired behaviors. Appl
Anim Behav Sci 2009;117:47–54.
Dr. Weiss responds:
The nature of most, but not all,
dogs is to be submissive. You could
say that there is a broad spectrum
of submissive personalities from
one extreme to the other.
Consider the 1% of dogs who
are at the extreme “unsubmissive”
end of the spectrum. Trouble can
develop with these dogs if they
aren’t raised correctly. Loving but
naive families may not be appro-
priate owners for this type of dog.
They provide unlimited affection,
but may not provide any guidance
or structure for developing ac-
ceptable behavior. As these dogs
mature, they often resist and resent
any attempt to control them. When
these dogs resist, their struggles
are defiant, not fearful. They don’t
cry out or try to escape, and there
is marked intensity to their aggres-
sion. At this point, mild-mannered
owners often defer to the dog.
Owners recognize which circum-
stances trigger outbursts and avoid
situations where conflict occurs.
These people invariably describe
their dog as “a big baby.”
In 29 years of practice, I have
seen this scenario a few dozen
times. These dogs are often danger-
ous. I consider them to be domi-
nant aggressive. Tony Weiss, dvm
Duchesne Animal Clinic
Florissant, Mo
Importance of
distinguishing primary
from secondary peritonitis
I read with considerable inter-
est the article in the April 1, 2009,
issue of the JAVMA titled, “Primary
bacterial peritonitis in dogs and
cats: 24 cases (1990–2006).”1 The
authors do a good job, I believe,
discussing the various primary and
secondary forms of peritonitis seen
in veterinary practice.
As clinicians, we have all had
memorable difficult cases in our
careers. I remember very well a
perplexing case I encountered over
20 years ago as a young veterinar-
ian. The patient was a 1- to 2-year-
old female pointer that had been
healthy except for intermittent
bacterial cystitis.
The dog was brought to my
clinic one day with signs of acute
septic peritonitis without any ap-
parent evidence of external injury
or gastrointestinal tract perfora-
tion. Exploratory surgery did not
reveal the source of the peritonitis,
although bacterial culture of the
abdominal effusion yielded Esch-
erichia coli.
Signs resolved with antimi-
crobial treatment but recurred
6 months later. After the dog
recovered from the second bout
of peritonitis, I had a veterinary
radiologist perform an ultrasono-
graphic examination of the urinary
tract. The cranial pole of the blad-
der appeared thicker than normal,
although there was no evidence of a
urachal diverticulum, and I per-
formed an excisional biopsy of the
cranial pole of the bladder.
Histologic examination re-
vealed a microscopic patent urachal
vessel in the section of bladder
wall that had been submitted, and
I concluded that this had allowed
infected urine to leak into the abdo-
men, causing the 2 episodes of peri-
tonitis. The dog did not have any
additional episodes of peritonitis.
I have always wondered how
common this abnormality is and
whether patients having peritonitis
as a result could be misidentified as
having primary rather than second-
ary peritonitis. Not properly diag-
nosing such cases would obviously
have deleterious results.
David G. Langford, dvm, dabvp
Hollywood, Md
1. Culp WTN, Zeldis TE, Reese MS, et al.
Primary bacterial peritonitis in dogs
and cats: 24 cases (1990–2006). J Am
Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:906–913.
The prevailing view of a wolf (Canis lupus) pack is that of a group of individuals ever vying for dominance but held in check by the 'alpha' pair, the alpha male and alpha female. Most research on the social dynamics of wolf packs, however, has been conducted on non-natural assortments of captive wolves. Here I describe the wolf-pack social order as it occurs in nature, discuss the alpha concept and social dominance and submission, and present data on the precise relationships among members in free-living packs, based on a literature review and 13 summers of observations of wolves on Ellesmere Island, Northwest Territories, Canada. I conclude that the typical wolf pack is a family, with the adult parents guiding the activities of the group in a division-of-labor system in which the female predominates primarily in such activities as pup care and defense and the male primarily during foraging and food-provisioning and the travels associated with them.
Prior to seeking the counsel of a veterinary behaviorist many dog owners have attempted behavior modification techniques suggested by a variety of sources. Recommendations often include aversive training techniques which may provoke fearful or defensively aggressive behavior. The purpose of this study was to assess the behavioral effects and safety risks of techniques used historically by owners of dogs with behavior problems.A 30-item survey of previous interventions was included in a behavioral questionnaire distributed to all dog owners making appointments at a referral behavior service over a 1-year period. For each intervention applied, owners were asked to indicate whether there was a positive, negative, or lack of effect on the dog's behavior, and whether aggressive behavior was seen in association with the method used. Owners were also asked to indicate the source of each recommendation. One-hundred-and-forty surveys were completed. The most frequently listed recommendation sources were “self” and “trainers”. Several confrontational methods such as “hit or kick dog for undesirable behavior” (43%), “growl at dog” (41%), “physically force the release of an item from a dog's mouth” (39%), “alpha roll” (31%), “stare at or stare [dog] down” (30%), “dominance down” (29%), and “grab dog by jowls and shake” (26%) elicited an aggressive response from at least a quarter of the dogs on which they were attempted. Dogs presenting for aggression to familiar people were more likely to respond aggressively to the confrontational techniques “alpha roll” and yelling “no” compared to dogs with other presenting complaints (P
To determine clinical characteristics of primary bacterial peritonitis (infection of the peritoneal cavity with no identifiable intraperitoneal source of infection) and compare characteristics of primary and secondary peritonitis in dogs and cats. Retrospective case series. 24 (primary peritonitis) and 60 (secondary peritonitis) client-owned dogs and cats. Data from medical records of dogs and cats with primary and secondary peritonitis were reviewed for descriptive information regarding primary peritonitis and for comparison between the 2 forms of peritonitis. 15 dogs and 9 cats met inclusion criteria for primary peritonitis, and 49 dogs and 11 cats met inclusion criteria for secondary peritonitis. The most common historical findings in dogs and cats with primary and secondary peritonitis were lethargy, vomiting, and anorexia. Dogs with secondary peritonitis more often developed peritoneal exudates than those with primary peritonitis, and dogs with primary peritonitis were more often infected with gram-positive bacteria than those with secondary peritonitis. No difference in outcome was detected between all animals with primary versus secondary peritonitis; however, dogs with secondary peritonitis treated with surgery were more commonly discharged than those with primary peritonitis treated with surgery. Differences in primary and secondary peritonitis related to historical, physical examination, and clinical laboratory findings; bacteriologic findings; peritoneal effusion characteristics; and outcome were detected. However, larger case numbers are needed before alternative recommendations, such as avoidance of surgery, can be made.
Dogs that are aggressive toward their owners have long been regarded as being dominant. This article presents scientific evidence that does not support this claim. Based on this evidence, the authors present an alternative explanation for canine aggression toward owners and outline a treatment plan.
A popular perspective on the social behavior of dogs in multiple-dog households sees the dogs' behavior as reflecting the sociobiological laws of the rigidly structured dominance hierarchy that has been described for wolf packs. This view suggests that aggression problems among dogs are natural expressions of conflict that arise whenever dominance status is in contention. One recommended solution has been for the owner to endorse and enforce a particular dominance hierarchy because, on the wolf pack model, aggression is minimized when the structure of the hierarchy is clear, strong, and stable. This article questions the validity of this perspective on 2 principal grounds. First, because it does not seem to occur in the wild, this article suggests the strong dominance hierarchy that has been described for wolves may be a by-product of captivity. If true, it implies that social behavior--even in wolves--may be a product more of environmental circumstances and contingencies than an instinctive directive. Second, because feral dogs do not exhibit the classic wolf-pack structure, the validity of the canid, social dominance hierarchy again comes into question. This article suggests that behavioral learning theory offers another perspective regarding the behavior of dogs and wolves in the wild or in captivity and offers an effective intervention for aggression problems.
Primary bacterial peritonitis in dogs and cats: 24 cases
  • Wtn Culp
  • Te Zeldis
  • Ms Reese
Culp WTN, Zeldis TE, Reese MS, et al. Primary bacterial peritonitis in dogs and cats: 24 cases (1990–2006). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:906–913.
The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people
  • L Boitani
  • F Francisci
  • P Ciucci
Boitani L, Francisci F, Ciucci P, et al. Population biology and ecology of feral dogs in central Italy. In: Serpell J, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995;217-244.
Primary bacterial peritonitis in dogs and cats: 24 cases (1990-2006)
  • Wtn Culp
  • T E Zeldis
  • M S Reese
Culp WTN, Zeldis TE, Reese MS, et al. Primary bacterial peritonitis in dogs and cats: 24 cases (1990-2006). J Am Vet Med Assoc 2009;234:906-913.