10 elements of a dog’s threat display to maintain dominance

Dog threat display
Dog threat display

Dog threat display. Photo in public domain.

When a dominant, senior dog is challenged he will perform a threat display to subdue the challenger without resorting to violence. Here is a list of 10 elements that a dominant dog will use in his display:

  1. The teeth are bared. The upper lip is pulled back and the lower lip is pulled down exposing the canine and the incisor teeth. This is an obvious signal that the dog is prepared to sink his teeth into the challenger dog.
  2. The dog’s jaw is opened in preparation for closing it around the other dog’s body.
  3. The facial expression becomes one in which the mouth-corners are drawn forward which is the opposite to a friendly submissive facial expression when the corners of the mouth are pulled back towards the ears. This element indicates that the dog is neither friendly, playful nor submissive.
  4. The ears are pointed forward and erect. This sends a signal that the dog is fully alert and that he is confident of winning a fight because the ears are not drawn back to protect them. The erect ears can pick up signals that the other dog is showing signs of fear or aggression.
  5. The tail is held high. This is in contrast to the submissive dog’s tail which is between the legs. The anal region is exposed allowing the scent of that area to become more prominent which announces the identity of the dog making the threat display. The weaker dog then knows what they are dealing with.
  6. The threatening dog makes himself as big as possible. The hair around the shoulders and on the back and the rump stand more erect.
  7. The legs are fully stretched which combined with the erect hairs makes the body look bigger and more powerful.
  8. The dog stares without flinching.
  9. The sound the dog makes is one of a rumbling growl.
  10. The body is tense to the point where the tail trembles in its upright position.

These display threats are made when there is a serious challenge but at other times when the moment is less serious the dominant dog may remind the more submissive one of his power by using other body language.

One such body movement and body language is when the dominant dog controls the movements of the more submissive dog which is called the “broadside ritual”. The dominant dog deliberately pushes himself up against the weaker dog and positions himself across the subordinate animal.

The more dominant dog may use a sexual movement made in copulation by mounting the more subordinate dog. This is not a sex act but an act of dominance.

Two other actions also remind the weaker dog of the other’s dominance: the dog springs out at the other dog but without following through and in the second the dog crouches as if ready for an ambush but in the open so it becomes obvious. The other dog gets the message.

These behaviours are not used very often because normally groups are organised and friendly. It’s important that they get along because they use group strength to hunt.