Bitch war!!!11!!11!!!

I wrote this on a dog book discussion list I am on; it’s entirely my own wording, so I am reproducing it here as well. The discussion is on one of the several (very good) books out there that are pictorial references for dog behavior; my criticism or at least worry about one of them in particular is that conclusions about the best way to train or the best way to handle dogs have been drawn from the pictures and descriptions; it has moved from a narrative to a prescriptive book. And I am not so sure that’s a good idea, and here’s a VERY long description of why. I would welcome any feedback–I don’t care if you’re reading this six years from now; if you know where I can find my studies let me know.

Transcript begins:

I’ve been following the discussion (and reading the book) with great interest, and as I’ve been reading for the past couple of weeks I’ve been uncomfortable with a sort of “big-picture” problem.

I come from a biology background, then went to grad school in history, helped teach a college communications theory class, and for all those years had “never assume, always support” drummed into me (and drummed it into others). Never use language without a supporting study, never use second-person analysis (always go to first person), insist on statistics rather than assumptions, remove every veil that could possibly be clouding the results. Never make a fact statement without a footnote, and, of course, distrust analysis that has any kind of bias.

So when I look at what we have as dog behavior language and analysis, Handelman’s excellent book, Aloff’s excellent book, Rugaas, etc., I am struck by the fact that we may be making rather sweeping statements based on anecdotes and a very skewed perception.

Let me give you some examples:

Dogs are “meant,” if you can even say such a thing, to live in big fluid blobby packs, with overlap and bitch-stealing and all that, of INTACT animals, over five or more years. But I’ve never seen conclusions coming from long-term studies of large, stable, INTACT (reproductively, meaning no spayed/neutered members and puppies being actively produced) packs under very little physical limitations (on other words, no fences) who have members who all grew up together. We instead almost exclusively draw from small, unstable, castrated packs who are together in short bursts (for example, playgroups, visiting dogs, obedience classes, fights) and who have humans messing with them (putting up fences, putting on leashes, etc.). We’ve also removed the Grand Activity of all packs, which is hunting and territory building, so we’ve effectively removed a huge portion of their vocabulary.

It would be like, if I can make a very clumsy human analogy, throwing twelve eunuchs who don’t speak the same language into an airport lounge with a bunch of deli trays and then trying to make statements about human behavior because we study them for half a day. We’d see in those humans, just as we see in dogs, a huge emphasis on greeting behaviors, conflict avoidance, abortive attempts at communication, misunderstandings, focus on food, stress, and fights. So we could probably get pretty accurate about those behaviors, we would not see what we’d consider mature relationships for months, if ever, because the element of sexuality and education and child-raising would be gone. We wouldn’t see the pursuit of work, development of skill sets, acquisition of property, etc.

Or, drawing from another species, we now know that elephants raised outside the herd are substantially delayed in communication, sometimes irreparably, that they initiate many more conflicts, that they are prone to violence and self-stimulating behaviors.

So I worry, a lot, that instead of seeing years of dog communication, we’re seeing the same first two hours over and over and over again. We don’t see the end of the “conversation.” I know that as my own pack of dogs (all intact) has matured, I have seen an almost total reduction in “broad” movements of greeting or conflict. The group of them has a shorthand of infinitely tiny gestures, eye flicks, head movements, ear posture. The only time they ever move back to the broader movements is when they are either teaching a new puppy or socializing a new adult or, of course, when they play (where they seem to enjoy playing larger-than-life parodies of fight or flight or blocking, etc.).

My big Dane male was particularly adept at this–when he met a new dog he would offer a play behavior (like a bow) and if the other dog didn’t “get it” Mitch would repeat the behavior over and over, going bigger and slower each time; his invitations were like a master oil painter playing pictionary. But in the established group the play bow is “sketched” and only a millisecond in duration. And mine have only been together a few years! I don’t yet have a good stable group from elderlies down to babies.

So that’s my first qualm, that we’re only looking at castrated animals who have major speech impediments (because so few are raised by a big stable pack, so few are exercised properly, so many have humans wrecking normal interactive behaviors, etc.) and who are basically stuck in a loop of broad greeting/new member activities.

My second worry is about language, specifically language without studies. I think we DO have some solid data on how dogs learn command words. I’m satisfied that we’re labeling the simpler broad gestures pretty accurately. But we do NOT have good unbiased data on so much else! This is especially true for the complex chains of behavior. For example, we throw around “bitch wars” a lot. But where’s the group of good studies that actually established that phrase? Do we really know that in a stable, unspayed, multi-age, long-term pack, where humans are not screwing things up, bitches have more long-term resentments, initiate more fights, and will inflict greater harm? PERCEPTION can’t be king (or, in this case, queen).

Or, my least favorite term of all, “fear aggression.” It’s an oxymoron, when you consider the connotation of the word “aggression” in English, and we know almost nothing about it, except that if we push a dog to the point that it fears for its life or health, it will bite us. Why do we call it “fear aggression” instead of “being afraid”?

I can’t tell you how many people have told me in tones of great portent that X dog is (dum dum dum!) “FEAR AGGRESSIVE.” And I go and sit with them, and we approach the dog, and I say “Look how scared your dog is of you.” And they literally don’t connect the two. “Fear aggression” lets them blame the dog; the dog is somehow mentally ill and AGGRESSIVE. But in fact the dog is just terrified, and is behaving the way every dog would behave if terrified. So every single dog on earth is “fear aggressive.” Every single dog is “competitive aggressive.” The only thing that separates them is whether or not they’ve ever felt pushed to the point that they resort to using teeth. The fact that we’re such idiot dog handlers that this is a common phenomenon is nothing but a tragedy, but again, it’s a phrase that gets used fifty times a day by everyone from your vet to your trainer to your neighbor who watched one episode of It’s Me or the Dog.

If, in this country, if there were ten million women who were so terrified of their husbands that each one cowered and tried to hit him if he approached her, no human psychologist would be allowed to say,”Oh, they’re just fear aggressive” and close his notebook. The cowering would be seen as the result of half a hundred things going critically wrong. I would argue that the same is true of dogs, but we have very little handle on the half a hundred things and, as far as I am aware, little reliance on, again, long-term stable intact pack studies on what makes dogs afraid enough to use teeth and why, and at what frequency, and what intensity. I strongly suspect that as you reach years in the same pack, “fear aggression” that actually leads to physical contact is vanishingly rare. So we OUGHT to consider it a sign of huge trust violation and treat it with a lot of importance. But again, since we don’t have those studies and we aren’t able to make those conclusions, millions of dogs get a label pinned to them.

OK, I think I’m done. Does this make sense? Am I just wrong and there really are multiple long-term studies of dog packs? It seems like we should have ethnobiologists studying the New Guinea hunting packs or the Carolina dogs or the dingos, or at the very least (and still not ideally) the big packs of foxhounds that live together for ten or more years, and then we can judge our playgroups or our obedience classes against THEM.


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