The dog word I HATE: Aggression

Yeah, I get a little… um, aggressive about “aggression.” I think this word has done more to hurt our understanding of dog behavior than just about any other.

The word is perfectly normal, and accurate. It describes any action that a dog does that intentionally hurts.

The huge problem is that this word, which should be a descriptor without any values or bias attached, hasn’t stayed a scientific term.

Katz’s The New Work of Dogs is an absolute MUST READ to understand this background, but to summarize, the average dog owner no longer has any experience in watching dogs behaving normally, furthermore doesn’t WANT the dog to behave normally, and so everyone is hiring people to help them understand dog behavior, and those people are reading behavioral studies and scientific descriptions of how dogs interact.

Researching is GOOD. Reading is GOOD. The whole “machine” that unfortunately begins going at this point is sad because so few people “get” dogs anymore, and even sadder because the typical owner, family, municipality, and even many trainers don’t have any desire to have the dog behave in a normal doggy way. They try to use the research to get dogs to behave like Disney characters or like children or like punching bags, instead of trying to use what we know about dogs to make the dogs happy and meet their needs.

The behaviorists and scientists have introduced certain words that they are used to using in their research, and that they find helpful in labeling behaviors. One of those is “aggression.” It’s a useful word. Unfortunately, this word has become VERY misused and it’s gotten to the point that I now cringe every time I hear it.

Because this word has done two terrible things: It has demonized or criminalized NORMAL dog behavior, and it has become a way to switch the blame for undesired behaviors from the human or the circumstance to the dog.

Dog  behavior follows along lines that are MUCH more rational and measured than human behavior. The “worst” dog shows more restraint in his or actions than most humans could ever dream of. As I addressed in an earlier post, when a dog is in a situation that he finds unpleasant, or feels pressure or stress (and here I mean those words in the behaviorist way, as a change in the environment that requires a response–pressure or stress can be positive, even welcomed, like the introduction of a bitch in heat or the return of a beloved human; it’s not a negative word), or feels that the society he lives in has become disorganized, he has a huge repertoire of behaviors that he uses to diffuse or change or influence the situation. Typically his behavior of last resort is using his mouth.

Again, as I said earlier, the mouth is the dog’s megaphone. When a dog has run through every other way she knows of righting what she feels to be wrong, and nobody is listening to her, she will use her mouth.

This is very analogous to walking into a room and seeing your teenage son or daughter in a chair watching TV when you are carrying a heavy load of their laundry. You immediately recognize that Something Is Not Right (hey, if you’re home, and idle, why didn’t you get your laundry yourself?). You will typically run through the following series of behaviors, escalating from one step to the next when the earlier step gets no response:

1) Pause (allowing a cessation of movement to get the attention of your kid–humans always look at change, so either moving when you were still or stopping when you were moving is a potent behavioral cue)

2) Perhaps deliberately make a “random” noise, like sighing or “accidentally” knocking the laundry basket against a chair

3) Speaking, usually their name

4) Speaking louder, emphasizing their name

5) Approaching closely, speaking even more loudly

6) Putting your hand on their shoulder or head

7) Slightly shaking their body with your hand

All of these are normal behaviors; none of them indicate that you have criminal intent or in fact anything but your child’s best interests in mind. However, somewhere between “4” and “6” you moved into aggressive behavior. You spoke loudly enough to create an unpleasant sensation in your child’s experience, with the goal of making him or her want to get the unpleasant sensation to stop (by responding to you or by showing that they are paying attention).

Any time you behave in a way that is intended to create an unpleasant sensation in another creature, it’s behavioral “aggression.”

Imagine you’re the mom or dad who has just done this–are you an “aggressive” person? Does your behavior need to be modified? Is what you did an indication that you are likely to go shoot someone?

No, of course not.

But behavior EXACTLY that rational, exactly that measured, exactly that common-sense, exactly that restrained, causes dogs to be put to death every single day in this country, and causes countless more to be labeled bad, dangerous, or undesirable.

Now imagine that you are the parent of this same teenage son or daughter and this kind of situation repeats itself ten or twelve times a day (my oldest daughter just turned twelve; ask me how experienced I am at coming into a room and finding her physically present and mentally absent–and I know that in three or four years it’s going to be ten times worse). Before long, you will skip everything up to step 5. You know that steps one through four haven’t gotten her attention the last fifty times you tried them, so you now skip them altogether. Every time you come into a room and need to get her attention, you speak her name loudly or walk over and touch her.

Again, this is completely normal and expected. We’d even criticize a parent who didn’t collapse the steps. “That kid is totally blowing her off, and all she ever whispers is ‘Oh, honey, could you please…?’ He’s going to grow up into a holy terror if she doesn’t start to expect better behavior of him!”

Dogs are exactly the same. If the early steps don’t work, never work, they will begin by speaking very firmly. And for a dog this means using their mouth. They’ve been very effectively taught, usually by a human who doesn’t see or respond to any of the early steps that the dog had tried a hundred times before escalating to using their mouths, that talking softly doesn’t work with these dummies. You have to yell or nobody hears you. So they use a bite immediately.

See what I’m NOT saying about these dogs? I’m not saying they’re “aggressive.” I’m not hanging other adjectives off, like “dominance aggression” or “fear aggression” or “leash aggression.” That’s not because those phenomena don’t exist. It’s because they have been hideously misused to make the behavior the dog’s fault. The dog IS aggressive; that dog IS dominant; her dog IS fear-aggressive. These become labels that we apply to dogs as though the behaviors they display are uncalled for, irrational, evil, bad.

And once we label them, the dog just IS–“I can’t fix this; he is fear-aggressive.” Like “he’s brown.” Or “he’s schizophrenic.”

We tell ourselves–and trainers tell us, and vets tell us–hundreds of lies about aggression. We use language like “He just snapped” or “He could turn at any time” or “You did what you could; he was too aggressive for you.”

All of them demonize any behavior involving a dog’s mouth, and all of them blame the dog and not the human.

If I could, I would wipe out this word from every trainer’s mouth, every owner’s brain. No more! From now on, you have to describe the dog’s behavior using REAL emotions, REAL words.

Instead of “She’s fear-aggressive” I want to hear “She’s afraid.”

AHA! See what happened there? You stopped looking at that poor terrified dog and blaming her for her frantic and panicked behavior. She’s AFRAID, you moron! Stop scaring her!

Instead of “He’s leash-aggressive” I want to hear “He believes that when on leash he’s supposed to skip the greeting steps and go right to mouth.”

OK, that’s a genuine description of something the dog has been taught by humans. Now un-teach it. IMMEDIATELY read everything you can get your hands on about increasing drive in working dogs and then smack yourself on the forehead when you realize that you’ve been extremely effectively training him to use his mouth on other dogs.

Instead of “she’s food-aggressive,” say “She thinks she must guard her food or it will be taken away.”

Well, who taught her that? Who gave her that message? It didn’t fall from the sky, people! Somebody screwed up, and now they have to fix THEIR OWN behavior; she’s just doing she thinks she has no choice but to do.

Instead of “He’s dominance-aggressive”–which is the worst of all–you need to say one of a hundred things: “She believes that her status is at risk because of his behavior.” “He does not like it when other dogs behave chaotically” (see the huge reversal on that one? Suddenly he’s the one making the right choice and the other dogs are at fault–which is the case a HUGE percentage of the time). “She doesn’t know proper calming behaviors, so she’s unable to defuse status-related conflicts.” (And who didn’t socialize her enough, so she doesn’t know how to talk “dog” well enough? Yeah, you there. Not her.)

We need to reverse the two huge lies that labeling have told us.

1) WE MUST ACCEPT BLAME ON THIS. Ninety-nine-point-eight percent of bad dog behavior is HUMAN fault. If your dog is behaving in a way that is lowering his quality of life, you need to look in the mirror long and hard. VERY VERY few dogs are genuinely mentally ill. Almost all of them have been TAUGHT, yes, by YOU, to do what they are doing.

If you want proof of this, talk to any breeder who has been around long enough to get “bad” dogs returned to her. Ask her how the owners described the dog and what she actually got back. Every single breeder has these stories. On the phone, as described, the dog is out of control, aggressive; she’s usually done damage to several animals and often bitten the owner as well. They have been told to euthanize the dog, but as per your contract they are returning her.

You gird your loins and get ready for a dog who is completely nuts. You set up the crates, divide the fenced yard, work out a schedule for who can be in or out and when. You get the behaviorist on the phone, you set up the vet. You get mentally prepared for euthanasia; you don’t sleep the night before.

In comes the dog–or you go get her, or you meet half-way. However it happens, finally the dog bounds in to your house, and usually does something like try to jump up on your dining room table. You look her in the eye and say, very calmly, with a big growly edge in your voice, “GET. OFF. RIGHT. NOW.”

And — I have had this happen twice, and I pray with every litter that it won’t happen a third time, but it’s just incredibly striking — something behind the dog’s eyes shifts. Something in their brain goes from panicchaosdisorderfear (for the “soft” ones) or gottacontroleveryoneortheworldwillend (for the harder ones) to Oh thank God someone else is in charge; I can relax.

Sometimes, what the previous owner has taught the dog is so well learned that she must be placed very, very carefully–though I still have NEVER had a dog, either my returns or my rescues, behave “as advertised.” Many times, it seems that the knots unwind almost instantly. This dog who was a “nightmare” is a sweet, goofy, relaxed and mellow dog who is a joy in your home and becomes a joy in their next home.

(As an aside, the person who returned the dog, even if they cried when they handed the dog over and talked about the mistakes they had made, always changes the story within a week or two. It always becomes “I did everything right and I ended up with nightmare aggression.” “That dog had everything, and he turned on me.” “There was no reason for it; it’s bad breeding/bad breeder.” Breeders are often tempted to respond by e-mailing a picture of the dog with its tongue lolling out as it blissfully rolls around with her other dogs in the back yard, or running through a field with its next owner, but we all shut up and nod and accept the blame. Because the most important thing is to always get the dog back. We’re willing to accept any kind of criticism or hear any crap if it means that the dog ends up safe and happy.)

Why do dogs do this huge turnaround, why so suddenly? Why can they so often be placed again and thrive? BECAUSE THERE WAS NEVER ANYTHING WRONG WITH THEM.

Which brings me to the next truth we must accept:


ANY dog who is afraid enough, and her early signals have been ignored, will use her mouth.

ANY dog who has no security about food will use his mouth.

ANY dog who knows that the sacred duty of healthy dogs is to maintain a calm pack will use his mouth to control chaos.

ANY dog who is frustrated by unpredictable behavior will use his mouth to try to stop the behavior.

ANY dog who is wound tight by lack of exercise, lack of stimulation, lack of interaction will be more likely to skip the initial steps and go right to the mouth.

Saying that no dog should ever bite is like saying that no human should ever yell. If you have a calm, mature, well-trained group of humans who have great people skills and a steady supply of good food and an in-ground pool, they will probably go years without ever having to yell. If you have a chaotic, immature, uneducated group of humans who all speak a different language and who are rude, you put them in a 10×10 room and you throw two tuna sandwiches in there once a day, you’ll hear nothing BUT yelling. The difference, of course, is that if we look at a group of humans yelling we say “Something is wrong. We need to help them understand each other. We need to give them tools. We need to communicate to them that the others mean them no harm. They’re obviously stressed because they’re hungry and they can’t move around.” The humans themselves are assumed to be basically decent people with the cards stacked against them in an impossible situation.

But if we have a bunch of dogs who fight constantly, who try to bite other dogs constantly, who bite humans, our first response is to say “Those are bad dogs. They need to be put down.” The first assumption is that the dogs are at fault, not that they’re good dogs and would not be biting if they were being understood, if their needs were being met.

Behaviors are responses to needs, desires, fears, dread, hope, etc. A creature who behaves a certain way because he IS a certain thing is called a robot. Living creatures respond to their environments.

So stop using labels; stop filing behaviors as though they define the dog. First, learn what normal, unstressed dogs do and how normal, unstressed dogs behave. Learn enough about your breed to know what additional behaviors are completely normal for your breed. You’ll probably realize that about half the stuff you were freaking out about is completely normal. For example, if your dog is defending his food bowl from other dogs and he’s a Corgi, he’s probably stressed and you need to change or teach something. If your dog is defending his food bowl from other dogs and he’s a Malamute, welcome to normal life. Don’t feed him in a room with other dogs. Bam, problem solved. If your dog is “attacking” other dogs on a regular basis in daycare or in playgroup, but none of these “attacks” leave a mark, it’s very possible that your dog is actually the best-behaved one there and is doing her job of trying to keep the pack functioning well. She doesn’t need to re-learn anything or be punished; she needs to be congratulated, then moved to a playgroup where the human in charge knows enough to keep things calm and happy.

Once you know enough to separate normal, unstressed behavior from behavior that is a sign of stress or frustration, use words that reflect behavior the way it really is. Try to begin with “She’s afraid of…” or “She wants…” or “She needs…” or “He has learned that X leads to Y.” If in doubt, blame yourself, not the dog. “By keeping the leash tight and pulling back, I have taught her that she should try to bite other dogs.”

Dogs ARE individuals. Some dogs come to conclusions faster; some dogs are more tolerant, some are more instinctively physical and some are less so. I am not saying that some dogs are not extremely difficult, or that some breeds are not more challenging than others, or anything of the kind. I am not a Pollyanna about dogs. I am also not saying that every dog is the right fit for every family or every individual; all you have to do is work harder at it. Sometimes it’s just impossible to work any harder than you already are. Sometimes rehoming is the best possible thing that can happen for everyone. And very often an easier dog of a different breed can tolerate that owner’s particular brand of crazy and will thrive. What I am saying, and trying to say clearly and frankly, is that the overwhelming majority of dogs are sane; there are almost no genuinely “bad” dogs. There are millions and millions of stressed, frustrated, misunderstood, disfunctionally trained dogs whose owners have – often with the encouragement of trainers – labeled “bad.” And that needs to stop.

Believe me that I don’t do everything right with my dogs. I make hundreds of mistakes every day. Every post I write I’m preaching to myself, trust me. I am nowhere near a finished product, and neither are my dogs. But it really is true that by realizing that the vast majority of the time dogs behave in ways that are completely rational, I have improved our life with our dogs by a huge amount. My dogs are not perfect but they’re pretty dang happy, and our pack is very functional. Because it works so well we’re able to be “contagious” to other dogs, and make them more functional too, which has led to some real miracles as we’ve done rescue. And, if you haven’t already realized this by reading this blog, we’re very happy with our dogs.


5 thoughts on “The dog word I HATE: Aggression

  1. My sister has a collie as do I. She and her husband provide a great dog home – but she coddles this dog and tells me about the things she can’t do. Then she stays a few days at my house and she is doing all the stuff she couldn’t before. One example – she was a young dog and would not step on the linoleum in my kitchen (SCARY) so when her people were there they would carry her over the SCARY flooring so she could go out. She stayed the weekend with me and I was NOT going to carry this dog around so I put a leash on her and she, I, and the other dogs just marched across the floor to the back yard. Did she put on the breaks – yes, did she look worried, yes, we just did it anyway. She had to be on a leash to go across the floor exactly 2 times total and then she galloped across with the best of them. It always amazes me what simple problems will flummox humans.
    Of course just about the time I feel confident in my dog training abilities – sure in the knowledge that I have a grasp on canine behavior – one of the heathens will do something no other dog of mine has ever done and then I have to re-evaluate.

    Sure makes life interesting though.

  2. great post, thank you! I thought of another question for you: now that you don’t have the yard playspace for the dogs to run around in, and your living quarters are smaller, I imagine you have to make more of an effort to keep them from getting bored. Do you?

    Also, any tips for dealing with separation anxiety? Our dog’s much-improved, which I’m sure has to do with her confidence & sense of trust in her humans being restored –we’re sure someone hurt her before she got to the rescue group we adopted her from. But she’s still got separation issues, for example she howls piteously if my husband goes outside to wash the car even when the rest of us are home with her. I’m *very* happy tho that she’s not on any of the anti-anxiety meds that other Blueticks get put on. I don’t want my dog on Prozac! Would appreciate any input you may have to offer.

    And yes, we seem to want our dogs AND cats to behave like Disney characters…

  3. If meds help relieve a dog’s suffering why not consider them? Why be happy that your dog is stressed but not on meds? Sorry it just doesn’t make sense to me. Hey my dog has an infection but I’m happy he’s not on those antibiotics! Dogs that are stressed have their brains flooded with chemicals that not only don’t help their health, they also affect their behavior and not in a good way.

    There are lots of ways to help a dog, but it means doing it, that means counter conditioning, desensitization, body wraps, T touch, DAP, rescue remedy, acupuncture, take your pick and yes even Prozac.

    Read I’ll Be Home Soon by Patricia McConnell

  4. Pingback: Confusing practice with practitioner (and vice versa): Dog training « Ruffly Speaking: Railing against idiocy since 2004

  5. Pingback: Ruffly Speaking = Blacksheep Cardigans » Confusing practice with practitioner (and vice versa): Dog training

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