As behavior consultants and as owners of a dog daycare, we get to see a very wide range of canine behavior. We also get to speak to many clients who are concerned, for a variety of reasons, about their dogs’ behavior. Commonly, we hear the term “aggression” being used by clients to describe their dog’s actions. That certainly sounds like a word you’d use to describe something upsetting and scary, doesn’t it? This word is often used to describe a WIDE range of behaviors—from growling, to barking and lunging, to snapping, to actual contact with another person or dog, to severe damage and even death.
Let’s take a look at a few definitions of “aggression”;
hostile or violent behavior or attitudes toward another; readiness to attack or confront.
the action or an act of attacking without provocation.
forceful and sometimes overly assertive pursuit of one's aims and interests.
While many people will focus on the descriptive words in these definitions, I’d encourage you to sit back and look at the larger theme here. Aggression, as per the definition, is an act of assertion, or determination. There is no questioning, or hesitation in true aggression. It is truly an act with intent to harm.
Therefore, many of the behaviors we describe as “aggression”; growling, barking, air-snapping, hackles up, stiffening posture, etc., are actually the opposite. All of these behaviors listed above are pre-cursors. The dog is telling you, often BEGGING you, to please, back off. We call these “distance-increasing” behaviors. The dog is saying, “PLEASE listen to me! If you stop doing that/remove the trigger I will back down!”
But far too often, we treat these pleas by the dog, which are solely attempts to communicate, as “acts of aggression”. We punish the dog for making attempts to communicate with us BEFORE he feel forced to use his teeth. “Baxter, don’t growl at that dog!” “Bella, don’t bark at the neighbor who tried to pet you!” And by suppressing the undesired behavior, the punishment will actually take away the dog’s ability to tell us when they are not okay.
”Bad behavior” often offends OUR human sensibilities, or embarrasses US when our dog acts out. But we have to first acknowledge our OWN emotional components in the equation, and choose to act from a logical, rather than an emotional stance. Only then can we truly help the dog.
When we separate what is true aggression from what is far more often a dog attempting to tell us he’s in over his head, it can reframe the lens by which we view the dog. Understanding that these behaviors are based out of emotion, most often fear, it can make the human half more understanding to the dog’s needs.
A dog that is fearful more often than not, needs his basic needs to be met, thoughtful handling, and to be taught better coping strategies. With positive training and guidance, most dogs labeled “aggressive” can be changed into better canine citizens. Let us know how we can help!