Learning to differentiate aggression from learned behaviors
Looking for a good label to slap on your dogs poor behavior? Go with ‘aggressive’. It is by far one of the most popular choices in modern society. As with most things, it is easier to call a problem something which very few people have the knowledge or time to address than it is to recognize the underlying problems. It’s used to describe those unwanted behaviors most often associated with some sort of violent action or reaction. By the standards of all those who define their dog as ‘aggressive’, a high percentage of the dog population has more than likely be afflicted with this terrible behavior trait. But what if I was to tell you that, in all my years of training, I have yet to meet a truly aggressive dog?
Aggression is, unfortunately, a commonly used behavior excuse. Does your dog pull madly on the leash when passing another dog? They must be aggressive. Do they growl when another dog comes near them when they have their favorite toy? Aggression. Do they bark wildly at the mailman as he passes by the front window? Yup, you guessed it: they’re aggressive.
Except, more than likely, they’re not. True aggression is the act of violence for the sake of violence. The very definition of aggression is ‘an unprovoked offensive attack’, leading us to question if a dog reacting to certain stimulation is aggression or actually a learned behavior. For example, lets say your dog growls every time another animal approaches its food. You, on the other hand, can walk right up and take the food away or put your hand in the bowl if you wanted with little to no opposition. The growl at another dog might be an indicator of many things including that they weren’t socialized with other animals around to know how to react, or that they had a negative experience with another animal at one point. If they were exhibiting truly aggressive behavior, they wouldn’t care who came near their food- owner, human, or animal. Unfortunately, it’s easier to label perceived violent behavior as ‘aggression’ than it is to sleuth out the real cause of the problem.
The stigma surrounding aggression is that it’s essentially an incurable condition. It has been used far too frequently (and wrongly) with a variety of dog breeds, such as pit bulls. We are so conditioned by everything as a society that we associate bad behavior with aggression since that is how we’ve been taught to view it.
The fault for this lies nowhere and with no one. It is merely the result of years of poor education and misinformation. Unfortunately, people walk around none-the-wiser while pets suffer the consequences of this misdiagnosis.
Let’s go back and look at my three examples of behavior that could easily be classified as aggressive. To start, the dog pulling on the leash. As a trainer, my first thought is that the dog lacked in adequate socialization as a puppy. Essentially, they never learned how to interact with other dogs, but that doesn’t change the fact they are interested in them. Imagine for a moment you’d like to get to know a really interesting looking person at a party- but you’ve never been taught how to speak, or any traditional social gestures. Would you know society dictates you politely introduce yourself? Do you even know what an introduction means?
The dog that growls ever time another dog gets near his toy? That sounds more like possessive behavior than aggressive behavior. While they sound similar (and the ultimate action is similar too), they stem from distinctly different cognitive thought. Possessive behavior could arise through a variety of factors- lack of socialization (think about not being taught how to share in kindergarten), a natural instinct to be in an alpha role in the pack, or even a survival trait if they came from a bad background.
By now I’m sure you’re seeing a recurring trend. It continues with the classic scenario of the dog barking at the mailman. This is actually a learned behavior. It starts as the dog trying to protect its territory (your house) from strangers. The mailman does as all mailmen do- drop off the mail and head on their way. The problem is, your dog thinks the mailman left because they were barking, not understanding the mailman completed their task and are just moving on with their route. This is positive reinforcement training at its finest, something which your dog is actually teaching to themselves. (I’ll be posting more in the future about how positive reinforcement training works, so check back.)
The problem with this incorrect label is that the root of the problem is ignored, and often perpetuated by taking the wrong course of action. This is just as catastrophic as a doctor haphazardly diagnosing a patient and prescribing medication that makes their real condition worse.
Instead of working on introducing the leash-puller to other dogs and helping them learn those social skills they are lacking, all social interaction is avoided since the assumption is that the dog will attack. (Which, as with any animal, is always a possibility, which is why it’s important to work with a trainer on developing a safe training method.) The possessive dog is simply placed in a room by themselves with their prized toy. Instead of learning how to share, the fact that they don’t have to is now being reinforced. The mailman starts to try and leave quicker and quicker every day to avoid the ferocious barks of the dog at the window.
Instead of labeling your own dog or those you see in passing as being aggressive, consider the fact that they are nearly a product of their environment. It is easier to wash our hands of the ability to correct some of these understandably more complex behaviors. However, our pets deserve to learn and be taught just as we do.
The only way we can combat this misnomer is by educating society that the behavior we’ve been conditioned to label as a hopeless case is in fact just a silent cry for help from your furry friend for a little guidance.
If you suspect your dog may be aggressive, I urge you to speak with a certified trainer or behavioral expert. Most are happy to offer free consultations, or they will work with you one-on-one until your dog is ready to be with a group and test their new skills. However, if your suspicions are correct and your dog is exhibiting true aggressive behavior, you need professional assistance. While true aggression isn’t as common as some might thing, it does exist, and can be very dangerous.