How many times have you heard somebody say: "My dog is aggressive?" Most likely, if you are a dog owner, or frequent people with dogs, you have heard somebody make this statement at some time. Perhaps you may have even made that statement yourself to warn others about your own dog. Depending on who you talk to, the word "aggressive dog" may translate into mental images of a dangerous, snarling dog or perhaps thoughts about legal liabilities. Today, we'll be discovering how labeling dogs as aggressive is not only harmful to the dog itself, but also inaccurate if we take a closer look into the dynamics taking place behind those "language barriers" between humans and dogs.
Aggression in Humans
What exactly is aggression? Psychology expert Kendra Cherry, defines aggression as "a range of behaviors that can result in both physical and psychological harm to oneself, others or objects in the environment."
This definition is quite clear and easy to understand for us humans overall, but when it comes to dogs the problem with this definition is in its interpretation.
It seems like many people may interpret things differently, depending on who you ask. What behaviors in dogs are really meant to harm? Sure we may list lunging, barking, growling, snarling as behaviors that could potentially harm a person or other dog, but is the dog intently wishing to harm when he engages in such behaviors?
As humans, we have complex minds and we often engage in sophisticated thought processes. We plan attacks, go to war, behave out of spite, take revenge and we are even able to harm others emotionally, but what about dogs? Are our dogs really "aggressive?"
" In the end, we may rightly call much human behaviour aggressive. However, dogs are not human, and it’s not fair to project human qualities onto them." ~Alexandra Semyonova
Aggression in Dogs
When it comes to dogs, things are quite different than in humans. Dogs don't act out of spite, they do not plot revenge, they don't strategically plan a war or look for ways to hurt others emotionally.
In dogs, "aggressive" behaviors are often adaptive, meaning that they have a survival purpose and the purpose in this case is attaining a certain level of control over their environment and its associated events.
This doesn't mean that dogs are taking every chance they can get to take control over us, "dominating" us as some television show may portray. It simply means that dogs may engage in aggressive behaviors so they can avoid certain things and attain others that make them feel safer.
There is often an element of reinforcement playing a part in the background of dogs who are engaging in aggressive displays. For example, if a dog is fearful of men wearing hats, his barking and lunging keeps men with hats away and the dog soon learns that his behavior works so he'll be likely to engage in the same behavior next time.
Same goes with dogs who "hate" the mailman or a dog who growls when in possession of something. This latter dog is likely telling the person or other dog something along the terms of "I don't trust you near my resource, now please back off!" Obtaining distance can be highly reinforcing to a dog who feels threatened by someone who risks taking his resource away.
"Survival itself is the ultimate goal of adaptive behavior. In order to achieve survival, an animal must adapt and control events that impact upon its needs. Aggression is one behavioral response towards that goal." James O' Heare
Aggression to Avoid Aggression
Dogs often engage in natural behaviors that are actually meant to avoid aggression in the first place. In other words their "aggressive" displays are meant to actually avoid causing harm.
The barking, growling and tooth displays are ways dogs are trying to inform other people or dogs about how they feel. They're a dog's plea to please listen to his feelings so he doesn't have to escalate his behavior to a potential bite. It's the canine version of a child "using his words" if you will." How any times do we will tell children who resort to hair pulling or pushing: "Use your words!"
If you therefore understand a dog's language, you may see that dogs generally try to do "everything in their power to avoid aggressive encounters" as Alexandra Semyonova points out in her book "The 100 Silliest Things People Say about Dogs."
Dogs therefore tend to engage in what biologists refer to as "ritualized aggression." While barking, growling and teeth displays are common straightforward ritualistic displays, there are several more subtle ways dogs attempt to manifest their discomfort in a situation. Whale eyes, lip licks, head turns and yawns are all part of a dog's extended early warning system.
Too bad these subtle warning signs of increasing stress are often missed by many dog owners. If these signs aren't noticed doesn't mean the dog didn't send them out, it's likely they simply weren't recognized by the owner, or worse, were suppressed using punishment (never punish a dog for growling!) Avoid punishment-based techniques because they do more harm than good, leading to more defensive behaviors down the road). Then, dogs are blamed for suddenly "lashing out" when they instead tried really, really hard to communicate with us, but we didn't give them a chance. Talk about language barriers!
"Hard stares, growling, snarling, snapping and biting without maiming force are the "legal" conflict resolution behaviors in dog society."~Jean Donaldson
The Problems With Labels
What happens when dogs are labeled as aggressive? This "umbrella term" gives the impression that dogs are dangerous, unpredictable and untrustworthy all of the time. Instead, most dogs who are labeled as are aggressive are only acting "aggressively" in specific contexts and situations.
Dogs may therefore act "aggressively" when they feel threatened when people or other dogs come near their bone or when people come near their perceived properties. Just because a dog acts aggressively in a certain context, doesn't make him aggressive all the time!
Same goes with humans. If you get angry at a person who cuts in front of you when you are in line or tries to steal your wallet, does that mean you are "aggressive?" Certainly not! It's human nature to over-generalize behaviors.
We therefore end up with dog owners making absolute statements such as "my dog hikes his leg ALL the time" or my dog is NEVER listening. And then comes the labeling cliche' with its associated statements "my dog is stubborn, my dog is hyper or my dog is aggressive" when in reality the dog is acting this way only certain times.
"There are very few dogs who are prone to aggression regardless of the situation. That’s why it’s helpful to think in terms of of aggressive behaviors rather than aggressive dogs when trying to reduce your dog’s tendencies to growl or bite. Usually these behaviors are related to specific events, relationships or environments.~ Dog Time
Aggression isn't Descriptive
When we label a dog or a specific dog breed as aggressive, we are perpetuating a belief that the behavior is reflecting the dog's essence. This can be harmful to both dog and owner because it often implies the belief that that specific dog cannot change.
And every time the dog behaves in a negative manner, it's taken as evidence that the dog is bad, and thus "aggressive." We therefore end up missing the important fact that the dog is most likely just a dog who behaves normally most of the time, but just happened to react aggressively in a particular context.
Also, labeling a dog as "aggressive" gives little information about what is really happening and it doesn't help much with arranging a plan to tackle the issue.
"Aggression as it used to describe a dog's behavior, is not an adjective, it's a verb."~ Sarah Hodgson
What happens though when we replace the term aggressive with something else? This makes us see things from a whole different perspective.
So instead of saying "my dog is aggressive" using the word aggressive as an adjective, we would perhaps say "my dog acts aggressively" or "uses aggression" or "behaves aggressively" when he has a bone."
This description can be further broken down by removing the term aggressive altogether and describing the aggressive behavior instead, as such: "My dog growls when he has a bone" or even better "my dog growls when he has a bone and I come close to him."
We now have a clearer picture of what the dog is doing and in what circumstance the behavior is taking place. This can be very helpful for when we consult with a professional and are describing the issue and it helps us also see the behavior from a more positive perspective.
"Actions can be changed, DNA cannot. If you believe your dog IS shy, scared, soft, aggressive, etc., you will become crippled in your training of him by his personality. However, if you believe your dog is acting in a certain way, you will treat him very differently because you will believe you can change his behavior."~ Connie Cleveland
Normal, Natural Behavior
Interestingly, many of us aren't much surprised when a cat hisses and attempts to scratch when cornered or when bulls react by lowering their heads or when a horse tries to kick another horse.
When it comes to dogs though, our expectations become astoundingly high. We don't want them to show any signs of aggression throughout their lives, not even the ritualized ones. An expectation that not even us humans can meet, points out Jean Donaldson in the book "Mine!"
A clarification is important at this point: while most dogs are never aggressive all the time, all dogs are capable of acting aggressively. From puppies, to small dogs, to old dogs to mixed dogs, all dogs have a pre-installed tendency to act aggressively when the need arises. If dogs did not have this tendency, this species would probably have been wiped out and extinct by now as acting aggressively is how dogs protect themselves from harm.
Acting aggressively is therefore normal and natural behavior in dogs, humans and other living creatures. This doesn't mean that we shouldn't take aggressive behaviors seriously, to the contrary, it means that it's very important to acknowledge the language barriers that divides us and to listen to what dogs are trying to say so that we can take note and try to effectively address our companion's internal emotional turmoils.
"Our expectations of dogs are very high, actually. The standard we have set for them is one we would consider absurd for any other species of animal, including ourselves... This is exactly like you going a lifetime without ever once losing your temper, swearing at another driver in traffic..writing a hot letter to an editor, ..calling a lawyer...And if it wasn't enough, we also want dogs to be suddenly aggressive if a crime is being perpetuated against us" ~Jean Donaldson
Disclaimer: this article is not meant to be used as a substitute for professional behavior advice. If your dog is showing aggressive behaviors, please consult with a qualified professional invested in using humane behavior modification methods.
- Dog Time, Understanding canine aggression, retrieved from the web on August 13th, 2016
- The 100 Silliest Things People Say about Dogs, By Alexandra Semyonova, Hastings Press (July 27, 2009)
- Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs, by Jean Donaldson, Dogwise Publishing; 1st edition (January 1, 2002)
- Aggressive Behavior in Dogs, by James O'Heare, 2014, Distributed by Dogwise Publishing