When you hear someone saying that a dog is “aggressive”, what do you imagine?
In my mind, I can see a dog which attacks everything and everyone. A dog that has caused some serious injuries. A dog that is behaving aggressively constantly and absolutely no one can approach them.
On the other hand, someone else might imagine an “aggressive” dog quite differently. Thus, a dog that barks a lot but has never bitten anyone, might be also labelled “aggressive”.
That’s the problem with labels. Using them might result in major communication problems. A label is an opinion, not a fact. It allows us to simplify the information but it doesn’t guarantee that the other person will understand precisely what we mean.
Aggression is not a personality trait!
No living being is [put a label here] for a 100% of the time. Aggression is not a personality trait! And the same goes for all the other labels we often hear from the dog owners – dominance, reactivity, fearfulness, laziness… My own dog might react aggressively in very specific circumstances. But is she aggressive when we snuggle in bed together then? “Aggressive” is definitely not a word I would use to describe her in general.
Behaviour doesn’t occur in the vacuum and that includes aggressive behaviours too. Every behaviour has its antecedent, some stimulus that happens prior to the behaviour, and its function, the purpose that can be achieved through the behaviour. The function must be identified first before the attempt to modify behaviour. When it comes to aggressive behaviours, their most common function is to increase the distance between the dog that shows it and the aversive stimuli (for example, strangers or other dogs).
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Defining the set of different behaviours as one general label doesn’t help with describing the observable behaviours in enough details so we can proceed to identify its functions and modify those behaviours effectively.
Labels suggest that if the dog is “aggressive”, it will stay this way. This “aggression” becomes a part of the dog. It’s almost like a diagnosis of an untreatable condition. This kind of “diagnosis” opens the door for using not so ethical training methods or even for considering to euthanize the animal. It enables the thinking that If the dog’s whole self is “aggressive” then you are only able to suppress or stop the behaviour and not to modify it humanely.
Every dog once in a while might use aggressive communication
It might be due to pain, stress or in response to another animal or a human acting aggressively and pushing their limits. Does it mean all dogs are “aggressive”? Aggression is not binary. Aggressive behaviours are natural and might occur or not, depending on the previous experiences of the animal in a particular context.
If we label the dog, we marginalize the importance of their communication instead of responding to it accordingly. Too often, if the dog growls when we’re handling them, we label them “aggressive” and punish the growl instead of withdrawing the hand and teaching the dog to accept the handling.
We can also label the dog with an opposite of “aggressive” like “super friendly”, “loving children”, “wanting to be petted all the time” which might be equally dangerous. Describing the dog in such a way makes us less conscious of potential stress and discomfort signals that the dog might show in social situations. How do you know they love to be petted? Why do you think they love children? What behaviours make you draw those conclusions? Are you sure you interpret those behaviours correctly? Not growling or barking in the given context is not equal to being “friendly”.
The only right method of making observations with our dogs is describing their body language in detail. What do you exactly mean by saying the dog is “patient” or “happy”?
What behaviours can we see and measure?
Also, perceiving our dog through the one general label might stop us from noticing and rewarding the “good” behaviours, the ones that we want to see more often. We might claim there’s nothing that can be rewarded because we only see unwanted behaviours that fit our label. For more information and professional courses visit tromplo.com
The language we use has a major impact on creating the world around us. That’s why we should say “cue” instead of “command” and that’s also why we shouldn’t use labels to describe our dogs, especially if we want to modify their behaviour. So, the next time someone says “aggressive dog” you may spare some time to explain to them why they should’ve said: “a dog that might react aggressively in a certain context”.
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