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Hashtag Aggression

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From the Oxford Dictionary:


Line breaks: ag¦gres|sion

Pronunciation: /əˈgrɛʃ(ə)n/



  • 1Feelings of anger or antipathy resulting in hostile or violent behaviour; readiness to attack or confront:his chin was jutting with aggressionterritorial aggression between individuals of the same species

  • 1.1The action of attacking without provocation:he called for an end to foreign aggression against his country

  • 1.2Forcefulness:the sheer volume and aggression of his playing 


early 17th century (in the sense ‘an attack’): from Latin aggressio(n-), from aggredi ‘to attack’, fromad- ‘towards’ + gradi ‘proceed, walk’.



“Human ethologists argue that the human family represents one of the most peaceful associations of individuals in the animal kingdom.  This seems to be an evolutionary trend, because humans also show markedly reduced aggressive behavior towards other group mates in comparison to our (living) primate ancestors.  Many assume that this change also enhanced our possibilities for forming complex alliances, and engaging in sophisticated collaborative activities. This means that humans are very sensitive to any kind of aggression which could seriously disrupt group activities.

On this basis we can assume that during the domestication of dogs humans ensured that the animals displayed similarly peaceful attitudes, and dogs probably underwent selection for reduced aggression towards human companions (chapter citation).  Thus it is not surprising that aggressive behavior by dogs has a strong influence on the human-animal relationship, and is the leading complaint in dog-owning families (Riegger and Guntzelman 1990).

Dog aggression is also seen as potentially dangerous because the patterns of human and dog behavior are not fully compatible; that is, there is only limited overlap between the two species-specific sets of behavioral signals and action patterns that cause physical injuries and pain.  Humans (especially children) may have innate tendencies for judging the ‘meaning’of growling or persistent gazing, but they may not understand the signal indicated by erect tails and ears.  Biting is only the last resort when it comes to aggressive interaction among humans, who prefer to use hitting as a form of physical deterrent.  In contrast, the hitting element is missing from the repertoire of most dogs, but biting occurs relative often.  In addition the mostly (or originally) thick fur of dogs provides some protection against the effects of a bite which can cause unexpectedly dangerous injuries in furless humans.  The behavior of dogs could also vary depending on whether they perceive the situation as being social or predatory.  Predatory behavior is not signaled and is aimed at destroying the opponent, so such attacks could be even more serious.  (Strictly speaking, predatory behavior should not be categorized as aggression.)

With regard to aggression, the human-dog relationship is based on ‘unconditional trust’ (just like the human-human relationship).  However, if this trust is lost for any reason, the original relationship will be difficult to reinstate. ” – Adam Miklosi, dog behavior, evolution, and cognition

Double Hmmmm.
I’m part of an odd subset of dog behavior students whose ears perk up at the mention of the word aggression or aggressive.  Leaving labels at the door is the subject for another day, but it is enough to say that our North American culture is wrestling hard with what the label ‘aggressive’ means when it comes to our canine companions. For years, a dog who displayed socially inappropriate aggression towards humans was either locked up or put down.  What course of action was taken depended on both the owner’s bent and that of the area in which he lived.   Almost unanimously, training experts agreed that an ‘aggressive’ dog was out of line and needed to be controlled or eliminated.   In some sport and working circles, aggression was expected and encouraged, but only within strict parameters.  Whether those parameters needed to be enforced through external or self control was up to the individual handler, but out of control aggressive displays were strongly discouraged.  A dog who was out of control meant that you weren’t doing your job as an owner/handler/trainer.   Not much time or energy was spent on sorting out why a particular dog was behaving in the way they were;  in retrospect it is very likely that many dogs lost their lives or lived a miserable existence  for the lack of  human thoughtfulness and compassion.  
dog_aggressionIn recent years, a certain faction of trainers and canine behavior students began to explore the question of what was behind canine/human aggression.  Armed with the self-assured point of view that ‘aggressive’ dogs were just deeply misunderstood, they began to challenge the status quo.  While this was most definitely a worthy cause that resulted in an added wealth of training information and resources, the heavy emphasis on some badly drawn conclusions is threatening both the safety and security of dogs and humans alike.  Once such conclusion is that all (or the vast majority of) dogs behaving aggressively are doing so out of fear.  Assuredly, fear is an important consideration when dealing with a dog displaying aggression, but it is only one such consideration.  Another is that any training methods utilizing +P or even -R (click here for a quick refresher on Operant Conditioning) will lead to aggressive behavior from the subject dog.   No one who knows dogs or who trains ethically would dispute that heavy handed training methods can lead to canine aggressive displays, but neither do any dog savvy and ethical trainers utilize such methods.  The claim that the use of certain tools or aversives in training lead to an increase in aggression gained momentum with the release of a year long study in the journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science in 2009. ( Here’s a synopsis published in Science Daily in February of that year in case you’re not familiar with the spin.)  What is most important to note is that the study not only consisted of self reported questionnaires, it also pinpointed traditional rank reduction methods as the cause of the increased aggression.  Alpha rolls, hitting, stare downs and physically forcing compliance from dogs have been largely abandoned with trainers who do use aversion in their training simply because such methods are not reliable and have undesired side effects.   There is not enough room or time on this blog post to go into all of the arguments against incorporating any aversion in training (see my previous post, Pinch Me, I’m Dreaming for more of my thoughts on this – the comments are especially fun!) or advocating that only one quadrant of OC should be used, but suffice it to say that no matter what training camp you identify with, attempting to distill a complex behavior like aggression down to one approach or idea is a very, very, very bad idea.
Why is it such a bad idea?  The majority of us humans don’t like aggression; we spend our lives avoiding it or dancing around the edges of it if we’re especially bold.  So let’s just get rid of it, why don’t we?  Just entice the dog to be nice or punish them into submission.  Should work.  After all, we exist quite happily day to day in our lives without resorting to hitting people or biting them (no matter how much we’d like to).  Or do we?  If Miklosi’s got it right, our species’ social structure and communication is significantly different to that of our canine counterparts.   In other words, aggression doesn’t factor as heavily into our lives simply because we have the ability and the desire, thanks to evolution,  to get around it…. most of the time.  Like the canine species, we realize that physical conflict takes a toll on our social construct and on our personal selves so we work to keep it to a minimum.  For us, that means a much more advanced social system, but for dogs it comes down to agonism.  (Again, no time to go into it in detail, but the link is well worth reading and might enlighten you about why your Aunt Mabel acts the way she does… . )  Dogs use aggressive displays simply because it’s an integral part of their social structure.  One dog understands what the lifted lip or growl of another means.  A stiff body, raised tail and body grovel all don’t need translation.  Every encounter Fluffy Fido has with Barky Boris next door tells him a bit more about who Boris is and what Boris does or might do.  Fluffy Fido adjusts his behavior according to his temperament, personality, investment in what Barky Boris has and his comparable size/strength – among other things.  A mother dog keeps the peace in her unruly pack of 6 week old pups with the same assertion as she defends them from a potential threat.  The reasons and motivations behind the decision to act or react the way dogs do within the constructs of agonism is highly variable, and in some cases, indistinguishable to our species.  To go forward into this social fray claiming that only one motivation exists is at best irresponsible and at worst highly dangerous.  When dealing with a species who use their predatory weapons as an integral part of communication, it is imperative that we proceed cautiously and not without hesitation.
Recently, a trainer who identifies as part of the “balanced” community convinced a shelter to release a dog with a significant bite history into her care.  Most assuredly this trainer was driven by compassion for the dog, as he was facing euthanasia.  Having handled some aggressive cases in the past, this trainer was confident in her abilities and certain that this dog just needed someone to give him a chance.  I cannot speculate further on her internal motivations for undertaking such a case, but I can say that she was wrong.  Two weeks later, a socialization exercise was staged at a local park where the dog became aggressive and had to be shot by the police.   This was a traumatic event for everyone involved and not at all without pain and regret.  Regardless, it stands as a stark reminder that we cannot will something out of existence and that approaching dog behavior with a cavalier attitude can and will lead to devastation.
Even though this particular trainer identified outside of the +R/FF/Positive Only camp, there is a significantly disturbing trend in social media groups comprised of trainers who identify with those labels that points to a growing problematic trend.   Posts describing trauma and injuries to the trainers themselves during routine consultations or training sessions are more and more common and contain a significant lack of breed/type discernment.  The conversations mainly center on the idea that the dog in question has either been a victim of abusive handling or is simply misunderstood.   Certain tools are often determined to be the root of the problem, and trainers are encouraged to remove them as soon as possible to free the dog from abuse.  Whether or not this tool is the only thing standing between the dog and his display of aggression is not taken into account, as this blog post  details.   “Aggressive” dogs are almost universally perceived as suffering from human abusive intervention and reacting out of fear and desperation.  Any alternative suggestions are regarded as inspired by a lack of positive training knowledge or skill.   As the blog post outlines, the consequences of this line of thinking can be devastating.Is handling aggression cases ever without risk?  The short answer is no.  We can, however, minimize that risk through learning, experience and the use of common sense.  We can choose not to put our political agendas  in front of public safety.  We can choose to understand that dogs have different motivations for their behavior and act accordingly.  We can simply say “No” when we are offered a case we aren’t comfortable with.  We can choose to put ego second and common sense first.  Most importantly, we can choose not to exacerbate an already difficult situation by pretending that we have the key to canine social behavior after we’ve thrown out half of the pertinent information.
“We want to believe in the Lassie myth, to focus only on the dog’s gentle, forgiving, loving nature.  Of all the rocks on which we may stub our emotional toes, this is a big one.  We do not want to think that the dog lying at our feet is a predator and a powerful one at that.”  – Suzanne Clothier, Bones Would Rain From the Sky

Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, dog rehab and behavior specialist.

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