Aggression from first principles
Most common thoughts about K9 aggression tend to label the aggression as fear, predatory or dominance based. This to me tends to put a finite view on what is being exhibited and invariably pre determines a course of action that the trainer will tend to follow to resolve the issues being displayed.
I have for the last few years been looking at K9 Aggression from a totally different perspective. It revolves around looking at the behaviour from first principles and determining a course of action that responds to what is actually taking place as opposed to a pre-determined view of what may be occurring.
Starting at the beginning, let’s look at the “behavioural” aspect of what is taking place. If behaviour is the way an organism responds to its environment, then surely the behaviour a dog gives in terms of aggression is in turn a direct response to its environment whether it is perceived or real.
If this assumption is correct then the next assumption must follow. If behaviour within a specific environment is based around adaptation, then surly the adaptation must be aimed at survival and hence aligned to instinct (assuming a normal dog without sensitized issues). Therefore the behaviour exhibited must be at least to the dog, be in its best interest to remain alive in whatever the situation or environment provides.
Following on, if the behaviour exhibited is aimed at survival or aligned to an instinct it is fair to assume that it is recallable. If we believe that all instincts are intended to maintain life and species then all must serve a direct purpose to avoid injury or death.
Let us look at predation, defense and dominance
Predation – intent is to chase and kill for food. The most dangerous time is potentially if and when the prey becomes a rival by turning against the predatory animal. At that stage the act of predation now becomes danger and is now a problem. It could easily become defensive.
Defense – intent is to stay unharmed. If the act or showing defensive behaviour is to scare away a threat then the point at which time the threat is not overcome is also now a problem.
Dominance – intent is to have the rights of status, mating etc. If the act of achieving or maintaining dominance is not achieved and the rival potentially has the upper hand then the point at which this occurs is also now a problem. Dominance can easily now become defense or avoidance.
In each one of these examples it is a clear parallel to observe that the behaviour leading up to the potentially aggressive event must be more appetitive to the dog than the following aggressive encounter. The behaviour isn’t necessarily appetitive, but appetitive by comparison. In this case we are not talking about a dog with prior experience in which responses have been impacted through training or circumstance, but more so from first experience and first principles.
With this assumption in mind, it is reasonable to determine the following.
The behaviour in the presence of another dog or prey animal is aimed at avoiding a potentially dangerous aggressive encounter. If this is the case it can be argued that the behaviour the dog gives is to obtain control in this environment to stop the situation escalating to the point of a physical aggressive encounter.
Ie “Behaviour aimed at avoiding an Aggressive Encounter”
If a trainer looks at the behaviour in this way, it becomes a totally different mind set for observation, in that we are not looking with a pre-determined idea of what “form” of aggression is on offer, but more what behaviour is being exhibited in order to not escalate the situation. You could say looking at the dog with a “glass half full as opposed to half empty” approach.
When training dogs with potentially aggressive issues we need to determine if we are trying to nullify the behaviour or enhance it depending on how we want the behaviour to develop.
In my training sessions I have found great success when training for abstinence for example to make the dog realize that exhibiting aggressive behavioural traits will not be a way to retain control in that environment, but rather will make the dog lose control. The more the old behaviour is displayed the less control the dog has in changing the environmental impact. The more the dog relinquishes the old behaviour, the faster the dog retains control. Minimal compulsion is used in this scenario.
If training for action on the other hand I have found that encouraging aggressive behavioural traits will reinforce its belief that aggressive behaviour enhances control in that environment, and conversely the less aggressive behaviour is exhibited the less control the dog has in changing the environmental impact. This is a fundamental part of sound working dog training.
This post is NOT about any specific breeds, but more the principle behind the targeting of any one breed.
To start, I would like to add a quotation from Martin Niemöller.
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent; I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent; I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out; I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent; I wasn't a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
Far too often in these recent times are dogs mislabelled and put to death by acts of ignorance all be it done with (hopefully) the best intentions. Sadly society stands idle and lets this happen.
There is no question that serious injury to children or at the horrific worst case death is not acceptable under any circumstances. The issue I have is that this should not be focused on one or two breed types, but to all breeds across the board.
One of my core beliefs regarding dogs is that "there is no such thing as a safe dog, just degrees of less dangerous". There is absolutely and categorically no situation that warrants unsupervised interaction between a child and a dog.
I have a very firm view that is shared by some great Australian and International dog training minds, in that "once a dog has severely bitten a child there is little or no lenience given to it going forward and in almost all cases the dog should be put to sleep". This is a view that I am prepared to uphold with my own dog now and my future dogs regardless of breed. It is not a question about the dog developing future negative behaviour towards children, it is more the issue that the reason for the behaviour in the first instance needs to be questioned.
The grey area here for me as a dog behaviourist is what kind of bite are we talking about? There is a great deal of difference between predatory biting, alarm or warning biting, and the more intense defensive biting that often leads to massive injuries and death in children.
To people that own dogs that fit into the more placid or less potentially dangerous categories in society please ask yourself this question "if my dog was to bite a child is that action any less severe than the same act carried out by a dog of larger or more driven stature?”
If your answer is yes the act is less severe then I believe that we have serious issues.
Each and every dog has the potential to bite regardless of the ability to inflict damage. The issue we need to focus on is the action rather than the result. If we look at the problem in this manner we can then begin to see that focusing on a specific breed is not the issue, as educated dog trainers and owners, the motives behind the behaviour are what we need to eradicate.
If the answer is no, in that the act itself is the issue not the result then ask yourself the question, “why on earth are we as a society focusing on one breed when so many breeds are responsible for biting children?”
The real problem is that bites from smaller less "harmful" dogs are not often reported and when they are reported, are dismissed as insignificant, while bites from larger potentially more "harmful" dogs even if they are low intensity, are sensationalised.
The parallel in human terms is allowing a light frame small stature man to assault children, but punishing a larger frame and stature man for the same action. Or worse still not allowing a larger stature man from being in contact with children.......does this sound ridiculous? Well that is because it is. Common sense tells us that violence should not be tolerated regardless of the person type. Then why is this principle not applicable to dog behaviour?
Councils have a very hard task at hand and with public scrutiny it is not easy to meet with favourable outcomes, so decisions are not necessarily going to be fair or popular. What needs to happen, is for us as a society, led by our elected officials to take a collective step forward and ask questions regarding responsible dog ownership, that if implemented properly would ensure that the unwanted behaviours are eradicated, not specific breeds.
Sadly breed specific legislation ensures that genuine people with good intentions lose access to certain breeds while people with less wholesome intentions still get access through underground or illegal avenues. This regrettably eradicates the quality and breed control that is currently present in breed clubs around the world.
Many of us believe that the best initiative that has come out of the new Dangerous Dogs Law is the implementation of Criminal Prosecution for the owners of dogs that inflict serious injury. Maybe this will change the culture in society and insist on proper training and socialisation of all dogs not just those within the social spotlight.
When they come for your dog, who will be there to help you unless we all stand together and argue for sensible legislation.
I welcome your comments and hopefully we can get a good debate going on this.