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Is it Really Aggression?

It’s not uncommon in a conversation about training to hear, “My dog is aggressive with other dogs” or, “My dog is aggressive toward people.” In the first case, the dog most likely lunges and barks at others who pass by on walks. In the second, the dog may threaten or bite visitors, unfamiliar people in public, or even family members. Still, is it really fair to label those dogs as “aggressive”?

There are dogs out there who are truly aggressive. I’ve met them. Those dogs really, truly want to hurt other dogs or people, and there is no underlying component of fear. But thankfully, for the vast majority of dogs, that is not the case. Most dogs who are labeled aggressive are actually demonstrating fear-based reactivity. Their motivation when barking and lunging at another dog, for example, is to drive the other dog away because they are not comfortable with him. A dog who growls and eventually bites a child who is hugging him is not aggressive, but was uncomfortable with the restraint, tried to say so politely, and finally moved on to making a clearer statement with his teeth. In the case of dogs who bark and even lunge at visitors, very often the dog is afraid. In the case of reactivity toward other dogs, the dog is attempting to drive the big, scary thing away.

So, what’s the problem? We all know what sort of behavior is being described when someone calls a dog “aggressive”. But here’s the thing: once that label has been applied, we see that dog through an entirely different lens. Now when the dog behaves in a certain way, it’s seen as antagonistic. This is no longer a dog we feel empathy for, who we want to help so that his underlying fear is assuaged, thereby changing his behavior. Now we have a dog who is to be feared, whose behavior might even need to be met with a measure of violence in order to subdue it. Now we can justify harsher training methods, because clearly this is a dangerous, red zone, call-it-what-you-will kind of dog. And that is the problem. I have worked with many dogs over the years that would by all accounts be labeled dangerous. I used to joke that I specialized in dogs who had multiply puncture wounded multiple people. But you know what? None of those dogs needed to be manhandled or punished into submission. By using gentle, positive training methods, their owners were able to turn the troublesome behaviors around. It may have taken some time, but it also solved the problem without creating further distress in the dogs or people.

We need to be more thoughtful about canine behavior, rather than simply labeling it. There are always nuances and motivations to be discovered. There is never a need for harsh training methods, even if a dog has been labeled as aggressive. And as for trainers who use harsh methods, rather than labeling them, I suggest that there is the need for better understanding and a kinder hand. Our dogs deserve it. ______________________________________________________ You can find my books, seminar recordings, blog, and more at and follow me on FB @NicoleWildeauthor. My dog trainer mentoring service can be found at Dog Trainer's Friend. And if wildlife photos are your thing, check out my Instagram at nicolewildeart.

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