“Don’t normalize aggressive behavior”
I saw a post in a Facebook group the other day; it's a well respected group with lots of dog professionals and hobbyists who’ve been involved with dogs for decades. I typically see really excellent advice given in this group, and the group itself is a positive reinforcement/force free group, so I know it’s a safe space where I won’t have to see dogs being trained with pain and intimidation. (Honestly these are the only groups I spend time in anymore, my heart just can’t take it!)
But there was one comment that really rubbed me the wrong way, and I need to talk about it. Someone posted about a situation where they had brought their dog to a friend’s house, and the friend’s dog had snapped at/non-injuriously communicated with their dog. The post went off on a tangent, and someone in the comments said “Don’t normalize aggressive behavior!” Then everyone hopped on, agreeing and liking the comment and nodding their heads that yes, aggressive behavior must NEVER be normalized.
Well, I have some thoughts about this (because of course I do). This may rub some people the wrong way or maybe even make some people mad, but here’s the thing: most aggression is NOT abnormal dog behavior. Aggression is not pathological, and it’s not a sign that there’s something clearly WRONG with an animal. While aggressive behavior from dogs is highly upsetting to us and it’s not something we WANT to see, calling a dog who is behaving aggressively “abnormal” just because of the aggression isn’t helpful.
I think we have a tendency to take aggressive behavior very, very personally due to a combination of being conditioned for centuries to think of us as dog’s “masters” rather than family members or friends, plus the little lizard part of our brain that sees a dog’s pearly teeth flashing and goes “AH WHAT ARE YOU DOING YOU LET A WOLF INTO OUR HOME?!?!?!” And I don’t think either of these mindsets are helpful.
Let me be CLEAR: This is NOT me saying “don’t treat or modify dangerous aggressive behavior”. This is not me saying “Your dog bites people? Oh that’s just normal canine communication, leave it alone”.
But this IS me saying that when a dog behaves aggressively and we take it personally, when we point our fingers at the dog and say “something is WRONG with your dog”, and when we sometimes even discuss something like euthanasia for minor and predictable infractions like growling at the food bowl, we need to think a little bit.
Aggression IS a normal form of communication, whether we like it or not; it’s not a dog’s attempt at being dominant (at least not with humans, but dominance hierarchies within a species is a whole other topic that I’m not getting into here…), and it’s not a sign that your dog has a one way ticket to becoming Cujo the Second.
The first thing that we need to do when faced with a dog behaving aggressively is learn how to LISTEN to them and read their body language fluently so that we hopefully don’t see more of the aggressive behavior. And honestly, sometimes that IS enough. Definitely hire a credentialed trainer or behavior consultant before making that decision yourself (there are a LOT of factors that go into a case prognosis for a dog behaving aggressively, and there are factors we think of that most dog guardians just won’t, so this is important to discuss with a knowledgeable pro!) But sometimes the answer can be that simple.
Honestly what I see when a dog is behaving aggressively is a stressed dog, and it makes me sad. Even though it’s very scary to us, a dog that is growling, snarling, snapping, and biting isn’t doing it to have a good time, and they’re not in a good place. They’re a dog that needs help.
Don’t normalize aggressive behavior? No, I say don’t PROVOKE aggressive behavior, don’t set dogs up to fail and be forced to behave aggressively, don’t IGNORE aggressive behavior, don’t dismiss aggressive behavior. But if we all could admit that aggressive behavior isn’t abnormal and is actually a normal way for dogs to communicate, and take it as a sign that we need to change something and help them, I think both dogs and their people would be much happier.