Forget about labels, especially (types of) aggression
"We are over swamped by labels because labels sell, but they only sell if you buy them. Should
you be a positive, ultra-positive, R+, R++, R+P-, balanced, naturalistic, moralistic, conservative,
realistic, progressive, clickerian or authoritarian dog owner? Stop caring about what label you
should bear. When you enjoy a great moment with your dog, the label you bear is irrelevant. A label
is a burden; it restricts you and takes away your freedom. Labels are for insecure people that need
to hide behind an image. Believe in yourself, be the type of dog owner you want to be and you
won’t need labels." - Roger Abrantes
By Gordon Gill
20th Aug 2016
Sounds reasonable doesn't it, but you also hear about all the different ways in which we must alter
our modification technique based on which label we have given the aggression. That's right, you'll
hear trainers who for example won't specifically deny using P+ in an aggresion scenario but they
will say they don't support the use of P+ if the aggression is deemed to be motivated by 'Fear.'
Interesting isn't it? This should have the 'alarm bells' ringing in my opinion.
My first mentor Mr Claude Bertoni recently wrote about this very issue and I will include a link to his blog
below. Let's go back to those basics again; Food-Sex-Survival. Isn't it true that we are all just trying to
survive the best way we know how? Should any organism including domesticated dogs be excluded or
any different? What do you think? In fact, as Mr Bertoni suggests, all aggression has the purpose of
survival and stems from the same place....FEAR of the loss of something. Yes it's true that over the
course of a dog trainers life one might encounter that dog, that one special case in which something far
more sinister is at play, but these are rare, and most trainers are not "lucky" enough to ever encounter
that....thank goodness...(physiological examinations may also be of interest for those cases!)
Lets take predatory behaviour for example. Animals don't enter into such things willy nilly as there
can be a great amount of risk associated with it at times. Sure, they have instincts which to an extent can
influence by way on involuntary initiation, however animals have demonstrated the conscious decision to
back out of a hunt, plenty have also suffered a terrible fate as a result of not doing so, but what's the
alternative? Fear of starvation and a loss of control is a motivator. Aggression is clearly about the fear of
the loss of something. Again, dominant aggression is motivated by the fear of the loss of status and in
turn control, reproductive access etc.. Just as it is exploited with general obedience, animals desire to be
active participants in their own care, this is empowerment, it's controlling ones environment to be
beneficial to their own survival. It's no coincidence that many dogs with behavioural problems are
symptomatic of a 'bigger picture' problem and are usually suffering from a lack of empowerment,
confidence and control. You see, effective dog training is about using our superior intelligence to
make the dog believe that it really is training us! Good training should be a win win kind of
The above quote from Roger Abrantes is brilliant and certainly offers some liberating advice that I
think we all need to remind ourselves of every now and then. I also want to highlight the point that
the quote from Mr Abrantes applies to how we view ourselves as trainers/handlers which was it's
intention. However, I believe we can also apply these same principles to how we look at animal
behaviour and in particular behavioural modification of aggressive tendencies.
We like to define behaviours and label them, resulting in unsubstantiated generalisations. How
many times do we hear 'dominant' thrown around like it's always responsible for the generalised
aggressive behaviour of a particular dog. No other word tends to infuriate dog trainers more....and
we hear it all the time! Yes, dominance can be a contributing impulse to aggression, however
behaviour is a fluid thing. I think It's time to forget about labels, the reality is actually pretty simple
and although evolution is constant and our technology advanced, the basic foundation
remains, life on earth, all organisms = Food-Sex-Survival.
So then, what are we saying when we label all the different types of aggression?
So, is it high time that dog trainers started to obtain some more clarity in relation to dealing with
issues of aggression? Are some trainers over complicating things or misguided in their approach?
I'm certain that most have the best intentions, and that many will still have lots of success from
varied approaches. I'm also certain that good trainers will allow the individual dog to dictate which
methods they apply. Problem is, I'm just not certain that the pathways some 'Purely Positive / Force Free'
trainers take are necessarily more in line with the principles of L.I.M.A or Least Intrusive, Minimally
Aversive? For instance, the methodologies employed by these trainers use no P+ whatsoever, rely on
Counter Conditioning and Systematic Desentisation only and can take a very long time to obtain
manageable lifestyle outcome...and yet still they can never guarantee no further problems and must
assume all dogs as potentially dangerous. Whereas another trainer might employ the same techniques but
also introduce minimal compulsion, helping the dog to understand where the advantage lies, resulting in a
manageable result far sooner and allowing for more constructive lifestyle compatible rehabilitation to
occur sooner....and yet, we end up at the same place where we can't guarantee no problems in the future
and must assume all dogs as potentially dangerous.
So, we have established that in the end we end up at the same location, one of the treatment plans
added some P+ in conjunction with some foundation learning whilst the counter conditioning and
systematic desensitisation took place, the other method used no compulsion. However, the method which
did employ minimal compulsion (P+) implemented some options for new learning, a new coping
mechanism, empowering the dog with a new tool allowing the true and lifestyle compatible rehabilitation
process to occur far sooner than the alternative. I have witnessed now examples where I would argue that
the former example was far more inline with the principles of L.I.M.A than the method which did not use
any compulsion. Why? Because time itself is a variable worthy of consideration and the total overall value
of stress incurred by the animal and handler.
There is an unsubstantiated belief that the implementation of the P+ will create further aggression
problems and a false sense of security from inhibiting behaviour. In other words, the belief that the dog
won't display warnings signs due to the possibility of a correction (P+) and is therefor likely to bite with no
warning. It is my belief that YES, this is without a doubt a possibility, However I would suggest many of
the problems are not a direct result of using P+ alone but more so the result of not empowering the
animal through prior learning first and not paying enough attention to the environment, distance
thresholds and reward. In other words, a failure to provide the right stage for new learning, which
has nothing to do with the use of compulsion alone. Of course there is potential to create further
frustration and potentially dangerous inhibition if the trainer does not have a proper understanding
of the forces at play, including the intesities of any element.
The rehabilitation process takes time, commitment and followup. Sometimes I believe that critics of the
former method fail to appreciate that although it appears to create faster results, the reality is that it's just
speeding up the time before the more lifestyle compatible and constructive rehabilitation can begin.
Regardless, all dogs need to be assumed as 'dangerous' on a continous basis no matter what. Any trainer
that GUARANTEES to 'FIX" behaviour outright is kidding themselves. How can you make a guarantee like
that when we are talking about a living, breathing animal with fluid behaviour?
Claude Bertoni sums up some of his aggressive related behaviour modification beautifully in his
blog by saying "In my training sessions I have found great success when training for abstinence,
for example to make the dog realise 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."
To finish up, I'm going to clarify that I am not saying that when it comes to aggression related
behavioural modification there is one right way or one wrong way. Most of the time the application of
aversives have far more potential for fallout and so should be considered by professionals only. I believe
that what makes a good trainer is the ability to select the right method for the right particular dog in
question. What I will say though is that I do firmly believe that your behaviour modification techniques
need to address the initial impulse constructively and unfortunately I've seen some examples of trainers
seeking to avoid it completely as part of their modification, 100% avoidance will never help anyone.
"The dog will tell you what to do." - Boyd Hooper.
See Mr Claude Bertoni's (k9iQ) "Let's talk about aggression shall we" blog HERE
Dog Behaviour Specialist
Nationally Accredited Dog Trainer