Myths about aggression
From: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs
Copyright 2009 by Alexandra Semyonova -- All Rights Reserved
Myth 29: The domestic dog is a naturally aggressive species.
(c) Alexandra Semyonova -- All Rights Reserved
One reason people believe this myth is because of the romantic idea that the domestic dog
descended from the great grey wolf (see Myth 1), which he didn’t. We now also know that the
domestic dog isn’t a hunter, but that he became what he is precisely because he gave up hunting to
scavenge our leftovers (see Myth 4). But all these romantic ideas don’t die easily. It is now
fashionable among biologists to talk about the domestic dog as a ‘predator’. What they forget to say
when they tell us this is that sheep, tapeworms and mistletoe are also predators. A predator is
anything that has to eat from another living being, maybe or maybe not killing it in the process. A
predator is not necessarily a hunter. Dogs have to have a certain amount of animal protein, but so
does a tapeworm. The dog gets his protein by eating our leftovers, while the tapeworm actually
steals stuff we still need right from under our nose. This biological wordgame has brought us right
back to the old, false picture of the dog as a killer whose desire to kill is always right there under the
surface just dying to get out. This need to feel we have a barely contained killer walking obediently
next to us tells us something about ourselves, but it remains a false perception of the dog.
Then there is a second thing that contributes to this myth, namely confusion about what we mean by
the word ‘aggressive’. Strictly speaking, aggression is some act that is intended to cause harm or
pain. In everyday speech, we also use the word for acts that are intended to dominate or intimidate
another. We use the word not only for acts that cause physical pain or damage, but we also include
behaviour that is intended to cause psychological pain or damage. When we’re talking about
humans, this broad definition isn’t entirely wrong. We are such an aggressive species that when we
so much as raise our voices, this is often a real indication that danger is at hand — that we may
attack the person we’re shouting at. We often fight to the death about things. Our social intercourse
is strongly based on competition and domination, so we are often on the offensive and a lot of what
we do is indeed aimed at dominating someone. We have complex minds, and are able to damage
each other psychologically and emotionally. In the end, we may rightly call much human behaviour
aggressive. However, dogs are not human, and it’s not fair to project human qualities onto them.
So what is going on with dogs? Dogs are non-human animals. Biologists know and acknowledge that
fights to the death between members of the same species are very rare in Nature (as long as you
leave us out of the equation). This is because a non-human animal recognises others of his species
as a kind of social partners. Dogs are special, because they are able to include us and many other
kinds of animals on this list. When they are dealing with social partners, non-human animals usually
use only what biologists call ‘ritual aggression’. This is a kind of social discourse. The animals
simulate a fight, but they aren’t actually trying to damage each other. The thing is, if it’s social
discourse (which it is), it can’t simultaneously be aggression. It’s one or the other — either an animal
is trying to damage his opponent, or he’s not, and if he’s not, well, it’s not aggression. Among dogs,
aggression means delivering an uninhibited bite to the other in question, using the full and
uninhibited strength of the jaws. Normal dogs rarely do this. In fact, the basic rule of dogs’ social
interaction is that they will not revert to uninhibited biting, even in a very heated argument (see Myth
11). A dog who does use aggression is frightening to other dogs. They think he’s insane, and will do
their best to avoid him. A dog who reverts to aggression can’t be part of any canine social system.
Aside from the fact that other dogs avoid him, he will destroy any social system he joins by
destroying the other participants.
Let’s take a look at what normal dogs really do. If you observe without projecting, and if you
understand their language, you see that dogs generally do everything in their power to avoid
aggressive encounters. Dogs have an extended warning system they use to tell the other that they
are feeling worried and to ask the other to please keep a little distance. We’ve seen (in Myth 12)
that it’s not aggression but anxiety that makes a dog use his warning signals (threat signals). We
know that the use of anxiety inhibiting medicines greatly decreases threat behaviour in most dogs.
Knowing this, we know that biologists make a mistake when they call threat behaviour ‘aggressive’.
They miss the point that these signals express worry about what the other is going to do. They miss
the point that these signals function specifically to give the other lots of time and opportunity to
avoid a confrontation. We know that even when the other ignores the signals, and it does come to a
confrontation, both dogs use their teeth with great reserve. In fact, they don’t use them at all except
symbolically. They wave their teeth around, maybe pinch the other dog a little — even a toothless
dog is not the least bit at a disadvantage in one of these symbolic ‘fights’. It remains easy during the
whole affair for one of the dogs to stop the symbolic show of teeth by giving off a subtle signal that
he’s seen enough and is satisfied that the other dog will follow the non-aggression rule. This signal
can be so subtle that we don’t see it. To us, it looks like the ‘fight’ — which wasn’t a fight but an
exchange of signals in a social discourse — suddenly ended, for no visible reason. We examine our
dogs and find not a wound anywhere, or at the worst a small puncture caused by a fang — which is
a kind of wound dogs get just as often in rough play, analogous to the child who comes home with a
skinned knee after an afternoon of roller skating. We have to conclude the dogs were not being
aggressive to each other, no matter how scared the whole thing made us feel.
Before a normal dog ‘bites’ a human, he also, very reliably, uses his entire warning system to give
us the time and plenty of chance to avoid a confrontation. Just because we didn’t see it, doesn’t
mean he didn’t do it.
Mistakes start with the fact that we often have no idea how a situation looks or feels to the dog. A
dog might be lying in an armchair with a high back and arm rests. It looks comfy to us, and we forget
that the dog is — in his own perceptions — lying in a corner without a quick exit. He might be lying
on the rug in the middle of the room, and we want to get a book from the shelves behind him. We
head for the bookcase, not even thinking about the dog as we focus on the spot we expect the book
to be. We don’t realise that we are — in the dog’s perceptions — suddenly walking straight at him
with quite a decisive step, starting to enter his personal zone while he’s in a supine position and can’
t shoot out of our way very quickly. His language isn’t our native language, so we often don’t see the
signals he’s sending us (that he’s worried about why we’re approaching, and to please give him time
to stand up and move away). We don’t see how long and how hard the dog has tried to avoid a
confrontation. It seems to us like he suddenly lashed out. We think he ‘bit’ without a reason, and that
this means he’s aggressive ‘by nature’. We’re so shocked by his lashing out that we don’t notice we
aren’t damaged, and that his ‘bite’ was only symbolic. Again we fail to understand his native
language. All we have is some spit on our sleeve, perhaps the imprint of a tooth on our unbroken
skin, or (if the dog was very scared) a small puncture with a bruise developing around it. Our bones
and tendons and muscles are all intact. Among dogs, this is all a very clear sign that no damage was
intended, and that the bite wasn’t in any way meant to be real. To another dog, this inhibited bite is
a clear sign that the ‘biting’ dog is, despite his anxiety, trying hard to preserve the peaceful social
relationship. We humans totally miss this message. We forget what a dog can do with his teeth if he
wants to, we ignore the role our own behaviour plays, and we foolishly call this symbolic, highly
controlled gesture ‘aggression’.
Strong selection against aggression is woven throughout the domestic dog’s origin and entire
evolution as a species. If you look at things fairly, you’ll see that normal dogs do everything in their
power to avoid the use of aggression. Real aggression among domestic dogs is an anomaly. When
it does occur, it is not because the dog is a naturally aggressive species. Aggression in dogs is
usually a result of human tampering with a breed’s genes, or of traumatic experiences a dog has
had in his life up to that moment. Many of these traumatic experiences are due to the Nazi myth that
we have to be dominating our dogs all the time. This myth leads us to behave in ways that are
confusing and frightening to dogs, often leaving them no alternative but to lash out. Bad science has
burdened us with a self-fulfilling prophecy that has nothing to do with what dogs actually are.
Fact: The domestic dog is, by nature, anything but an aggressive species.
Please also read: Myth 30, however, because we don’t want you drawing the wrong conclusions
from the facts about natural, normal dogs.
Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L, Dogs: a startling new understanding of canine origin, behaviour, and
evolution, Scribner, New York, 2001.
Dunbar, I, Bohnenkamp, G, Preventing Aggression, Center for Applied Animal Behaviour, Berkeley
CA, 1985 (3rd ed June 1986).
Lockwood, R, The ethology and epidemiology of canine aggression, in Serpell J (ed), The Domestic
Dog: Its Evolution, Behaviour & Interactions with People, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Miczek, KA, Weerts, E, Haney, M, Tidey, J, Neurobiological mechanisms controlling aggression:
Preclinical developments for pharmacotherapeutic interventions, Neruosci Biobehav Rev18: 97–100,
Semyonova, A, The social organisation of the domestic dog; a longitudinal study of domestic canine
behaviour and the ontogeny of domestic canine social systems, Carriage House Foundation, The
Hague, The Netherlands, 2003. www.nonlineardogs.com.
Sidman, M, Coercion and its Fallout, Authors Cooperative, Inc, Publishers, Boston, 1989.
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