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Dog Behavior: Beware of Simple Names for Complex Problems
Dog Training / Dog Behavior

Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.

A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.

Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.

It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.

I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

Photos by Bruce Katz

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