Words Matter, and "Fear Aggression" Isn't
Updated: Dec 8, 2021
We recognize normal self-defense behaviors everywhere: zebra running from lions, antelope running from hyena, porcupine raising quills to receive or charge a predator. We don't consider the porcupine "aggressive"; it does what nature instructs, as needed to fulfill the survival imperative. If a zebra kicked or bucked and injured a lion instead of running or dying, we would be impressed at its courage and agility. If an antelope gored an attacking hyena, we would not say the antelope is aggressive, and we would not say the antelope has fear aggression; rather, we'd assume the antelope either accidentally hurt the hyena during its quite normal thrash to escape death, or purposely hurt the hyena, for the same reason. Either way, it was self-defense.
Yet when it comes to the #animals we make part of our families, we expect different. We interpret differently.
Interpretations can sometimes hinder understanding rather than elevate it, and cultural understanding on a given topic can quickly slide downhill after a little slip. This is one of the lessons of the children’s game known as "Telephone." While children won't necessarily connect the anti-gossip lesson with the pro-understanding lesson, adults must. Adults with influence, even more.
When your client says “aggressive,” their definition might be very different from yours. When you say “aggressive,” your definition might not be the same as mine. I will soon share a definition from another animal professional, and that person might not even agree with me about his own definition. Such is the curse of verbal language.
Over the years I’ve come across quite a few instances of confused statements about canine fear. The most alarming of these was the absurd claim that 'fear is a sign of aggression.' Another common but confused claim is the idea that fear causes aggression. These are not just semantic problems, but life-saving versus life-taking problems.
Statements repeated tend to morph into individual and then eventually #cultural beliefs. Beliefs can be dangerous. If we believe a dog who is “fearful” is likely to be “aggressive,” that dog may be in more danger from us than we are from him. A #misinformed belief can grow to pose risks to an entire population of marginalized dogs, and possibly even dogs in general.
That’s because once we latch on to a belief, we are unlikely to let it go without a fight. In the face of being asked to drop it, we might instead shake it to death. Further, the more clout we have, the more our own latched-on thinking and speaking behaviors grab others who look up to us. Confused or simplistic statements made by those in high authority or fame tend to trickle more swiftly down to those with less access to comprehensive learning and therefore who must rely on abject trust in a culturally approved authority.
An errored but widely-heard slip of the tongue by an animal behavior #authority can affect the thinking, decision-making, speaking, and more obvious overt behaviors of animal welfare leaders, veterinarians, behavior consultants, dog trainers, dog shelterers, rescuers, foster caregivers, and owners. When each trusts a source above, believing that source above has more or better information, questioning the information let alone the source is not very likely. Just as dog trainers, behavior consultants, veterinarians, and animal welfare workers may trust the sources above them, those sources are perhaps even more trusted by private dog #guardians, rescuers, fosterers, et cetera. People and populations with less access are forced to rely on the more advantaged—those with more access to resources and to the public ear—for understanding, guidance, and actions based on what they believe to be informed decisions.
In such situations, the general public and its companion animals are the ones at greatest risk. Whereas some professionals may know that a confused statement like “fear is a common cause of aggression” demands further parsing and should not be taken literally, the general public does not typically know that. Some professionals also might not know that. While we might pause to #deconstruct the #labels in the statement, other professionals, their clients, their friends, and their families, probably will not. Having less access, they trust their sources, such as they are.
Therefore, we need to be more trustworthy. We need to respect their hopes and needs as well as their rights to decide for themselves. One way we do that is by guiding them to build their skills not just in dog care and handling, but in breaking down related paragraphs, sentences, titles, slogans, and labels -- because sometimes, though we may not realize it, we tell them things that need to be broken down further. Sometimes we, as an industry, inadvertently, and incorrectly, tell them that their scared dogs are dangerous. Because we are part of an industry that sometimes speaks in labels.
As a behavior consultant specialized in and deeply concerned about the consequences for scared dogs, I make interpretations based on careful observation and data gathering as well as experience, practice, and study. While I do use the label “fearful dog” when addressing others who I know understand what that means, I am careful otherwise to define my terms. We can rely on some labels as shorthand only so long as everyone is fluent in the same shorthand.
When I attach the label “fearful” to a dog, I mean something separate and distinct from “scared” or “afraid” even though many people would not differentiate them. For example, a dog who was scared by a novel crash of pots and pans falling to the floor during an earthquake, but who is not afraid of strangers, other animals, noises, storms, or other common stimuli, is probably not a “fearful” dog from my perspective. He might be an exceedingly terrified dog in that moment, because of a specific terrifying stimulus. That isn’t the same as a state of #fearfulness.
We must do more than label our beliefs about things. Interpreting animal behavior requires moving beyond comfortable assumptions. This means reevaluating previously accepted but inaccurate labels, like “fear aggression.”
From a behaviorist perspective, fear does not cause aggression; antecedent and/or consequential stimuli do, in that from a behaviorist perspective, the environment largely controls behavior. Things ‘in the dog’ or that the dog ‘has’ or ‘is’ (we say) are not causes of behavior. To say the “dog has fear aggression” is meaning-deficient and unhelpful, because the only objectively observable, definition-agreement-able item in the statement is ‘dog.’ The statement goes awry when it assumes that the dog “is” something defective or “has” something defective within him, rather than attends to the dog’s experiences and responses to the environment.
But, furthermore, from a behaviorist perspective, it isn’t just a matter of what-causes-what. It is that “fear” itself is not a directly observable behavior but a hypothetical construct—which a label. To say something caused something, a behaviorist will require the claim be operationalized. For laypeople, I like to explain operationalizing behavior in terms of word pictures. If I cannot draw a physical picture of it, it won’t be very helpful to understanding behavior. I can’t draw “fear,” but I can draw “cowering,” for example. Labels for behavior are little more than hypothetical constructs we use to describe what we believe about something. We all have our own beliefs. Some are not testable.
Concrete descriptions of observable behavior and environmental stimuli are, in at least many cases, better indicators of “cause.” Say my dog #nipped at the back of my neck. Many people would assume the dog is aggressive. But if I ask 10 people to draw—that is, operationalize—“aggressive,” the drawings may depict 10 very different behaviors. To get to the cause, I would need to describe the observable specifics that all ten people could see similarly if the event happened in front of them.
One might ask, If he isn’t aggressive, then why did he nip? My reply would begin with a description of what happened just before—that is, the antecedent: I slipped on the tile and fell to the ground, screaming like a baby. The dog ran over to me, bouncing around and nipping at the back of my neck until I quieted and began to get up off the floor. I might also consider the dog’s lifelong learning history, but cautiously since this too can lead to the path of hypotheticals.
If I simply assume “the dog is aggressive,” then that dog’s life is now in danger, possibly unfairly, since dogs deemed aggressive get #euthanized quite often. If I land on something based more in observable evidence, I might decide that my noise sounded like a play signal, or a prey signal, for example. Whichever I decide, it means that the “cause” was something related to the environmental stimuli, not something in the dog. In that case, the dog more likely gets to live, because now, instead of being labeled as some sort of miscreant, his behavior is viewed as a normal response for a dog. We need better ways to interpret and explain “normal” versus “abnormal” behavior too, to be fair to dogs and their humans.
I rarely use the term “aggressive” to describe a dog not only because fluency regarding the shorthand for that word does not, in my opinion, yet exist, and the label therefore poses an unnecessary risk. When a client says their dog is aggressive, we discuss concrete descriptions of specific observed behavior. The same approach is useful if someone says their dog “attacked”—because some people mean chased, or chased while barking, when they use that label. We don’t want that to automatically earn a dog the big red A.
Beyond the environmental threats they may face individually, the #threat to fearful dogs, as well as to ‘normal’ dogs who responded to a single terrifying experience, is that the definitions of common labels involved in diagnoses, prognoses, and treatment are often not careful enough. Rather, they are personal, varying from one human to another, and therefore may be inaccurate. Thus, confusion grows, which further hinders agreement. Growing confusion and disagreement feed a vicious cycle spinning out more confusion, more risk, and more suffering.
For aggression-related labels, I rely and build on Roger Abrantes’ words: "Aggressive behavior is behavior directed toward the elimination of competition from an opponent…" by injuring or killing that opponent. (ethology.eu/aggressive-behavior-the-making-of-a-definition)
This single line alone serves well as a clarifying definition and is at this time the best—i.e., most helpful, least harmful, and effectively differentiating—definition of aggression we have, in my opinion. For me, there is a difference between on one hand behavior directed toward scaring away or otherwise stopping something that appears to be trying to hurt or kill us, and on the other hand, behavior directed toward getting rid of #competition. I would posit that the former is self-defense against an aggression, and the latter is aggression against something disliked. There is a big difference between something dangerous and something we simply don’t like. I would self-defend, physically, if necessary, against an immediate danger to life or limb; I do not however go out looking to eliminate people I think pose competition to me or who oppose me.
Much of the behavior currently labeled “aggression” is actually #adaptive, normal self-defense response, not actions directed toward needless harm or death of another. When we say “fear aggressive” we are mislabeling behavior that is actually a survival-seeking response to aggression. In this way, the term “fear aggression” is oxymoronic.
All animals, including humans, are endowed with the instinct to survive; this helps us effectively protect ourselves from threats. Fear-based behavior is behavior designed to avoid aggression and other dangers—it is self-defense, not other-offense. Aggression is offensive, not defensive. Fear and aggression are nearly if not exactly opposites.
A dog showing behavior from the fidget, freeze, or flight categories might fairly be viewed as a scared or a “fearful” dog. But if those three of the 4Fs don’t help the dog avoid the threatening stimulus—that is, the threat does not cease—it’s not abnormal for the dog to then try to survive the threat by fighting back. And yet, if that happens, suddenly some will consider the scared dog aggressive. This is how the “fear aggression” label lives on, however decrepitly and contradictorily, as a dangerous misconception. In most situations where a scared dog fights back it is because nothing else was effective in putting safe distance between the dog and the threat -- the dog's peace-making attempts were ignored or not recognized. When a fearful dog fights back because distance-increasing measures fail to help escape the threat or move the threat away, it is the other that is the aggressor.
Often that other is us. A reader might retort, "But we humans don't harm or kill other people who threaten us." Often true, but it’s not a helpful comparison. Human-to-human harm and homicide rules and consequences are under control of human-constructed laws, which tend to suppress our most dangerous behavioral inclinations. But we cannot justifiably apply our own governmental expectations to incidents between or related to other animals, who are governed by their own rules of nature and species, and of course other species cannot rationally be expected to understand and embody human constructed laws.
In terms of human-dog incidents, these are simply not fair pairings. Even the most well-trained dog may still act in self-defense under a threatening condition. Yet most humans appear to believe that they have an inalienable right to not be self-defended against by pet dogs, no matter the reason. In other words, humans seem to feel that self-defense is not a valid reason for animal behavior, except in the case of the human animal’s behavior. The problem isn't fear or aggression. In the case of dog-dog pairings, it is often a simple matter of survival instinct, even if sometimes gone awry out of stress or confusion. For human-dog experiences it is more complicated, but however complicated, it may be that at its core, the problem is a combination of something like overconfidence or entitlement. Viewing ourselves as apex predators, we struggle to accept the sentience or natural rights of other species relative to our rights and sentience. We do not see why we should view things any other way, given all our power and prowess. While this might be an inevitable habit of our own nature, when it puts other humans and their animal companions at risk of suffering, loss, even death, it is time to modify our own behavior—including our thinking behavior—no matter how oblique, irrelevant, or unnecessary it may seem to our own lives. "Fear does not elicit aggressive behavior. It would have been a lethal strategy that natural selection would have eradicated swiftly and once and for all. A cornered animal does not show aggressive behavior because it is fearful. It does so because its natural responses to a fear-eliciting stimulus (pacifying, submission, flight) don't work." --- Abrantes Antecedent &/or consequential stimuli, not fear, ‘causes’ what we consider aggression. The behavior we mislabel "aggressive” doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Dogs, whether fearful or not, respond to stimuli that threaten or seem to threaten them harm by enacting one or more available self-defense behaviors. In nature, escape is typically the first choice, but since dogs in housepet cultures are essentially our captives, escape often fails. Avoidance of other kinds often fail for similar reasons, such as forcible or other aversive handling by individuals, organizations, or authorities, lack of understanding of associative learning, etc. When three of the Four Fs are unrecognized, ignored, or outright rejected, a captive animal is left only with "fight" as the remaining option. We intuitively understand and accept this in other animals -- we do not expect lions, tigers, bears to simply take whatever is dished out -- so why can't we admit the same reality for the animals whom we've made our pets?
We need to remember that what is threatening to us and what is threatening to our dogs can be very different stimuli.
From the perspective of a caged, tethered, cornered, catchpoled, or otherwise confined dog, we are the aggressor if we leverage a captor’s advantage even though it scares—that is, threatens—the dog. Yes, our dogs might manage to simply be still and tolerate whatever comes; after all, dogs are "domestic" animals, not wild ones, we reason. Could doesn't mean should, though; it is not natural to ignore risk to one's life or limb. We wouldn't want our human family and friends to simply accept suffering or death rather than implement proven ways to treat suffering or to stay alive. It isn't reasonable to expect our canine companions to do so either.
We expect our loved ones to want to survive. Unless we are lifelong sufferers of something along the lines of learned helplessness, we all have performed survival-defense behavior. No species exists for very long without effective self-defense responses. Self-defense-based behavior labeled aggression or fear aggression is not either of those things. Self-defense responses are natural, adaptive behaviors in response to perceived and often real danger. Therefore, dogs implementing self-defense responses should not be categorized as aggressive.
We can decrease our canine companions’ danger—we can refuse to be part of their danger—by refusing to accept or spread misconceptions created by the fear aggression label. "Fear aggression" isn't.
A slightly different version of this essay first appeared in Barks from the Guild