Lessons from the Biting Dogs

October 16, 2012

Shooter got me right on the shin. He was off-leash and had actually approached nicely a couple of times to take treats. On the third go around though, he nailed me good. He bit fast and hard, ripping my jeans but missing the skin. Then, he was gone. Australian Shepherds move quickly. Sucker punch.

I’m in the dog bite business. The good news is, in more than a decade working with angry dogs I’ve only been bitten three times. Shooter was the gentlest offender. The worst one was Cooper, 11 years ago. He sent me to the emergency room. The one in between I hardly remember. But there’s one thing I remember about every aggressive dog I’ve ever worked with—behind those snarling teeth and angry eyes is a very frightened animal. That’s always the case.

Here’s what I know about dogs: Aggression is fueled by fear. Dogs behave to escape stuff that freaks them out. Here’s where it gets a bit tricky. A dog can escape by hiding or running away. He can also make the scary thing run away, or he can just take it down. The latter are my clients, the aggressive ones. They are violent, sometimes unreasonably so.

Here’s what I know about humans: We’re not all that different from dogs. We are greedy, and often. If we want something, we come up with elegant and elaborate behaviors to attain it (think salesperson, or investment banker). On the flip side, we escape the stuff that scares us. We hide. We scare things off. We bite. Hard.

I think about this a lot when I think of bullies. We humans have a pretty dark and notorious history of destroying what we perceive as a threat. I refer to us as we on purpose. I’ve been bullied by the best; I belonged to a church that won’t have me; I live in a state that would rather not have me. I get it. But this ugly topic is an us thing – it’s not just a them thing. The truth is, we are victims and perpetrators.

My old friend taught me; if you need to look around the room to see who’s going to overhear your joke, don’t tell the joke. But, we’ve all told those jokes haven’t we? The problem with bullying is that as we grow up, it grows with us, off the playground and into our workplace and social groups and governments. It’s contagious and the worst part is that we catch it, even those of us who are its victims. We fight bullying only to find we’re pretty much bullies ourselves. It’s the trickle down economics of hate.

Take a look at our own identity alphabet: LGBTQ. Have you ever told a joke about one of those consonants? I just thought of two (and I apologize). Who among us hasn’t looked slightly askew at one of those letters? “Sure I’m L, but I just don’t understand B.” We may not be violent bullies, but the disease has evolved. It’s not just institutionalized; it’s internalized.

Which brings me back to dogs, of course. Aggression, even the internalized kind, is about fear. Sometimes fear is about not having enough life experience. Many aggressive dogs simply didn’t have much experience with other dogs or people as a puppy. Those things default into the “be afraid of the unknown” category, a natural mechanism in all animals. Other dogs have a traumatic learning history, which leads to aggression. Dogs who suffered abuse by people or were attacked by other dogs often learn to fear and hate in kind. That makes sense.

We humans have it even worse. We have language. Language allows us to think relationally (though not always rationally). In other words, we can learn about each other and ourselves verbally. We can learn to fear each other without direct experience. Certainly a lack of social experience can lead to fear as well. But we humans are particularly clever about spreading fear with words. It’s the rhetoric that turns us against each other and, eventually, on ourselves.

What can we do about it? Here’s what I’ve learned from dogs: Be kind and compassionate. Aggressive dogs are suffering. I make it my business to help them. They may want to hurt me, but they are not the enemy. If I lead them out of anger and hate, I win. If I hate them more than they hate me, I lose. My hunch is the same with humans. It’s hard to calm someone down and bring them around by trumping them with more anger.

I understand if there’s some pushback on this. “We just can’t let them win!” I get it. Bear with me. Many of my human clients don’t see how it makes sense with their dogs either. I use a lot of food in training and most ask, “Aren’t you reinforcing the aggression by giving him treats.” The answer is no, I’m making him my friend. Once I have a relationship with the dog I can teach him better behavior. The aggression stops.

Be gentle with each other and yourself. Once we have a relationship, the door opens to teach each other and learn from each other. As Steven Pinker points out in his book, Better Angels of our Nature, the human race is actually becoming less violent. Little by little the bullies are losing. The continued development of human empathy seems to be one of the keys. We have inspired moments when we can perceive the world as others do, even others who are not like us. It brings us closer and calms our fears. This is one of those cases where language works to our advantage, bridging gaps and connecting the human experience. The invention of the printing press lead to one of the steepest declines in violence in world history. The second steepest came with the invention of the Internet.

Shooter is still emerging from his aggression. He tolerates visitors at a distance. Shooter’s humans are great and they will continue to work with him. It’s a slow process. As my mentor Jean Donaldson says, “There are no short cuts in behavior.” It’s true. Change comes, but not always as quickly as we’d like. I still see Shooter from time to time. There haven’t been anymore sucker punch bites. He’s making better behavior choices, which is what this work is really all about. We don’t force change—can’t really—just help it along. It turns out that behind those snarling teeth and angry eyes, Shooter is a pretty cool dog. (by Michael Baugh)

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