Monday, December 13, 2010

Tender Semantics

Toward the end of our first trip through Changing Attitudes, one of the instructors came up to say hi to Rubi. "You goofy pup," she said. "Some people were thinking you weren't very nice, but I know you're just a big silly, aren't you?"

Wait, what?

I've entertained a fair number of uncharitable thoughts toward this dog, but it's never occurred to me that Rubi isn't a nice dog at heart. I assumed that since I could see B's inner charm, so could everyone else (need I remind you that we're in a class just for such challenged dogs?). But the truth is that to most people, reactivity equals aggressive and aggressive equals mean.

In reality, reactivity and aggression are two related but distinct qualities. Reactivity by definition is simply a response to a stimulus. I've never met a dog that didn't react to its environment in some way, either with a twitch of the ear, a wagging tail, or a glance. In dog training, we use the term "reactivity" to describe any behavioral response to a trigger that we as humans do not like. Some reactions are perfectly natural; it is normal for a dog to bark at something that makes him or her nervous or excited. The trouble comes when the dog that barks at children tries to live in human society. Then, a fairly natural behavior can get that dog labeled as a menace, aggressive, or at the least, an annoyance.

It doesn't help that most people don't realize that a dog can be reactive without being aggressive. Aggression is how badly a dog wants to hurt the trigger. Rubi is a classic example of reactivity without aggression. She wants to get to the other dog very badly – badly enough to make us both look pretty horrible – but she doesn't want to hurt the other dog at all. If properly introduced to another dog, she's still pretty socially stupid, but she's also very content to play 'til exhaustion. That's one of the reason's she's able to live in relative peace with three other dogs.

The reverse is true as well: a dog can be aggressive without being reactive. I've mentioned before how effective traditional training is at eliminating behaviors. The way I understand traditional training as is applies to reactive dogs is that the dog is exposed to the trigger, begins to react, and is corrected for reacting. As a result, the reactive behavior disappears. However, traditional training doesn't address the underlying fear or excitement. As a result, we see a lot of traditionally trained dogs in the Reactive Rovers class who aren't reactive at all – but get them too close to their trigger, and they go from zero to kill in less than a second. Remember conditioned emotional responses? It's possible to create a negative emotional response just like it's possible to create a positive emotional response. And correcting the dog every time they come in contact with their trigger is a good way to make an aggressive issue worse – even if the reactivity gets better.

Of course, the most important part of aggression is the bite. Here's another threshold to consider: the bite threshold. How willing is a dog to use it's teeth to solve its problems? Another factor is bite inhibition. That is, when the dog does bite, how much damage does he or she inflict? Bite inhibition and threshold both tend to decrease the more practice a dog gets at biting. This is because the dog learns that a bite will make the scary thing go away. It's not going away? Bite harder, it worked last time. If you look at cases in which dogs have attacked and killed people, the common factor isn't breed or age. It's bite history. These dogs don't sudden start killing people out of nowhere; the majority have long histories of violence towards people. And occasionally, aren't some bites justified? Is the dog that bites the hand that beats it a mean, bad dog?

While we're at it, let's not forget that aggression towards people and aggression towards, say, dogs are very different things. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than with pit bulls. As a breed, pit bulls have been trained for centuries to fight and kill other dogs. But while they were fighting, the dog's owner as well as the other dog's handler - often a complete stranger - would also be in the ring. Any dog that bit a human was, ahem, removed from the gene pool. These dogs were bred for centuries to be in close quarters with humans while in a highly aroused state of mind; in short, they were bred to be highly tolerant of humans. Now, that's not to say that there aren't people aggressive pit bulls. Humans are awfully good at screwing up a good thing. But neither is every pit bull unable to tolerate the sight of another dog.

What's my point here? Well, mostly I'm just trying to muddy the waters. Dogs aren't all "nice" or "mean." There's a whole host of factors to take into account: reactivity, aggression, bite threshold, object of aggression - dogs are no more all good or all bad than the humans who own them. It's no good to look at a person or a dog from a single snapshot. And sometimes, please, just give a pittie a chance.

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