What’s in a name?

Yeah yeah. We hear it often enough right? Calling a rose by any other name and such. Does it really make a difference? Well, I don’t know anything about roses. So I cannot comment. But I know something about dogs. Picking words carefully when describing a dog’s behaviour is not just important, it is also a precursor to our approach towards that dog. So think twice, nay thrice before you label a dog. 

I often have people asking me if a dog is “ferocious” or “aggressive”. There are others who diagnose a dog to have “separation anxiety” or “resource guarding”. These terms need to be used with care. They need to be understood well. 
Wikipedia defines aggression in detail here.
Aggression, in its broadest sense, is behavior, or a disposition, that is forceful, hostile or attacking. It may occur either in retaliation or without provocation.
In narrower definitions that are used in social sciences and behavioral sciences, aggression is an intention to cause harm or an act intended to increase relative social dominance. 

Just look at this definition! How would you react if someone was trying to “increase relative social dominance” with you? Aggression most times is met with aggression. Aggression is most times disciplined and curtailed. It’s just plain unpleasant and harsh.

“Resource guarding” is another hot topic. I have heard all kinds of terms used to describe it. Food aggression, object aggression, space aggression, food bowl aggression….the list is really endless. The image such terms conjure up is this – the dog is inherently hostile, intends to hurt and the trigger for the hostility is an object of some kind – Object Aggression. So what’s the solution? Take away the trigger. Don’t give objects. Don’t give any personal space that the dog can call it’s own. No food bowl for you!(Sorry, I cannot stay away from quoting the soup nazi)

Now, may I venture some alternate terminology. Scratch a bit deeper. Not much. Just a tad deeper and another terminology glares you in your face. Aggression is replaced with “anxiety”. Would I discipline a dog suffering from anxiety? Would I try to socially dominate an anxious or stressed dog? If a dog expressed fear, would I teach the dog to behave?

Consider looking at resource guarding. For a second, just for a second, forget “object aggression” and look at it as “object insecurity”. Would taking away the object really solve anything? The dog is afraid. Afraid to it’s bones it’s going to lose everything there is to lose and we convert that into a self fulfilling prophesy by taking it away.

What happens if we continue down this path? Some dogs go to such an extreme that it becomes a full blown man-dog conflict. Some dogs completely internalize and go into a shell, never to come out again. We pat ourselves on our back for “problem solved”. I guess, that’s one solution and it works for some people. It just doesn’t for me.

I was working with a few dogs when a so called “aggressive” dog with severe “everything guarding” came in. I had just set up an enriched environment and we had a fun space with all kinds of fun objects for dogs. If the philosophy is that the dog has “object aggression”, can you imagine, what a landmine this enriched environment looked like. The tension in the people was palpable. I watched the dog trying to figure out what was going on in his head and how I was going to start working with him. I stayed up all night thinking of what was the right course of action.

I started work with him the next day. I started with food, the so called trigger. He was so wired up that he could not smell it. He just kept barking frantically. I visited him every day, week after week. Slowly, he started looking at the food. Then he started eating it. One fine day, I let him out to see how he reacts to me. He came up to me, did a little dance in front of me and pranced off looking at all the nice objects around and picking out the cookies.

December 31st came. It’s been a tough turbulent year. I went back to work with the dogs one last time for the year. I let this boy out and sat down, preoccupied with what I was going to help him work through next. He suddenly jumped up on me, planted a kiss on my forehead, picked up a cookiethat I was toying with and ran away. I took a cue from that and walked into his kennel. I had been warned that he has “space aggression”. I waited for him. He stood at a distance and looked at me. I looked back smiled and gave an encouraging nod to him. He quickly came in licked my ankle and ran back. My heart skipped a beat. Here was a dog. Every kind of label one could slap on him had been done so. I was in an enclosed space. A very dangerous thing for an anxious animal. Animals don’t like to paint themselves into corners. And yet he followed me into that space. While I was grinning about it, he did it again. And again. Oh I could have cried. And cry I did. Tears of joy. This little boy was learning how to trust.

Had he not trusted anyone else before? He had. He had been rescued and spent a day or so with the people who rescued him. He trusted them. So what’s the ho-hum about him coming into the kennel with me. Because dog therapy is about teaching generalization. The dog trusts one person. Then one more. Then one more. Then he reacquaints himself with the process of trusting. And when learns to start trusting again, he looks around him and sees more friends than foes. He sees more things that make him happy rather than anxious. An anxious dog becomes a happy dog.

If I had seen this dog’s labels – “Aggressive”, “Food Aggression”, “Object Aggression”, then I would have spent all my energy in taking away, taking away and more taking away. But the minute the labels were pealed back to reveal anxiety, stress and insecurity, there was just love. Everyone has their way of dealing with things. I prefer the loving way. So, a Rose by any other name does smell just as sweet. Why not use a name that invokes love and compassion rather than disciplining and punishment.


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