Today I spoke to vet students studying veterinary welfare, ethics and animal behaviour. It was their first lecture dealing with Animal Behaviour and I wanted to speak about language. I can imagine they might think it is unimportant. But it is the crux of the matter. You will hear it in vet clinics all the time – eroding the bond of compassion and caring that vets have with patients who, through the poor choice of language, become the enemy.
When we describe dogs as wimps, sooks, babies or as nasty, mean, vicious we use loaded terminology. We use descriptors that are full of emotional baggage. When we describe a dog’s attempt at keeping himself safe as an act of jealousy, spitefulness or protectiveness we do him no end of disservice and do not help his owner understand their dog’s choices.
Dogs who display aggressive behaviours do so because they have found a tool that works for them. It is one that people notice (finally) and gets them the outcome they are after – the scary thing stays away.
It is one of the most difficult concepts for clients to understand – that the aggressive dog is most often a very frightened dog, that through practice and rehearsal, and no one listening to his lesser signals (or having had them punished for previous displays), has learnt that going on the offensive early is his safest bet. These dogs are no less frightened than the whimpering, hiding dog that displays his belly, but they have just hit on a more successful strategy. And you can bet they will use it again.
The last thing this dog needs is to have his fears confirmed and continue to not be listened to – then he may resort to his final choice – biting. When we call these dogs protective, jealous, angry or mean we are missing the very point. The dog is communicating fear in the loudest and best way he can, when all the previous and polite signals have been ignored.
I tell the students to ask clients to describe behaviour. Don’t ask for interpretations and steer clients away from that too. What does the dog do? What did you do? What happened first? What does it look like? What would you like the dog to do? Let’s teach that…
Let’s give the dog cues NOT commands. Let’s make the dog feel safe, so he doesn’t have to protect himself by using aggressive responses. Give him choice, a way to escape safely. Let’s not put him in situations he cannot handle and he has previously shown us he does not cope with.
Let’s use the least intrusive and minimally aversive techniques to implement the change.
A prison officer working with youth offenders once told me that the kids in the centre weren’t bad, but sad, and I remember what a difference that change in label meant. Working with sad children engenders empathy and caring. Helping people out of a sad place is worthwhile, whereas dealing with bad suggests that changes aren’t even possible. One bad apple...It even suggests a contagion that is best isolated and thrown away. Use language that helps owners feel compassion and caring towards their pet instead of puts them in a position against their pet, pits them against one another, and tells them their pet is out to garner control over them.
Dogs, like all animals, including us, do what works for them. It is as simple and as difficult as that.