How a Human Justice System Disenfranchises Our “Best Friends”
The charge of “fear aggression” is common when naming an incident in which an animal was deemed “fearful” or afraid, and also took action to avoid, escape, or stop the source of that fear. While “fear aggression” might seem a clear enough description, it is anything but. On the contrary, clarity is clouded by the term in most cases.
One reason: “fear” and “aggression” are labels in the behavior world. Labels are hypothetical constructs, which essentially means that they don’t provide any objective data and therefore are not meaningful — not helpful to understanding or to resolution. To describe and address behavior objectively, one must operationalize, not hypothesize.
Example of how labels can be little more than individual human assumptions, not facts. Feral dog who was extremely fearful/human-avoidant had been accused of being a “fear biter” upon being trapped by a private rescuer, though he’d never bitten anyone. Because the trapper could not approach the dog due to growling, he was surrendered to us for b mod. He looked scary at times back then, as shown in this photo. But he was not actually a threat.
How does one know if a dog is fearful? Because he barks at shadows? Why does a dog bark at shadows? Because he is fearful? It is this sort of circular logic that feeds the beast of labels. Operationalizing behavior is done by describing behavior and the conditions in which it occurred in objective, concrete language. An operational description of what one considers “fear aggression” should describe directly observable behavioral responses to stimuli rather than hypothesize and name a cause that is not directly observable. But that’s still confusing, right? Because I need to operationalize it.
We can test for operationalizable descriptions by trying to draw our descriptions. Can I draw a shadow? Yes, most convincingly if I include what cast the shadow—say, a human wearing a hat—and the conditions in which they appeared—say, the side of a building at night, where a streetlight shines nearby.
The same (formerly) feral dog, cuddling with me, six weeks after being surrendered to us and interventions begun. He had never growled at me though he did growl at my husband early on a few times. Over time, he stopped growling all together, not because we told him to or trained him to stop, but because we helped him feel safe.
I cannot, however, draw “fear” itself, whether of humans, hats, or anything else. What would go on the paper? Someone hiding, trembling, or running away? These are descriptions of organisms behaving, not of emotions. No matter how much we try, we cannot depict the feeling of “fear” directly.
Similar can be said regarding the term “aggression,” and the term doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone. Any behavior consultant working with private dog owners knows this. When a client says “my dog is aggressive” we recognize this as a label, not a description. For one client, “aggressive” means “bites,” for another it means “lunges,” for another it means snarls or growls or barks or chases, or some combination, et cetera.
“Aggressive” dogs in a pet culture are commonly frowned upon, often viewed as canine criminals. Therefore it is important that we are careful about charging a dog with any type of “aggression,” but especially “fear aggression.”
The same dog about six weeks after arrival, cooperating with me for close-up videography.
Ethologist Roger Abrantes points out the futility of viewing self-defense responses to a perceived threat as “aggression”:
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.
While we might use variations on his terms or split a hair somewhere, ultimately the point remains: What we have habitually viewed as aggressive behavior from a scared animal is not the result of fear; it is the result of giving that animal no choice but to self-defend.
The cause of “aggressive” displays from a threatened animal is not the animal’s fear, but the continued advances of the threatener. Fear does not cause aggression. Furthermore and importantly, such displays are actually self- defense. Self-defense is not aggression.
Applying Abrantes’ definition of aggression, I refine it further in order to differentiate it more clearly.
Aggression: Behavior directed toward eliminating competition from an opponent by injuring or killing the opponent.
Whereas Abrantes includes behaviors commonly categorized as “ritualized aggression,” I do not, because to do so sends us back into the vortex from which we just escaped, spiraling in our confusing of self-defense with aggression. The key to defining aggression is not found in desperate behavior born of trying to defend against an imminent threat to life or limb, but rather is in the seeking to eliminate presumed competition by delivering physical harm or death. In the latter, no imminent threat is necessary. Only the existence of competitors.
Thinking of this in human terms can help us see the difference. A fight to take a prize, such as some huge amount of wealth, may be chosen, even sought out, in order to enrich oneself. The fight is sought, planned, or implemented in order to gain more—to gain it by beating a competitor. Being without the most wealth possible is not a threat to life and limb, however. One can live well without being wealthy.
When deciding the fate of the accused, we instinctively understand that it’s crucial to consider context. We don’t generally sentence Person A to death for an unplanned killing of Person B who had been trying to kill person A. (Indeed, we don’t typically sentence Person A to death even if Person B was not likely to have harmed Person A!) We consider that self-defense, not aggression. At some level, most people likely know that they could do the same to self-defend if no escape or avoidance were possible.
Behavior that was necessary to save life or limb from immediate and inescapable threat, then, is not aggression, even if the behavior’s result is physical harm.
Physically harmful behavior that isn’t to save oneself from immediate threat, when combined with a directed goal of eliminating another organism viewed as competition, is aggression. Most of us do not go out looking to harm or kill our competition for being competition. We would consider that abnormal.
In a pet culture like ours, our dogs are essentially our captives, and we sometimes do not realize that some of our own behavior might make us appear as threat or aggressor to them. Since they are our captives, if we appear as an aggressor to them, they may even begin to feel as if they are living in a constant state of danger.
A dog found guilty of “fear aggression” often faces a death sentence. The irony of course is that a dog who harmed or killed, as a result of not being allowed or environmentally able to escape/avoid a threat to himself, did so in attempt to avoid his own harm or death. While there will always be exceptions, for most animals in most contexts, it is normal, adaptive behavior to self-defend against an inescapable threat. Granted, there are instances in which this response seems to us inappropriate, unpredictable, or otherwise atypical; sharing no common language with fluency, it may in fact be impossible for us to completely understand our dogs’ predicaments just as it may be impossible for them to completely understand ours.
Punishment or Rehabilitation
In the vast majority of “fear aggression” cases, rehabilitation with a skilled, anti-aversives behavior consultant in a supportive environment is the appropriate intervention. Just as we understand that painful, distressing, or frightening punishments and other aversives are harmful, not helpful, we can understand that the ultimate punishment is not the solution. While it removes an individual that we have deemed a threat to us or our comfort, it will not keep the cycle from repeating. To do that, we need to take responsibility for our part in the cycle and implement human behavior interventions as well. We can start by replacing misleading or imprecise labels like “fear aggression” and by ensuring that human behavior doesn’t threaten or appear threatening to our dogs.