Much of aggressive behavior, including bites, is based in fear. And the goal of those behaviors is typically to increase the distance between the individual and whatever they perceive as a threat. Oftentimes, when I explain all of this to my clients, the next question I hear is:
“If they’re afraid, why do they approach someone and then bite them?”
That’s a valid question. If the goal is to increase distance, why would the animal then purposefully move closer? My answer? Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense Mentality
There are plenty of people who have this mentality. A large part of the Rom-Com genre is based on it: “I’m going to break things off before I get hurt.” Often when we experience other people with this mentality, we can recognize that it’s coming from a place of past, negative experiences and hurt. But sometimes it’s harder to see how an animal got to that place.
I’ve talked in previous posts that animals, including humans, have a few different ways to react when they’re stressed: fight, flight, freeze (we’re ignoring the other options). Most of our pets start off choosing flight or freeze when they’re very young. And if those behaviors work for them- i.e. they are able to reduce the threat- they typically continue choosing flight or freeze. Individuals do what works for them.
The problem comes in when flight and freeze stop working; when they’re either not possible to perform or they don’t work to reduce the threat. When that happens, pets often resort to fight-type behaviors (i.e. aggression), which usually works pretty darn well to get threats to go away. And what they’re learning is that the best defense against threats is a good offense. It’s the only thing that works.
Continuing the Cliched Sayings: The Road to Hell is Paved in Good Intentions
Sometimes this scenario happens because people don’t know what subtle stress signals to look for to know if their pet is uncomfortable or not in a particular situation. That often means that they’re not seeing flight and freeze behaviors for what they are and making sure their pet has an escape route or helping to remove a threat if an escape route isn’t possible.
For example, here’s a picture where a dog is displaying subtle stress signals, but I’m guessing the photographer doesn’t know what to look for when it comes to signs of discomfort. This is a scenario that could turn south very quickly, especially because one of the dog’s escape routes isn’t possible due to the wall (or furniture? It’s hard to tell what that is.)
I would say that perhaps just as frequently, though, teaching a “best defense is a good offense” mentality happens due to very well-intentioned people who are just trying to help their pet be more comfortable. They know that their pet is afraid but don’t necessarily know how to help their pet work through that. Common mistakes that I see here include:
- Holding a small dog or cat to be pet by a person who makes them uncomfortable
- Asking a pet to move closer to a person or animal who makes them uncomfortable using food or treats
- Asking a dog who is uncomfortable with other dogs on a walk to sit and watch other dogs pass by closely without other forms of behavior modification
- Continuing to try to harness a dog who is moving away from the harness
- Continuing to pursue a pet who has stolen something and is running away with it whenever you approach (this can sometimes be a play behavior, and it can sometimes not be a play behavior)
See how easy it is to accidentally teach an animal that flight or freeze aren’t effective? The road to hell really is paved with good intentions. I’ve seen so many well-intentioned, loving, lovely people who have accidentally taught their pet that the best defense is a good offense because they were trying to help their pet. And, if this is you, I’ll tell you what I tell my clients: hindsight is 20/20. It’s really easy to beat ourselves up for making mistakes, but you didn’t know and you can’t beat yourself up for not knowing. Now that you know better, you can do better. All isn’t lost.
What should I do if this is my pet?
If you have a pet who thinks that the best defense is a good offense, the first thing I always recommend is working with a behavior professional. As illustrated above, very common internet recommendations can make things a whole lot worse. A professional knows how to navigate these situations to keep everyone safe and to make sure that we’re truly helping the pet work through their fear.
But, in the meantime, while you’re waiting to work with a professional, I have two recommendations:
- If your pet is asking to move away (i.e. flight), you let them move away
Management is definitely not a new topic to this blog. It means setting up the environment and/or situations to prevent the unwanted behavior from being able to happen. If your pet tries to bite people who come in the front door, put your pet in a bedroom or crate with the door safely secured before the doorbell rings. If your dog is sometimes uncomfortable with other dogs on leash, don’t introduce them to everyone on a walk. Management prevents our pets from practicing these fight-type behaviors and continuing to learn that they do in fact work.
I mentioned at the very beginning of this post that the goal of aggressive behavior is often to increase the distance between the individual and the perceived threat. That’s also the goal behind flight; it just looks very different.
If fight-type behaviors often happen as a result of learning that flight isn’t possible or doesn’t work, what if we taught them that it does work? That we will let them move away if they’re uncomfortable? That we will actively give them the ability to make a different choice? When done properly, most pets start to make that choice when they’re stressed instead. Stay tuned next week for why I think everyone should teach flight training to their pets.
But shouldn’t I teach my pet that fight behaviors don’t work?
I get this question every now and then. And I get it. We don’t like those particular behaviors, so why should we keep telling our pets that those behaviors work? Here’s the problem with teaching that fight behaviors don’t work: there’s a really big chance of this backfiring. So much so that there’s actually a term for it: behavioral fallout.
When we try to “stand our ground” when a dog growls, they often end up biting. When we “stand our ground” when they bite, they often end up biting harder. One of you is eventually going to back down, and it’s not going to be pretty for anyone involved.
It is possible to suppress these behaviors through pain, fear, force, or intimidation, but trust me when I say that that doesn’t usually work in the long run. A lot of our clients come to us after having suppressed these behaviors for years (again, with the absolute best of intentions and often at the request of professionals using outdated training models) all for it to turn into a giant outburst, usually more severe than the previous behavior.
We have more long-term success with a much lower chance of behavioral fallout if we teach our pets that, yes, those behaviors do work. Threats will go away if you ask them to. And also, you don’t need to ask them to because you can go away yourself or your human will intervene or they’re not that scary after all.
I know this can be a hard concept to wrap your head around, so I have a whole separate blog post about why I like growling. Check it out here.
- This one should come as no surprise to long-time readers: learn your pet’s body language and subtle stress signals regardless of whether they are a “best defense is a good offense” kiddo or not. Check out this blog post for some of our favorite dog and cat body language resources.
- If this article is hitting close to home with your pet, make sure that your management strategy is up to snuff. Identify things that make your pet uncomfortable and come up with a game plan for how to avoid those stressors. Make sure to communicate your pet’s management strategy with everyone who is involved in their day-to-day care.
- Listen to what your pet is asking for and respond accordingly. Is your pet leaning away when someone tries to pet them? They’re asking to not be petted in that moment. Is your dog reacting at another dog on leash? Even though it doesn’t look like it, they’re still asking for space. If you don’t know for sure what your pet is asking, make sure you rope in a professional to help. Behaviors are not always as they seem at first glance!
- And, if there’s a safety concern, I always recommend working with a behavior professional. Our team has clients all over the world and is ready to help you! Email us at [email protected] to get started.