By Gaby Dufresne-Cyr, CBT/FLE
With all the media hysteria (you can thank journalists and columnists for that) surrounding pit bulls, I thought I’d explain the difference between agonistic and aggressive behaviour for you. My goal is to demonstrate there are no breed differences in aggressive behaviours from one dog breed to another.
First, let’s review a few terms. The term agonistic is defined as such of or relating to, or being aggressive or defensive social interaction (as fighting, fleeing, or submitting) between individuals usually of the same species. Will come back to what the same species means.
Merriam-Webster defines aggressive as ready and willing to fight, argue, etc.: feeling or showing aggression: using forceful methods to succeed or to do something: tending toward or exhibiting aggression, i.e aggressive behaviour: marked by combative readiness i.e. an aggressive fighter.
Can you see the subtle differences between the two definitions? If not, let me explain. Agonistic dog behaviours relate to all behaviours which involve conflict; more specifically, how to avoid conflicts or resolve them if inevitable. Aggressive behaviours are actual actions intended to solve conflicts. Agonistic behaviours can be motivated by anger or fear; however, anger is the emotion that drives aggression.
Although agonistic behaviours are conflict-oriented in nature, they aren’t necessarily driven by anger. Both dogs in the image (to the right) displayed agonistic behaviours called posturing and agonistic pucker, but they never acted on the emotion. The dogs never became aggressive; their intent was to settle the conflict before it escalated.
Dogs display aggressive behaviours all the time. Why it comes as a surprise to pet caregivers baffles me. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with agonistic or aggressive dog behaviour. As mentioned above, agonistic behaviours settle conflicts. Dog aggression increases when people interfere with communication.
Humans create aggressive dogs in a multitude of ways: poor socialization from zero to sixteen weeks of age, communication interference, punishment-based training practices, neglect, abuse, and/or purposefully training aggressive responses. Aggression becomes a behaviour problem when dogs can’t successfully function in their environment. Not surprisingly, learned aggression is the most common form of aggressive behaviour.
Normal Dog Aggression
Anger levels vary from dog to dog, that being said, when conflicts arise disagreements are addressed with healthy aggressive displays. Conflicts bring injuries; consequently, canines have developed a sophisticated language to avoid and/or settle arguments. I always say dogs don’t settle conflicts with flowers; I believe people should remember that saying.
This means your dog fundamentally doesn’t want to fight. Your miniature Poodle, Cocker Spaniel, American Staffordshire Terrier, Boxer, German Pointer, Collie, Doberman, Anatolian Shepherd, Saint-Bernard, Great Dane, and Irish Wolfhound ALL speak the same language: canine. If you let dogs communicate amongst themselves with their own language, you’ll end up with a well-adjusted animal. Guess what, your pitbull isn't more aggressive than any other dog.
I’ll be honest, normal dog aggression levels do involve superficial cuts and bruises; however, dogs rarely let aggression escalate beyond minor bites. When dogs settle a conflict it’s loud, scary, and fast action. Think of two guys in a bar who, after a few drinks, get into an argument over the winning goal. The fight is loud, a few punches are thrown, yet the argument is short-lived. The winner offers a beer to the loser. As with dogs, after a fight, our canine companions need resolution, and dogs have an entire section in their dictionary devoted to makeup behaviours.
Same Species Aggression
Only canines speak canine. Yes, some humans are pretty good at speaking dogs, but when it comes to the actual aggressive responses, people will always lose. Canines are simply too fast and strong for humans. That being said, well socialized and trained dogs don’t exhibit aggression towards people. Poorly socialized and trained dogs will in fact attack humans. All things considered, unless a dog has a neurological disorder, you're safe as can be.
So, to directly answer the question Are pit bulls more aggressive than other breeds, the answer is NO! I know I'm repeating myself, but some things need to be said, over, and over, and over again. Dogs speak dog, and unless your Terrier has an underlying neurological issue, his behaviour isn't different than from any other Terrier. Again, I know I'm repeating myself; I'm doing this purposefully so the information becomes ingrained in your mind.
Dogs all speak the same language. Communication between canines is achieved when two members exchange species-specific behaviours. Canine agonistic and aggressive behaviours aren’t intended for people, they’re intended for other canines. I hope you leave with a clear understanding of what dog agonistic and aggressive behaviours are.
If people stop meddling in dog-dog-related conflicts, aggression would reduce significantly, not to say entirely. It’s OK to let dogs growl and display agonistic behaviours because the likelihood a conflict will escalate into a full-blown attack is improbable. Dogs all want the same thing; they want to live and see another day, and while they're at it, be left alone.
I'll end with my age-old question, why do you have a dog?