Does aggression end aggression?
Are aggressive human actions an effective way to modify behavior?
In 2012 dog trainer Cesar Millan worked with a dog, Holly, who had food aggression, a behavior also called resource guarding. In the session Cesar confronts Holly over a bowl of dog food. When she warns him away with a growl and snap, he hits her (or touches her on the neck depending on how you want to describe it) likely scaring, distracting, and showing her that he is also aggressive and capable of hurting her.
Next, he continues to push her away from the food with an intense stare and body posed to attack at any moment. Her body language in response could be described as “insecure” and “aggressive” depending on a person’s perspective at different times. After Holly relaxes for a moment and Cesar begins talking to the owner standing nearby, Cesar either absentmindedly or misreading the dog tries to put his hand on her nose and she snaps at him again. He withdraws his hand and then she lunges for it and gives him a serious bite, perhaps proving to herself in that moment that she is the more quick and agile one who should win the battle to get the food and be left alone. Guarding resources is a natural dog behavior but of course it is also unacceptable behavior according to humans who don’t want to be bitten.
You can see the video here:
Because aggression is part of animal behavior, does that mean it’s useful conduct in humans as well?
This video and others like it have created a division of public opinion with people either agreeing with Cesar and emulating his ways of matching aggression with aggression or disagreeing and finding non-violent ways to modify behaviors. A similar division is found among people working with horses. Behaviors such as biting, kicking, bucking, bolting and rearing are natural for horses yet can be dangerous to humans. Understandably, we don’t want horses that do these things around us. Do we solve these problems by proving to the horse that we can inflict intense pain quickly if she does something we dislike, or do we essentially ignore or separate ourselves from the undesirable behavior and reward behaviors we do like? This second method is known as positive training, as demonstrated in “clicker training” and lure reward methods.
Are our methods correction based or reward based?
In the human world, it’s a correction based belief that if we spank kids, have guns, nuclear weapons and the right to harm those who are engaging in aggressive behavior we will live in a safer world than if we lay down our weapons and wage peace, engaging in ways of helping each other get along.
An excellent article describing non-violent methods of dealing with resource guarding by Grisha Stewart of Ahimsa Dog Training says, “…the first thing we must do is not to see the issue as one of our dog engaging in ‘point scoring’ with ulterior motives of longer term control of his human pack, but rather as one of safety for ourselves. If we become drawn into physical combat with our dogs over possessions, as we will see later, we are more likely to cause ourselves a great deal of problems with our dogs in our day-to-day lives together than we are to teach them not to guard their toys or bones.“
There’s something profound in that, especially when I look at it as it might apply to humans, “…the first thing we must do is not to see the issue as one of a person engaging in ‘point scoring’ with ulterior motives of longer term control of other people, but rather as one of safety for ourselves. If we become drawn into physical combat with others over possessions, territory or ideology, we are more likely to cause ourselves a great deal of problems with people in our day-to-day lives together than we are if we teach and inspire reasons not to need to guard resources or opinions.”
Wow. Could this be the path to world peace?
If we look at the tools of correction based training (e.g. collars, leashes, bridles, guns, bombs and whips) they are more or less designed to cause pain, yet people using these devices almost invariably believe they are either minimally painful (a touch rather than a hit) or necessary pain needed to ensure the animal (or human) remains useful and sociable to other humans.
In an NBC interview in 2013 Cesar is asked, “Have you ever felt badly about doing something to a dog?” He replied, “No, no, no, I’m not doing it to hurt him, it’s not my intention, it’s not the whole essence of what I do.”
Our history as well as many current training practices seem to prove aggressive human behavior does work to create less aggressive animals and perhaps it is responsible for the level of peace that we have achieved. According to a video published in 2014, Cesar adopted Holly and has developed a relationship with her that looks kind and friendly. After all, horses typically seem to prance contentedly between bridle and spur, right? Isn’t that just the world we live in, the way things work?
Video of Cesar and Holly 2 years after the bite:
The majority of people, and certainly the ones in most leadership positions, seem to believe that correction based control is an acceptable option and sometimes the best way to maintain safe households, safe communities and a peaceful world. We all do it. Domestic violence is the most prevalent type of violence in the world. Many people believe in our right to hurt others. We bear arms and support military and police forces to keep us safe. Maybe it’s because we haven’t yet found a better alternative. Are there positive ways to modify human and animal behavior that might work better than correction based methods or will violence always necessarily be on the path to peace?
Doesn’t it seem like a good thing to try to find as many non-violent solutions as possible?
When a person studies and begins to understand she can end up with a safe and trained animal using positive techniques it’s easy to get drawn into believing that correction based training is harmful and that those who practice it are “mean” or abusive. Calling Cesar abusive is abusive and a form of correction based training. Compassion includes the understanding that he is using the techniques he believes to be the most gentle and humane to ensure safe and healthy lives for both humans and dogs.
It’s time to get past name-calling and realize the winner in the future will be the one who gathers with everyone on the same team and keeps us safe from human aggression in any form. We all want the best for the animals; we all want the best for our entire human family.
I’m doing my best to stop calling people names, blaming others and believing that any level of violence will lead to lasting peace. I know it’s important for me to spend time doing the things that really matter, ensuring my family lives in a peaceful environment. I want to live in a non-aggressive world so I am choosing to creatively find non-aggressive ways to get along with other residents of this planet.
Luckily, we don’t have to lobby to cancel Cesar’s show, change gun laws or overthrow the government if we believe positive actions are more effective than corrections. We have infinite opportunities available to instigate positive solutions to disputes in our own lives. As long as we haven’t found peaceful solutions, people will continue to use aggression.
It starts at home, with my own ability to see what I am doing and modify my own behavior to meet aggressive acts with compassion and empathy and to inspire in myself and others behavior that connects us and makes us feel safe and comfortable with each other. Beyond that, it’s important to support and empower others who are committed to peaceful solutions.
I’m ready for a future where it is considered mental illness to believe that hurting or scaring another will solve a problem and make our world better. In the new world, people with this illness will not be leaders; they will not be allowed to be with others they could harm. Instead, they will be surrounded with people serving them with compassion and understanding.
Stormy May is the producer of the documentary “The Path of the Horse” and author of the book of the same name.