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Reactivity, Aggression, & Fear, or, "ZOMG ther R stupid ppl online!"

I admit it was entirely my fault; I did laugh aloud.

I took a break from what I was doing yesterday afternoon and glanced at Twitter* activity.  One of the accounts I follow is a gentleman with some right-wing political leanings.  And when I say he leans to the right, I mean where most people's blood vessels are mapped in red and blue, his are all arteries.  He's really a nice guy who does a lot of travel writing, but he does like to engage in political debate online.

Hold on, this does eventually relate to training!  Stay with me a moment.

Yesterday this person was retweeting insults sent from liberals with whom he was debating.  I had just arrived to browse and obviously wasn't following the full debate, but the comments he was reposting were sadly amusing: a blender of "lame," "stupid," "shame," etc., and mostly mentioning his age.  "Is that your great great great great great grandfather in your avatar?" kind of thing.  So I replied that while I was solidly politically moderate, I was amused by the "we disagree because you're old!" approach.

That was my mistake.  Seconds later, I received an angry message from one of the liberal posters.  "Re-read... Stay on the side."  And immediately after, "...How did you reach such a simple-minded conclusion?"

Now, I don't follow this other (liberal) poster.  I mentioned no names.  He doesn't know me.  He must be tracking every reply to the (conservative) poster -- something simple, aboveboard, and relatively anal.  I was surprised, but answered, "Wasn't taking sides 'til someone told me to stay on the side. ;-) ... If you don't intend age comments, don't use words like 'stone age' and 'great grandfather'."

I thought this was relatively straightforward.  But no, no it wasn't.  "Oh, we meant age comments, FOR SURE. His age is not why we disagree though."

So you disagree for unknown reasons; I'm fine with that.  But you're making age insults then out of pure malice?  Isn't that even worse than "we disagree 'cuz you're old"?

I was highly amused by all this reactivity (featuring more name-calling of me) and wavered dangerously close to becoming an internet troll for a few minutes.  It would have been easy to provoke more explosions for my personal amusement and possibly the amusement of others (all these messages are public online).  But I had work to do, and I resisted the temptation.

Within a few minutes, though, I had a number of new followers on Twitter.  Either this enraged liberal is trying to watch me under other names, or others were also amused or swayed by this reactivity.  

Now, if you've even made it this far, you're wondering what this possibly has to do with training.  Well, a couple of things, actually.

Reactivity in training -- First, reactivity is bad.  But we're often the cause of it.  When we are working with a reactive or aggressive dog, we often absolve ourselves of blame.  Labels are the simplest and most subtle way of doing this -- "it's an aggressive dog" indicates that it's the dog's problem, not ours, just as "he's old" or "he's liberal" is an easy way of avoiding the real discussion.  That's not to say that the dog's behavior doesn't need changing!  I'm not advocating that we simply take away the word "aggressive" and leave the dogs as they are.  But recognize that the dog does not exist in a vacuum.

Even though the original insult was posted publicly, I prompted the aggression toward me by reacting to it, even indirectly.  The poster was clearly loaded already, ready to explode; I was the trigger.

Much of the dog aggression I see as a trainer is caused by humans, either though inattention and neglect (failing to notice stress signs and other precursors or the dog's attempt to avoid a situation) or directly (setting the dog up for a situation it's not yet capable of handling, or even direct aggression toward the dog [often in the guise of "correction"]).  Most clients are amazed when I point out the dozen or so signs predicting an aggressive response, giving them plenty of time to prevent it if they just notice -- and I've lost count of how many calls I get pleading for help because the dog growls or bites "when we go to correct him."

Long ago I coined a phrase while working with a couple of troubled dogs, when I'd often get unwanted advice from others.  "Violence indicates the dumb end of the leash."  I no longer think that's exactly true; violence indicates the confused and afraid end of the leash.  

If a dog reacts violently to a human, it's because it does not know what else to do.  If a human reacts violently to a dog, it's because he doesn't not know how to handle the situation otherwise.

If I stay calm, cool, and collected, and I focus on what I want to train rather than simply escalating our reactions, I have a much better chance of success.  I'm slowly learning to simply walk away when emotion starts interfering with training.

The problem is, sometimes we can be too emotional to see that we're emotional.

Reactivity in discussion -- Here again, I still firmly believe that aggression indicates where confusion and fear lie.  If someone gets upset and starts name-calling, that's a pretty good indicator that he's already exhausted all the logical arguments available to him.  Even if that may not be true -- for all I know, the liberal poster might have had some good points that I might have agreed with -- it certainly gives that impression.  And more importantly, I will never know now if he had any good points.  If I should see his user name, I'll recall petty insults and won't take much of anything he says seriously.  He's no longer a potential source of information, just an embodied tantrum.

Someone asked me once, "How do you handle being at a trial where there are people punishing all around you and you know they could do better?"  I answered, "Shut up and show off."  I can't change people's minds against their will, and people who are stressed enough to be going off on their dogs are also not presently receptive to other information.  I wait until someone is looking for another option, and then I'm happy to share what I have.

Sometimes I can't really show off.  It's a clicker dog, not a robot.  We have bad days, too, and I admittedly shirk training for some venues where I know I can slide by.  This blog, too, is hardly good propaganda; I post a lot more about struggles than successes, probably because I spend more time thinking about the struggles.  (Even as a clicker trainer, I'm still sometimes drawn to focusing on the negative!)  But most of the time (not always) I try to handle failure with grace and concentrate on what is important -- yes, my dog botched an exercise, but I didn't create any additional problems with a bad reaction and I know how to fix it for next time.  We'll get there.

Even if we make a mistake, I'm starting to understand, it doesn't change who we are and what we have.  I don't fear that I might be wholly wrong in what I'm doing, so I don't need to be reactive.

This is NOT the same thing as not being open to learning more!  In my video discussion last week, I talked about a tool which I used to espouse and no longer do.  I will continue to learn and modify and grow until I die!  But I'm not afraid, and that means I don't have to be aggressive.

Sometimes I see requests or comments from others who are engaged in debate with traditional trainers.  I  love debate.  I adore matching wits and deductive skills.  But it's pure logic for me; once it gets too emotional, I'm done, because I know neither side is capable of learning from the other.  I can discuss rationally for a long time, but name-calling and other aggression is a sign of irrationality. 

If I argue with a traditional trainer who is displaying reactivity and aggression, I am merely creating emotional baggage for that person to work through later before he can really look at anything I've said.  A bad reaction in training can set back a training program hugely; the same is true in shaping a trainer to a new view.

A better way is to respectfully disagree and leave a good impression on any bystanders or spectators.  If I'm on the fence, which person am I more likely to follow and ask for help -- the one breathing fire and calling names, or the one who smiles and looks comfortable (but not haughty)?  (This is not a trick question -- I'm still solidly politically moderate, and the experience even reinforced my belief that most liberals are more emotional than thoughtful.)

Aggression comes from fear.  Remember that.  A couple of months ago I was attacked online for my religious views by someone who wrote furiously (and badly) that he had read more science and had more knowledge than ever I would in my entire life.  (To my amusement, his message arrived while I was writing my conference workshop on the neuroscience of behavior modification for patients with a particular brain disorder.)  I didn't feel very threatened -- but a bit of research showed he was a teen beside a philosophical crisis point, most likely confused and worried.  I wasn't confused or worried; no need to be angry.

Enough pontificating; I'm going to get off my soap box now.  Just remember that aggression indicates fear; what are you afraid of?

* A crash course on Twitter , if you're not familiar with it -- it is an exchange of very short messages to convey your status, a helpful tip, an advertising message, a joke, a link to web content, etc.  You elect whose messages you'll see (friends, companies offering coupons, etc.) and ignore all the rest.