Where does violence start?
As a matter of principle, I want to work and act without violence towards the people around me and of course towards the animals that live with me or with whom I work. I often ask myself, if what I am doing is really non-violent. It is not only what I think is non-violent; it should also be non-violent for the recipient, in this case the dog.
The question is: where does violence start? Some studies show that it is a broad question where violence begins. Some people think violence starts only with physical attacks and only if someone gets hurt. Others already see violence if you make a sarcastic comment.
What makes the difference between one person seeing violence in an act and another not seeing it?
Some risk factors where people may develop the propensity for aggression or violence, and which will make a big difference in how violence is judged, are:
- Over-stimulation and under-stimulation
- abuse of drugs or alcohol can lower our inhibition to aggression
- exercising power.
These are factors which can appear at any time of life.
The following factors have their roots in childhood:
- how you were brought up and what you learned in your childhood
- little social competence, which can also lead back to your family history
I conclude that the tendency to violence probably has its roots in childhood. It’s a matter of how we have learned to take care of each other. However, not everyone who has had bad childhood experiences becomes violent. In contra, people can also become particularly sensitive to violent acts.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines violence as follows:
„the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.“
This definition is valid for humans and should also count for the treatment of animals.
Here, I shall not talk about physical violence. I think it is very clear where that starts. I shall be focussing on behaviour, training techniques, etc. which can considered as psychological violence.
Dogs are highly sensitive creatures. They can smell, hear, see and feel our emotions. What influence does this have on their wellbeing?
Science has shown that dogs can see and hear the signs of human emotions. Biagio D’Aniello of the University of Naples „Federico II“, Italy, and his colleagues were able to show that dogs can also detect human emotions by scent alone.
As this is proven, shouldn’t we start to think about the influence our behaviour, and its accompanying emotions, has on our dogs? Let me explain my thoughts.
- Having a bad day
Suppose I have had a really bad day at work. I come home and I go for a walk with my dogs. In my thoughts I am still at the office and maybe I am getting angry again. My dogs are excited and happy to be with me and get out for a walk. They need some attention, but I need some rest. Now I probably get angry because my dogs are trying to get my attention. I get even more irritated and start to ignore my dogs.
Is this violence?
We might think that ignoring our dogs is ok. In this case we feel the need for rest and think we have deserved it. We don’t do the dog any harm.
But now have a look from the dog’s perspective: the dog was waiting for you to come home. His expectations are very high. He is excited and his stress level might be high. He also can see and smell that you are not in a good mood. The dog will try to calm you and do his best to harmonize. Your answer to his efforts is: ignoring. This is, in any case, very impolite from the dog’s perspective. Depending on how sensitive the dog is, he might get confused and more stressed because he would not understand your behaviour.
What do you think now?
I tend to scale it as violence, because being ignored for no reason, is not appropriate and does do harm. As ignoring is part of the communication of dogs, it definitely gives the wrong message. They will feel rejected and punished. I experienced being ignored as part of my upbringing as a child, so I know what it feels like: it feels like a level of violence for me personally.
Let’s go one step further. My dog is trying to calm me with no success. He’s being ignored. Now he gets frustrated and even more stressed. My stress level raises as well and now I start to tell my dog to stop whatever he’s doing.
We may raise our voice or speak harshly, and these circumstances can frighten our dogs and put a lot of pressure on them. Does violence start here? To my mind, it does.
We can top this one: sometimes it happens that we get angry. We are stressed, our dogs are stressed and at the end our dogs get all the frustration we carry around. It is very human behaviour, but, in the end I think it is violence.
Giving a dog too much responsibility can put a lot of pressure on the dog. You might think that you are the one who has all the responsibility. But I’m thinking about everyday occurrences where your dog is left alone and has to deal with it himself. Like: meeting another dog.
Even if your dog is very well socialized and has no problem with other dogs, this can be a big challenge for him. Having you on his side and being there to help if it’s necessary makes a big difference to him and take some of the responsibility and pressure off him.
How do you do that? Let’s take the example „meeting another dog“: if you observe your dog and the other dog’s communication carefully, you will know if they are both able to take over the responsibility for a meeting. If you see that one of the dogs is insecure or getting tense you should intervene in gently and carefully. It might be enough to stand in between and calm the dogs down a bit, giving them a few seconds to think the situation through.
Another way to calm a situation is to create distance. A lot of dogs are very happy to walk away with you. This doesn’t mean that the dogs will not be able to meet at all, but it can help them to calm down and start polite communication again.
Very often it helps to put both of them on lead and go for a walk together. They can get to know each other from a distance without coming too close and it will help both dogs to be more relaxed.
This will definitely take out the pressure and relieve them of some of the responsibility.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am very sure that dogs know, much better than we do, how to make contact with each other. They communicate so quickly that we can’t observe in that second what’s going on. But, if we do observe that one of the dogs feels uncomfortable at the moment, we should realize that they already communicated a lot and we just are at the end of a communication sequence. So if we noticed that there is something going on which looks like there could be trouble, we should take over responsibility. In doing so, we build trust and consolidate the relationship. Our dog knows that he can rely on us. This, in turn, helps our dog to be more relaxed and to cope better in critical situations.
In this context, the question of violence is not an easy one to answer: could giving your dog too much responsibility be termed violent?
It depends on how much responsibility your dog has to bear. If you think about all the daily occurrences, and if the demands on your dog are too much by the end of the day, then the situation may be in fact be termed violent towards the dog as the pressure on him is too much. If this goes on for a long time, it will cause chronic stress and put the dog in a position where he can’t react in a polite manner anymore. It will get him into trouble with other dogs, or with other people, and even into conflict with the owner.
Stress and conflict can lead to a fight with another dog, or restriction and control by the owner in daily life. This is the point where stress levels rise and the pressure will need to vent. In my opinion, this can already be called emotional violence.
Restrictions, control & boundaries
Let me tell a little story. I have a dog who is about 10 years, female, a little terrier – type dog, who came from the streets of Hungary and is a bit scared by people, whether they are standing still or walking. She doesn’t mind if they are on a bike, horse or if they are sitting down. She has never had problems with other animals. Either she loves to hunt them, or she plays with them.
One day, I wanted to go for a walk with a friend/acquaintance and her dogs whom we knew well. My little dog gets on top of one of the other dogs and won’t let go. She had never done that before. I was shocked. How can my dog do that? We still do not know exactly why this happened.
But what did it do to me and what consequences did it have for the dog? I will tell you.
I became insecure and stopped trusting my dog. So, I had her on lead all the time. She is used to the lead, but she is also used to running off-lead. This sounds o.k., but the next time she saw a dog far away, I was under pressure and the lead was tight. So, my little dog was tense and started barking. As the lead got tighter, I was putting more and more pressure on my dog. She was barking like crazy and the lead was taut. I thought, ok my little dog can’t deal with other dogs anymore. I was frustrated and she knew how frustrated I was feeling. I put in more boundaries, more restriction, more pressure. It couldn’t get better of course, because, as you know, the problem is always the other end of the lead from the dog!
Then I realized what I was doing and stopped immediately. I let her run free and tried to relax. She was having fun and I had my happy dog back.
Next day I had a friend coming over with her dogs, and I had mine on lead in the beginning but, when I saw there would be no trouble, I let her off-lead to enjoy herself. I could see that there will be no troubles at all. I just let her run free having a good time.
Conclusion: restricting and controlling a dog too much is violent. I could see the effect on her and how much she struggled. I feel so sorry for her, and I am very thankful for this lesson.
As already outlined above, pressure is something that will affect every dog’s life. There are often a lot of demands on our dogs in daily life. We expect them to be friendly to other dogs and to people. We expect them to be obedient. We may tell them to stop doing something without teaching them what we mean. We demand that they understand what we are telling them. We should perhaps bear in mind that our communication very often leads to misunderstanding between us humans, whereas canine communication is very clear and to the point.
To push a dog through a situation in which he doesn’t feel confident is definitely violence.
Being a “difficult” dog
Whether they are easy-going or have challenges, every dog will meet violence at some stage. A difficult dog with problems might even face much more pressure, responsibility and control than an easy-going dog. On top of this come training techniques and training equipment. In our society, where everyone has to function, a dog with some behaviour issues is a really big problem for the owner.
For example: you have a dog that’s not socialized with other dogs. The reason might be that he never had a chance to learn how to get along with other dogs. Or the dog has had bad experiences and doesn’t want to be in contact with other dogs anymore. Whatever the reason is, for the owner and the dog it is a daily challenge they face.
In the beginning the owner might be calm and relaxed, but after training for a while, the relaxation will be replaced by impatience and later on possibly by anger. If the owner doesn’t succeed with the training techniques or equipment he will lose confidence. This will be followed by helplessness and insecurity. This is a counterproductive mixture.
The pressure both are facing is enormously high. In this case human and dog are both exposed to violence in different phases and it will affect them in a variety of ways.
Most of the training techniques we use will be termed non-violent, because we do not use anything which actually hurts the dog physically. But let’s have a closer look at some simple sequences of training and then decide how harmless or not they are.
Using dog communication
It is a very big step forward to recognise and accept the fact that dogs are communicating with each other and, of course, they also communicate with us humans. We have learned to interpret and understand their communication to some extent. Also we have learned to use their communication to answer appropriately. This is of enormous benefit to our dogs, as they are now better understand by us and can be “heard”. On the other hand, if we try to use canine communication without being a dog it can possibly cause misunderstandings. We can never know for sure what we are in fact telling the dog, or if we are responding appropriately. In my opinion, we should use canine communication carefully.
The most important aspects of canine communication are:
- When – the timing
- How – the intensity of the body language
- Where – in which context or environment
- What – the method of communication and the sequence
For example: I have often observed that an excited dog will be calmed down by another dog in the following way: the other dog will join in play with the excited dog and shortly afterwards will start to slow down, get calmer and start to sniff. The excited dog will copy this behaviour and also calm down. They then start to explore the environment together.
This is something that we will never be able to learn or offer our dogs. Instead we teach our dogs a command like “Stop” to end a behaviour we think is not appropriate. The question is: is it not appropriate only in our human world, or would another dog also stop this behaviour?
I can only say what I have observed. Sometimes dogs interrupt excited dogs and sometimes they don’t. I have never been able to figure out what their criteria is for one or the other. I am not talking about obvious behaviour but rather about little things which go on every day and which make me curious.
To give an example: I have a little dog who barks a lot. My other dogs ignore it 90% of the time. The other 10% they tell her to stop. What makes the difference? When will the dog interrupt the behaviour of an excited dog?
This is my point: if I communicate in dog’s language I might fail which could lead to misunderstandings and loss of trust. Is that violent?
Necessity of training at all
Do we need to train a dog at all? One justification for training a dog is that puppies are educated by their mothers and other members of the pack. Yes, they are, but this has nothing to do with the training we think that every dog should go through. Training a dog is only to make us happy and to be in accord with society’s needs and expectations.
On the other hand, all the training we have done has helped us to understand dogs better.
In our world, violence is nothing unusual. It is part of daily life. We are on the receiving end of psychological violence every day. Some people recognise it as such, others don’t. It is a very personal thing. The important message for me is that, at the end of the day, we should reflect on what we have done and what we have experienced, and above all be the difference we want to see.
I am a fan of Jesper Juul. He is a Danish family therapist and he has helped me a lot during difficult times bringing up my daughter. He wrote in one of his books that, if we do happen to scream at our children, we should apologize to them. We should talk the issue/problem/conflict through and be as honest as possible. It will help us to re-establish a relationship with our children built on trust. In my dogs’ case, I think things through and change my attitude. I change the training method and try to be the one whom they can trust and rely on, as well as I can at my current stage of development.