Aggression and the Nature of Fear
Since in my view all expressions of anti-social aggression are manifestations of fear, it would prove fruitful to take a closer look at the nature of fear.
Fear is the collapse of a state of attraction. And because a dog doesn’t discriminate between physical and emotional equilibrium, all forms of fear (territoriality, phobias, possessiveness, owner addiction, separation anxiety, dominance, submission) invoke the fear of falling.
Currently however fear is considered a primal emotion, as something elemental and which stands on its own, along with other primal emotions such as anger, jealousy, joy, love, disgust, contempt, surprise. Each of these emotional states are seen as distinct given that they are affiliated with hardwired physical expressions and a self-contained neurology. But this fragmented view of emotion is akin to pre-Newtonian discussion on the nature of light when blue, red, green, yellow, and white were considered to be separate entities, some even posited that the eye itself generated these colors. Newton probed the back of his eye with a fine pointed instrument to see if this was true. It wasn’t. Rather Newton discovered that color was an intrinsic property of light, the correct interpretation of the rainbow effect of a prism. I believe this will prove to be the case with emotion, with the so called prime emotions being intrinsic properties of the one primordial emotion, i.e. a “force” of attraction.
I discovered in my work with dogs that there is but one emotion and it acts as a monolithic virtual force of attraction. When emotion flows full bore through an individual, that’s the experience of joy and the object of attraction becomes an object of love. But when emotion meets with resistance, it refracts into a variety of subsets, the so called prime states listed above. For example when walking through a tangled thicket with branches and stalks ensnaring one’s feet, it’s easy to get angry. The resistance to physical movement, is modulated through the same system that registers emotional resistance, and it refracts into anger. So just as the efficiency of physical movement also serves as the metric for emotional movement as well, thus the fear of falling is the basis for all experiences of fear. (Even birds have an innate fear of falling.)
Fear is not a monolithic thing, a prime element, it’s composed of other factors. First there must be a state of attraction, an object of attraction, and a sense of flow. If this state of attraction collapses and flow is interrupted, the sensations of falling generate the experience of fear as the individual loses contact with the object of attraction. The individual becomes “charged” to reconnect with said object.
The amount of flow that is interrupted determines how intense the sensations of emotional collapse and the degree of fear experienced. Aggression is an adaptive response to prevent this collapse which is why it becomes proactive in a dog’s response to things. In the wild this would prove appropriate, wherein our domestic world it is always an inappropriate overreaction to a non-existent threat. The specific objects of aggression or the contexts affiliated with the collapse, can vary between individuals and between situations, and this can be due to the particulars of personal experience and temperamental dispositions, but nevertheless all experiences of fear share a common architecture.
Why is this an important distinction? Because if fear is a composite of flow, objects of attraction and sensations of collapse, then this complex experience can be deconstructed and each component worked on individually. As a composite it is impossible for the dog to process in any other way than has been his instinctive and historical pattern. But in regard to flow, objects of attraction and intense sensations, each of these can be worked on in unrelated areas and in a way that a dog can process no matter its life history.
Secondly, understanding fear as a complex construct, these distinctions reveal a counterbalancing dynamic, like a self-righting gyroscope which mitigate the sensations of falling and which we interestingly and intuitively call “grounding.” And a feeling of grounding can be strengthened because it too is made of several components. The upshot being that the emotional, or carrying, capacity of the individual can be dramatically increased making them resistant if not impervious to collapses. In other words, a state of attraction can be as fragile as a soap bubble that immediately pops the instant it’s poked, but were we to understand the nature of fear and work with the dynamic that facilitates emotional flow and strengthens the feeling of grounding, it can be strengthened to the toughness of a PVC pipe that can bear the weight of a loaded dump truck. And in fact, when the carrying capacity is raised enough because the feeling of grounding is so strong, the so called negative triggering object or context is now perceived by the dog as something positive and energizing rather than destabilizing. This is because the underwriting current to everything about the canine mind is emotional flow, and anything that facilitates flow becomes enfolded into a positive experience, even something that has held a life-long value of being negative. This by the way is the dynamic of cooperation where sensations of collapse become the arousal mechanism of sensuality. This is the mechanism for cooperative and altruistic impulses.
Fear can be acquired through the experience of pain and emotional trauma as has been long recognized, but an unacknowledged source and which is today especially pernicious in the modern dog, is that it can build up through a slow, steady accrual that lacks any definitive, causative event. It’s simply a build up of a daily anxiety from seemingly innocuous sources. It can even occur, as it may paradoxically appear, from a steady diet of POSITIVE stimulation. Even a positive stimulation becomes a negative experience when the level of satisfaction attained doesn’t match the degree of intensity the stimulus engendered. In other words the dog’s emotional dynamic cannot process the degree of stimulation. The example I like to give to illustrate is one or two pieces of chocolate cake taste delicious and might even be nutritious. But three of four slices can make one as sick as eating something noxious. So in the animal mind (which works according to a physical, bodily logic) something is only good if it can be emotionally processed to completion, but something is bad if it can’t be fully processed. The intrinsic nature of the thing isn’t the definitive value, whether or not it can be FULLY processed is what really matters. So for example throwing a ball for a dog with a high need for physical tactile contact is inherently frustrating. The urgency in such a dog’s manic ball play is mistaken for pure enjoyment. But the poor dog is never getting to the Emotional Stop Signal and this overload will build up as long term stress which invokes anxiety. In an unrelated area he may suddenly become phobic, or if he has strong drive by nature, aggressive.
Emotion follows strict evolutionary parameters (i.e. the action performed must add to the net gain of the system, this is the metric by which the individual’s body/mind registers satisfaction) and so even if a stimulus positively excites a dog, if its actions don’t satisfy this underlying evolutionary mandate, then true to the principle of conservation it is converted into its equal yet opposite form, stress. Stress is the physical memory of an emotional state of attraction that did not run to total termination. Stress is cumulative and when the load of this stress reserve grows too great then the dog becomes fearful because the evolutionary basis of this stress reserve is to perform the double duty of making the individual hyper-vigilant to the presence of predators. Aggression is an adaptive means of venting pent up fear, it is a defensive response to this toxic load and in the evolutionary scheme of things it would prove adaptive to a life in the wild.
The supposed cause or context to the aggressive outburst is simply a trigger that gives the dog instinctive license to vent this pent up energy. In the wild where the rate of novelty that must be accommodated is minimal, and by being inherently afraid of novelty increases an individual’s chances of survival, this is a successful strategy for the perpetuation of the species. But in our human world of incessant and artificial kind of change, 99.99% of such disturbances must be accommodated, it will cause the dog to be euthanized or lead an unnecessarily constrained life. So we must return to the all important understanding that all anti-social aggression is fear driven.
Fear is a dynamic, it is not a psychology. Any stimulation, be it positive or negative, displaces the individual’s emotional equilibrium and autonomically activates the individuals fear mechanism. Satisfaction is inextricably intertwined with stabilization. A state of attraction that doesn’t become resolved is not an emotionally neutral event. It becomes Unresolved Emotion that is stored in the body/mind and tagged with fear. Dogs of varying dispositions and life histories will respond differently to their stress reserve, and will become susceptible to a range of varying triggers which is why it can appear as if there are many different causes to aggression, but this is a fundamental misinterpretation of the phenomena.
Speaking dynamically all cases of aggression can be defined as “blocked attraction.” The dog is attracted to something with more force of desire than his emotional capacity can conduct and therefore he reacts with survival or manic prey-making instincts as these are the reflexes that intense sensations autonomically generate. As I mentioned above this is adaptive to life in the wild as it promotes hyper-vigilance that serves to avoid potential danger as well as compelling the individual to seize the prey on sight whether or not it’s hungry. That the individual leads an unnecessarily anxious life is irrelevant in the natural scheme of things. Nature has all the time in the world to resolve Unresolved Emotion.
So for all of the above fear has a compounding effect through daily life so that as the individual matures his behavior becomes more and more intense via the two complementary states of vigilance and manic prey-making. The individual becomes more obsessed and fixated, primed to react to a certain class of stimuli, which in the wild would be adaptive as this would compel him to manically seize any opportunity by sensing weakness, in his prey, AND IN HIS PEERS. Once these are inculcated in the dog’s mind, these intense expressions of behavior take on a life of their own and become what the dog lives for in its constant search for relief.
The most important thing about a proper definition is that it defines the solution, remove the block by fulfilling the attraction. The core exercises in Natural Dog Training INCREASE a dog’s emotional capacity (grounding/flow/sensuality) so that a lifetime of built-up intensity can be softened and then retooled in service to the cooperative dynamic by which this dynamic evolved to perform as well. First we create a flow imprint, then use the instinctive triggers to activate deep seated physical memories that have been driving the dog its entire life. These triggers bring the old pain memories to the surface (Note that all other training methods are trying to keep the energy–as physical memories–from coming to the surface, and then this leaves it to the environment to supply the triggers and at a time when no one (least of all the dog) is prepared to deal with them.) and in a supportive environment the dog experiences these memories beginning to move toward a natural way of resolution and in accord with the animal mind’s energetic definition of satisfaction. The dog begins to soften, “its puppy-mind,” that part of its life when its emotional capacity was at its highest so that stress was sloughed off effortlessly because the puppy was so sensual, returns to the forefront of its consciousness. The dog hasn’t changed, its perception and responses to stress has changed. But you won’t care when you see the happy-go-lucky pup you once knew (or the puppy that your rescue dog once was) come bounding back into your life.