Still Drowning in Behavioral Jargon, Still Starving for Information


I confess. When it comes to comprehending what some consider fundamental behavioral terminology, I’m impaired. As soon as people start throwing jargon around, my eyes glaze and I can feel my brain cells shutting down, one by one.  

Still drowning in behavioral jargon, still starving for information: That sounds like a good title for a country western song, doesn’t it? I first addressed this topic well over a decade ago. And I still can feel my eyes a-glazing and my brain cells a-shrinkin’ when I read some animal behavior articles today.

Keeping up with animal behavioral jargon presents more challenges as more people from diverse backgrounds study animal behavior. Academic areas that may delve into animal behavior include human and veterinary medical, behavioral, and biological sciences and their many subdivisions, spin-offs, and specialties. Outside academia, we find trainers, breeders, groomers, handlers, and an abundance of other animal-related professionals. Members of these groups also may contribute their own behavioral jargon to the growing pile.

Back then and still today, it leads me to ask the obvious questions: Does all this jargon promote better understanding of problem animal behavior and how to resolve it? Or does it actually hinder meaningful communication? The simple answers are, “Not necessarily” and “Yes, it can.” Then and now, a case in point  is the word  “aggression” which  routinely pops up in the behavioral and training literature. What exactly does aggression mean? It depends on whom you ask.

Behaviorists, ethologists, veterinarians, trainers, and others in animal-related professions as well as animal owners and those in the media routinely use this word as if it possessed a concrete meaning. Admittedly, to them it often does. But whether their meaning agrees with everyone else’s is doubtful.

For example, some people see aggression strictly as a problem. According to them, aggression refers to animal behaviors perceived as threatening or violent.  Others simplify matters by equating any aggression with the whole animal. When Spot or Fluff bites someone, Spot and Fluff themselves are labeled “aggressive”. Unfortunately for those who don’t know the circumstances surrounding Spot or Fluff’s aggressive displays, this implies that these animals will aggress at anyone, anywhere, or anytime.

Still, all aggression is a problem to these folks. No such thing as “good” aggression exists.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have those who take a more comprehensive approach to animal behavior that includes both normal and problem displays. Within this context, aggression functions as a normal part of animal life. Some individuals in this group also distinguish between active (violent), passive (manipulation via submissive displays), and acceptable forms of aggression. Among the latter, we find determined working dogs who will not be deterred from their work until it’s finished. Service dogs who won’t leave their people until those people are safe and herding dogs who won’t quit until all members of their herds or flocks are accounted for come to mind here.

Further contributing to the increasing sea of aggression jargon are those who study the full spectrum of normal or problem animal behavior who define specific kinds of animal aggression: territorial, food, sexual, parental, dominance, etc. A subgroup also exists that refers to “guarding” instead of aggression, as in “resource guarding”.  Others also distinguish between active (violent), passive (manipulation via submissive displays), and acceptable forms of aggression.

Things can get even hairier because experts from different disciplines may apply different labels to the same aggressive displays. Academics in the biological sciences may use different labels than those in the human behavioral or veterinary medical sciences. However even within a particular discipline or group, disagreements may arise over what a particular aggressive display should be called or even if it exists.  And naturally, almost everyone wants their term to be the standard.

Meanwhile people who just want well-behaved animals may use their own definitions of aggression which they see as far less obscure than any of the above. At the same time though, their definitions may be quite capricious. Some people believe it’s alright if their dogs aggress toward anyone who provokes their animals in any way. But if these dogs dare bite their people, those people want thoses dog gone asap. Meanwhile, others feel exactly the opposite: If their dogs bite them, they’ll do whatever they must to correct the problem. But if their dogs bite someone else, the relationship with that dog is over forever.

Some dog or cat owners feel so strongly about their personal definitions that they can’t believe that anyone would disagree with them. A favorite definition of aggression came from a colleague’s client. On her pre-consultation form the woman stated that her dog had no aggression problems. However, during the consultation she mentioned in passing that the dog repeatedly tried to bite the letter carrier. When my colleague asked why she didn’t include that in her pre-consultation information, she said she didn’t consider it an aggressive display because she didn’t like the letter carrier either.

What does all this mean to those of us trying to provide the highest quality support to our own or others’ animals when they experience behavioral problems of any kind? It means we need to ensure that those with whom we work agree on the definitions of key behavioral words. Words or phrases such as “aggression,” “separation anxiety,” “positive reinforcement,” “all-positive” and others. We shouldn’t delude ourselves that others automatically share our definitions or, worse, that our definitions represent those given by some Ultimate Authority which we must impose on others.

Anyone can create and use jargon just as anyone can create a secret language that only a few can comprehend. What really requires knowledge and skill is the ability to explain even the most complex animal behaviors in terms that anyone can easily understand.

Thanks once again to and their photographers who voluntarily upload their work for others to appreciate and use. And yes, I know that today most jargon occurs in some electronic form somewhere. But I find pictures of books much more  photogenic.



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