Have you ever halted a dog’s aggressive outburst by laughing or praising him? Have you ever calmed an excitable dog’s greeting by acting disinterested? Maybe you’ve ended an argument with a fist of handpicked flowers, or soothed your own anxiety by making light of a situation. In any of these cases and many more, you’ve practiced non-complementary behavior and the results were probably spot-on.
This works because complementary behavior is the natural cycle of communication; aggression begets aggression while a smile is often met with a smile in return. Breaking that cycle involves also breaking our response patterns; that’s where non-complementary behavior comes in. This term was brought to my attention recently while listening to NPR’s Invisibilia. A recent episode featured the many ways in which non-complementary behavior can and has been utilized to resolve human conflict; check it out if you haven’t yet heard it. While the term was new to me, the concept was not. The ways in which my colleagues and I have been applying non-complementary behavior to our work are endless.
Several years ago I was sitting at a kitchen table across from two new clients and their dog; an akbash with stranger-directed aggression. One owner held the leash attached to this 120 pound dog, and I talked to his humans while I observed his behavior from across the large table. I looked across at the dog, and in an instant things changed. He reared up, lunged across the table at me, and I quickly threw a handful of chicken directly at his face. Lucky for me, it worked. He stopped, backed off, ate the chicken, and then sat quietly, waiting for more food. A more traditional or old school approach would have been to do what’s natural; to yell or pound on the table–to meet that aggressive display with yet another aggressive display. But as I tell my clients, humans don’t win dog fights. Flipping the script on this dog was my best option.
Similarly, if I witness potential conflict arising between two of my dogs, I will tell them how silly they are in my ridiculous dog voice and watch as their bodies loosen, their faces relax, and everything goes back to normal.
Scraped Knees and Fallen Jump Wings
Jump wings falling down on the agility course (due to wind or clumsiness) are akin to a scraped knee for my young dog Felix. He is keen to keep playing, but is upset by the wing falling, and I have two options. I can meet his startle with my own, and we are in trouble. Or, I can laugh about the wing falling over, dance around and invite play, and the pup shakes it off much sooner. I like to think my non-complementary behavior is helping Felix to maintain his resilience.
Think about all the ways in which you are utilizing non-complementary behavior, and consider a few more scenarios in which you might be better off doing so. Anytime we are looking to drastically alter a dog’s emotion-driven response, a non-complementary behavior might be the key.