The role of paradoxical inter-specific communication in the development of family-pack hierarchical instabilities
© Dr. JoŽl Dehasse, behaviorist veterinarian, Brussels, Belgium
©Dr JoŽl Dehasse
3 avenue du Cosmonaute, 1150 Brussels, Belgium
IntroductionA "sociopathy" has been described in France and French-speaking Belgium as a hierarchical instability in a family-pack with the production of canine competitive, irritation and territorial aggression and the dog having access to dominance privileges. This is a pathology of the communications inside an interspecific system, consisting of the family members and the dog (hence the name family-pack). We will see that these communications are paradoxical. The animal is locked up in what has been called a "double bind" or "double constraint".
In this article, I will limit myself to describe the paradoxical communication emitted by the owners.
Introductory clinical caseScapa is a 6 months old female Great Dane presented for destructions in the house. She destroys sweat-shirts, furniture, ... She jumps from one sofa to the other, pees on the leather couch, awakens her owners at 5 a.m. and bites jacket and sweat-shirt sleeves, putting holes in everything. I have diagnosed her as "hypersensitivity hyperactivity syndrome", and "reactive beginning sociopathy" (as she gathers more and more dominance privileges and tries to keep them by competitive aggression). The treatment should be easy, with a regulatory medication (I prescribed fluvoxamine) and a self-control therapy, but...
The owner is a young man of 26, who has had heart surgery at 3 years old and who is protected and spoiled by his mother. He took the appointment but did not come, sending his mother. She has some dominance over the dog and does not hesitate to hit it. She wanted a wire hair Dachshund and he came back one day with the great Dane. She is exhausted by the dog (and by her son, but she does not say it!).
So there will be a problem to implement the therapy. And the same problem is at the root of one of the dog behavioural disorders. The education frame is not clear: the dog receives contradictory and paradoxical information from both owners. How can we change that? This situation needs a systemic (familial) therapy.
The paradoxical communicationIt is impossible not to communicate and not to influence the others with whom one interacts. This is one of the most important contribution of Gregory Bateson to systemic (strategic) therapy.
The communication becomes paradoxical when two opposite messages are emitted for the same "bit" of information. It is the "double message" theory. The double message is a source of confusion, and leads to disqualification of all the information, or a part of it, or of the emitter of the communication, by its receptor.
There are several possibilities, depending on the communication levels and the number of senders.
Each category will be described and examples given.
The alternating double messageIt is one of the most common problem communications from an owner to a dog. The dog may be rewarded or punished alternatively for the same act or sequence of acts. It may be for coming back after being recalled (titbit alternating with hit), or lying on a couch (authorised alternating with forbidden), asking an order and then letting it drop when the dog does not obey, etc.
The alternating double message is teaching the dog not to obey. The dog is learning that the owner is unstable as a leader. It may lead to hierarchical destabilisation and reactive sociopathy (with reactive aggression).
The split up double messageThe communication is congruent in each owner but it is different and opposite from one to the other. One owner accepts that the dog lies on the couch, the other not. One owner rewards the attention demands, the other punishes it. The complete paradoxical message is split up between the two (or more) owners (educators).
The split up double message has been studied by Antonio J. Ferreira in human juvenile delinquency families. He observed that human adolescents subjected to split up double message (SUDM) produce a "passage à l'acte" (offending acts) in the external surroundings (and not specifically in the family). These offending acts are an attempt to escape the family field and have as a result to make the adults agree at least for one thing.
Some dogs subjected to SUDM may go on the loose and run around in the neighbourhood. In dogs, the SUDM facilitates sociopathy, and produces hierarchical problems with the too tolerant, less demanding, member of the family. This is particularly evident for male dogs in families where the male owner (the father) patriarchal figure is put in doubt by the mother, defence of the dog. Dogs live in a patriarchy and questioning the dominant role of the male owner undermines its power and increases the probability for the dog to make an alliance with the female owner (and coupling) with all its repercussions.
This is an increasing problem in the therapy because one has to make the owners agree to produce congruent communications to get results. But, frequently, the third party (here the dog, there the child or the adolescent), is the battle flied of problems between the human adults.
The double bindThe double bind is one of the central discoveries of Gregory Bateson in his ecosystemic theory of human communication (1956). Human communication operates at different levels of abstraction with implicit metacommunication messages. In the double bind, "there is no congruence between the different levels, i.e. verbal, vocal, postural, motor, contextual" (J.-C. Benoit, 1988).
For a double bind to occur, there are several requirements: (1) repetitive process - (2) lack of congruence in different levels of communication (cognitive and affective) - (3) inescapable situation (the meaning is more in the affective bonding than in a material impossibility to flight). The repetitivity of the situation leads to instrumental reactions of anger and fear.
The paradox resides in the opposition of cognitive and affective communications, for example an order to be obeyed asked with an expression of fear (as when the upper part of the body is bending slightly backward). The two communications are expressed in the verbal conditioning queries and the affective involuntary paraverbal attitudes in the same person. The communication is losing sense. The ritual is lost.
The dog is more sensitive to analogical (non verbal, non vocal) communication and is not fooled by the verbal orders (digital communication). The communication is not - or badly - ritualised and causes anxiety. Anxiety is very common in hierarchical perturbations. It is why the dog living in a unstable environment (sociopathy syndrome) shows competitive aggression and also irritative or even fright aggression, sudden panic attacks, ...
The double bind is causing intermittent anxiety. The tolerance for the dog having dominant privileges may lead to partial unstable dominance. The continual challenge of the dog's dominant privileges may lead to aggression. The rewarding effects of aggression may lead to hyperaggression.
The double-bind may also be triggered by a false belief or a misunderstanding of the communication by the dog: a lying-down-on-the-back posture to ask for caresses is misunderstood for submission when the dog is expressing a dominant behaviour; if still caressed after a misunderstood demand to stop the contact (tense posture) the dog may express irritation aggression that is once again misunderstood as unpredictable voluntary hostile behaviour.
The split up double bindThe double bind may be emitted by the same person or by two separate owners (split up double bind or also split up paradoxical communication). The effects combine those of the double bind and the split up double message. This the worst situation.
Ritual destroyerSocial communication in the dog is attuned by rituals. Rituals are behavioural sequences evolving from a specific pattern "to become a symbolic communication mode" (Muller G., 1996). Rituals can be divided in meanings: cohesiveness (attachment), hierarchical (dominance, submission, appeasement), emotional tuning (courtship, sexual coupling, play, ...). Rituals are learned. For example, submission may be in a dorsal decubitus or ventral decubitus, following the puppy position when cleaned by its mother. This may lead to understanding difficulties between dogs, or between dogs and humans. Rituals decrease aggression, appease the members and increase the cohesion in a group.
Paradoxical communications destroy rituals in the family-pack. The hierarchy is unstable, anxiety increases, cohesion diminishes, and aggression may explode.
Medical treatment and therapyI will not elaborate here on medical treatment. Medication is very important. Medication has to preserve the cognitive functions, to remove anxiety, and to reduce aggression and impulsiveness, without being sedative. Several drugs can be used for that purpose: risperidone, fluvoxamine, fluoxetine, clomipramine, etc. Drug treatment will help the owners to put the therapy in place.
The therapy will consist in mending the social rituals, with the owners as dominants and to reduce the access of the dog to dominant privileges. Any technique leading to this objective and respecting the owners resources and resistances will be functional. The technique will change with the therapist and the owners. The best technique is adapted to the owners own style and capabilities.
The therapist has to be empathetic and without moral judgement. People do what they do for good reasons one does not know about, and you will not change their moral ethics and beliefs. Do not enter into what I will call "the therapist double bind". If you think the owners are faulty, the more you say that they are not, the less you will be believed. Because you are giving away paradoxical communication. So maybe, you have to say they are responsible for the situation, but not guilty of it because they did not really know what to do. If you still think they are guilty, maybe you could consider going first into therapy yourself, to learn how to be more tolerant, because the majority of the people do not want to act badly, and they do what they do because they did not learn to do otherwise. The problem may not be with them but with their education, their culture, ... If the therapist is sending double paradoxical messages, he will not be listened to nor believed. Any prescription will then be thrown into the garbage can.
In fact, the therapist has to use the owner's resistances, and his resources, to get to his objective. A very "weak" owner will become very "sensitive", a very "passive" one will become "able to endure things for a long time", one who has already tried every technique possible will then be very "determined" or "patient". Just turn around defects into resources.
The therapist has to save the dog (from death row), but not at the expense of the family balance (homeostasis). To save the dog, remove just enough sense of guiltiness so the owners continue to treat the dog, but not all of it, because they may euthanize it.
People have a lot of resistance to any personal change ("Change my dog, but do not touch to my behavior"). The more drastic the technique, the stronger the resistance. This is an absolute fact in systemic therapy.
Therapy techniquesHere are a few examples of techniques that may be useful.
Ask the people to write it in capitals on a paper and put it on the fridge.
ConclusionWhen you diagnose a hierarchical problem, you face a systemic problem. Maybe the dog is pathological, maybe he is suffering from hypersensitivity-hyperactivity syndrome, or anxiety, or impulsivity, or hormonal imbalance, or anything. Maybe he is not. You will have to correct the communication patterns and rituals. You will not be able to do it without the owners, with or without their consent, enrolling them in a direct or indirect procedure. But do not fool yourself, you will not be able not to influence them, not to manipulate them, so do it with purpose and ethics.
ReferencesBateson G., Jackson D. D., Haley J., Weakland J. (1956). Toward a theory of Schizophrenia. Behavioural Science, 1, 251-264.
Bateson G. (1972). Steps to an Ecology of the Mind. Ballantine Books. New-York.
Benoit J.-C. (1988). Dictionnaire clinique des thérapies familiales systémiques. Editions ESF, Paris. 121-126.
Elkaïm Mony (1995). Panorama des thérapies familiales. Editions du Seuil, Paris.
Ferreira A. J. (1960). Double-Bind and delinquent Behavior. Arch. Gen. Psychiat. 3, 359-367. Am. Med. Assoc.
Haley Jay (1979). Nouvelles stratégies en thérapie familiale. Editions Universitaires J.-P. Delarge, Paris.
Minuchin (1979). Familles en thérapie. Editions Universitaires J.-P. Delarge, Paris.
Minuchin Salvador (1993). Family Healing. Free Press, New York. (1996) La guérison Familiale. ESF, Paris.
Muller G. (1996). Anxiety and Hierarchy. ESVCE and SAVAB meeting, 6th of October 1996, Brussels. Oral communication.
Dr Joël Dehasse