When Helping Bites – Brad Jersak

Why pets bite their owners

I read an article that offered help to owners of pets (and specifically dogs) that become so aggressive that they bite their owners. They listed many reasons why one’s dog can become aggressive. These included:

  • 1. Territorial aggression
  • 2. Protective aggression
  • 3. Possessive aggression
  • 4. Social aggression
  • 5. Defensive aggression
  • 6. Fear aggression

I was particularly interested in the way a dog may instinctively snap when it is injured. I remember a friend whose dog had a run-in with a porcupine and was left with heavy needles that penetrated into the dog’s mouth through it’s cheeks. We couldn’t remove them without restraining the dog and using heavy pliers to pull each needle through the wound and out the dog’s mouth. And not only through cheek tissue, but gums and muscle. As the owner tried to help, this large farm dog had long forgotten the porcupine. Big eyes questioned how its master could betray him this way and cause such pain. In pain and fear, the dog became aggressive and attempted to bite its best friend. It was all very terrible.

The dog needed compassion, not punishment, even if it meant the owner might need a hospital visit for stitches. And that was one take-away from the article. If you have an aggressive pet, punishment does not help. It can even increase the aggression (or create it in the first place). The apparent anger is a mask for fear. And you cannot punish fear out of a dog, much less a human.

Why people bite their loved ones

A dear friend of mine in the recovery world taught me this truth. She said, “Anger and resentment are masks for fear.” As an alcoholic in recovery, she used the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to process her near-constant anger. She reported the following:

  • As I began working my way through the program, I learned in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book that we are driven by a hundred forms of self-centered fear. After doing a thorough Fourth Step that included a fear inventory, I found I was driven by way more than just a hundred! It took years, though, for me to realize the connection between my fears and the anger and resentment I felt.
  • With the alcohol gone, I very quickly got in touch with my feelings, and for me, that meant my anger quickly turned into rage. Oh, and resentments—I had a lot of those as well. Without having developed the spiritual tools to deal with my feelings yet, I soon became defiant. You could say I wasn’t very fun to be around.
  • Today, I not only see the connection, but I feel it all the time. In fact, today I know that whenever I’m feeling uncomfortable, impatient, quick to snap at people, or just generally irritable, I’m usually in fear of something. Today, when I’m feeling angry or resentful, I stop and ask myself what I’m afraid of. Doing this allows me to take the mask off my fears and allows my Higher Power to present a solution.

Of course, the anger that masks our fears is often taken out on those closest to us. A spouse, a friend, maybe even your dog! It’s misdirected at anyone close enough to feel the fury when we bear our teeth to express our fear as aggression. I’ve seen this aggression among marriage partners and dear friends who attempt to speak the truth in love to one another about destructive patterns that need an intervention. I’ve seen it rise up against therapists, doctors, or dentists who have diagnosed a problem and offer to remove it.

Again, such people need compassion, not punishment. The latter only deepens the fear and anger, and the suffering soul will either lash out or go into hiding.

When people bite God

Something analogous happened to God. Seeing the pain of the human race in a freewill toward non-being, what was God to do but enter our world to rescue us. God’s motive was entirely love, but when you get close to people full of fear and pain, nursing resentment and moralizing their bitterness, then God’s love can look a lot like pliers. We become deeply attached to the very things that penetrated our lives and are causing our pain and creating our fear.

The approach of a good shepherd to remove long-term splinters that have infected us feels like a threat. We’d rather avoid and hide and cope with decades of a chronic (and worsening) disease than face the short-term pain of having it removed and healed.

Perhaps this is why Christ was authentically able to pray from the Cross, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing.” I want to say they knew exactly what they were doing. They were exercising the cruelest form of torture in the full knowledge that Jesus was innocent, and in the darkness of their hearts, they inflicted such hatred with pride and mockery. Kill them all and let God sort them out, I say (pretending I am in no way complicit).

But no. Jesus sees that beneath the violence, rage, and resentment, those who crucified him did not realize how deeply wounded they were by fear and how that fear spilled out in wrath (which means violent anger). They could not see how their fears were misdirected and amplified in the darkness that we call “blind rage.”

And yet Jesus could see it. And loved them. And he forgave them. And he endured them, knowing that only perfect love could drive out their fear. Not wrath, not vengeance, not punishment. That same perfect, self-giving, cruciform love extended to them is extended to the world–to you and me and everyone. The ‘angry God’ of the Christless imagination may seem very real to us while we’re writhing in fear, just as dogs may believe their owner’s pliers are proof that he or she is ruthless wicked. In that state, I’m grateful that we have a good and faithful Master who intercedes for us day and night before the throne of grace, saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

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