aggression

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Originally published in IACP Safe Hands Journal, Spring 2015.

Behavior seems to be the hot trend. From leash reactivity to separation anxiety to resource guarding and other aggression issues, trainers are confronting behavior problems right and left. But what is behavior work and behavior consulting, compared to traditional training? Who is qualified to do it, and what does it involve?

Whether one is forced to handle behavior cases by necessity, or eager to market oneself as a behavior specialist, it pays to be informed of current and emerging professional standards, and to familiarize oneself with the essential elements of a responsible approach.

Keeping up with industry jargon can be challenging, so here’s a basic behavior glossary:

behavior: anything an animal does, often in response to a situation or stimulus.

behaviorism: the theory that behavior can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to thoughts or feelings, and that disorders are best treated by altering behavior patterns.

behavior modification: the use of empirically demonstrated behavior change techniques to increase or decrease the frequency of behaviors, including positive and negative reinforcement, positive and negative punishment, and extinction.

animal behaviorist: someone with a graduate degree in a related field (like zoology, ethology, biology, or psychology) and post-graduate certification. He or she may be certified by the Animal Behavior Society as an Applied Animal Behaviorist or CAAB.

board certified veterinary behaviorist: a veterinarian who is certified in the specialty of Veterinary Behavior.  Board-certified specialists are known as diplomates or DACVBs.

behavior consultant: a professional working with animals to solve behavioral problems. Behavior consultants may or may not be degreed or certified, but should pursue extensive and ongoing education in animal behavior and training. Recognized certifications include CDBC and CBCC-KA, awarded respectively by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants and the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers.

Bottom line, if you don’t sport a PhD or a DACVB, best not call yourself a behaviorist. Nonetheless, it’s wholly advisable to pursue a broad education in canine behavior and to highlight your qualifications as a behavior consultant.

So, what should a behavior consultant bring to the table, and how do successful consultants approach real cases?

Assessing Problems

Every case should begin with some manner of assessment, the accuracy of which will depend largely on history taking and observation skills. A good history teases fact from fiction. “My dog often barks at men that approach us,” is useful data. “My dog hates men!” is unhelpful speculation. Keen observation is equally critical. If concern exists over behavior around a new baby, one should be prepared to recognize subtle signs of stress, avoidance, or predation.

The consultant should also be ready to identify if basic needs are being met. Adequate diet, exercise, and medical attention should be prerequisites to any training or behavior modification program.

A Structured Approach

The solution to every behavior problem, regardless of intensity or complexity, will involve some combination of the following three components. Their relative priority may vary from case to case, but all deserve serious consideration. A truly comprehensive solution will typically involve all three.

Environmental Management: Limiting Unwanted Behavior Through Environmental Controls.

Managing exposure to environmental triggers is often a critical first step in changing behavior. All behavior is functional on some level, including problem behavior. Whether the goal is winning attention, persuading a stranger to retreat, or defending a resource, dogs will generally do what works.

By limiting opportunities to engage in unwanted behavior through environmental management, we prevent those behaviors from being reinforced, as happens each time they work as expected. This breaks the cycle of unwanted behavior and opens the door for teaching your dog what to do instead.

Good management will immediately reduce stress and/or conflict, without being unnecessarily intrusive. The need for management should decrease over time, as alternate behaviors are consistently reinforced.

Obedience Skills: Teaching Alternate or Incompatible Behaviors

Many common behavior problems are essentially “default” behaviors, things dogs do naturally in the absence of being taught otherwise. Teaching and reinforcing incompatible behaviors is frequently key to the long-term solution of behavior problems.

This requires considering what one wants the dog to do and focusing on training those behaviors, ahead of focusing on what one wants the dog to stop doing. Practical alternative behaviors may include basic obedience skills, or any other skill the dog might fairly be expected to master under moderate to high levels of distraction. For example, a dog that lunges at other dogs on the street might be trained to heel, while a dog that jumps on visitors might be taught to sit for attention.

As with environmental management, one should generally seek methods that are minimally intrusive. Strategies focused on suppressing behavior are avoided when other effective solutions exist. Good obedience training also helps build relationship and communication, the benefits of which extend far beyond specific behavior goals.

Classical Conditioning: Counter Conditioning and Desensitization

To avoid the need for eternal management and also help the dog on a psychological level, it’s sensible to invest in conditioning a better emotional/physiological response to known triggers.

Classical conditioning, or respondent learning, involves altering reflexive emotional and physiological responses, either by repeatedly pairing relevant stimuli with something pleasant or valuable, or through careful exposure that gradually desensitizes the animal over time. An example might involve pairing proximity to children with cooked chicken or gradually acclimating a dog to children via regular exposure at a safe distance.

The result is a decrease in the perceived need to behave aggressively, fearfully, etc. This can dramatically increase the likelihood of the dog making good decisions on its own in unexpected situations, even when guidance is lacking or management breaks down.

In limited cases, one may choose to condition an avoidance response through pairing a stimulus with something aversive. Snake avoidance training would be one example, as would be pairing an aversive with attempts to ingest something dangerous like rocks or tennis balls.

LIMA Principles

Even with a sturdy framework in place (our three problem solving components), designing a humane and effective program that is both comprehensive and individualized can be daunting. Given the many options that exist, it’s useful to have some guiding principles for choosing the best strategy.

Understanding LIMA principles and their practical application is considered a basic competency within the field of behavior consulting.

LIMA requires that trainers and behavior consultants use the “least intrusive, minimally aversive technique likely to succeed in achieving a training objective with minimal risk of producing adverse side effects.” [1] In practice, this means achieving results while minimizing cost to the learner and risk to any involved.

Following LIMA guidelines has additional advantages, beyond minimizing risk. They focus the trainer on respecting his subject and maintaining learner control, promote clarity in problem solving, and prevent abuse.

To be clear, LIMA does not dictate a positive reinforcement only approach. It does challenge the trainer to think outside the box of merely suppressing unwanted behavior, and to develop the skills to address behavior problems without undue reliance on deprivation, pressure, or punishment.

Emptying the Closet

Solving serious behavior problems, especially those involving aggression, should not be left to intuition, attributed to mystical factors, or performed impromptu while narrating into a camera. Success is rarely a function of charisma or the product of daredevilry, any more than effective obedience training ever has been.

Behavior may be the new black, but rest assured, no need to to flock to the runways or pay exorbitant sums for those head-turning logos. While trend seekers gawk at outrageous collections, others are quietly organizing their closets, editing their wardrobes, and shopping strategically.

A rational and responsible approach to behavior may not draw looks on the street, but it also never goes out of style. 

1. [Steven Lindsay, Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Vol 3]

 

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For decades, killer whales have been held up as poster children for the power of positive reinforcement and applied operant conditioning generally to produce reliable behavior without the use of force. Yet they suffer lives of abject deprivation, if not actual psychosis.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

The newly released documentary Blackfish tells Tilikum’s story, and sheds light on the atrocities behind all those uplifting and profitable Sea World performances. For the record, I have not yet seen the film, but I’d hazard a guess that the message is that the magical relationship humans have achieved with these majestic creatures only seems magical to us.

To them, it is a tour of captivity, isolation, and abuse, no matter how many buckets of fish get tossed down their throats. Click here to listen to Jean-Michel Cousteau’s statement on keeping orcas for fun and profit.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confines of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. Neither would I suggest that positive reinforcement was itself unethical. But I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And in so far as the management involved in captive marine mammal training is in fact abusive, there is real danger associated with modeling dog training after their example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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Yellow Dog Project

 

A lot of dog trainers have been talking about the Yellow Dog Project lately. According to the official website, the project was created ”to bring awareness to the general public about dogs who need space while training, recovering from surgery, or being rehabilitated.”

When I first heard this idea, I had mixed feelings about it. But the more I contemplate it, the less sensible it seems.

As a horse owner, I appreciate the utility of the red-ribbon-on-the-tail routine, but don’t see the yellow ribbon idea as anywhere near as practical.

Trail horses are generally encountered on bridle paths by fellow riders, in a context without a ton of other distractions. When coming up upon another rider, a red ribbon in the tail of the horse ahead of you is hard to miss. And the meaning of the ribbon must only be understood by a tiny segment of the population in order to wield real influence.

By the same token, the system of putting red bandannas on less social greyhounds at rescue meet-ups may make sense. Within a tight knit community, where everyone has access to the same information, it’s relatively straightforward to promote a new rule or custom.

But in random public settings, particularly urban environments, I doubt many people would notice a yellow ribbon no matter how prominently is was displayed. And with all the bells and whistles on some leashes, a yellow ribbon wouldn’t stand a chance.

Not to mention that yellow ribbons will reliably attract a certain percentage of those who do spot it. Or that if someone gets bitten, that yellow ribbon could be taken as evidence the owner knew his dog was dangerous, creating additional liability.

And if sporting a yellow ribbon gives the handlers of reactive dogs a false sense of security regarding their dogs’ boundaries being respected, the practice might easily cause more problems than it solves. The last thing anyone needs is for the owners of such dogs to become less vigilant or imagine themselves less responsible for keeping their dogs out of trouble.

Ultimately, when handling a reactive dog in public, it’s the human’s responsibility to protect both the dog and the public at large. If that’s too much of a burden, then don’t go there. Acclimate your dog to a muzzle, or don’t take on that project dog in the first place.

JQ Public will avoid approaching dogs wearing muzzles, with or without a public education campaign. That’s the brilliant thing about them. Not only that, a muzzle will keep people at bay and keep people safe, assuming that’s a concern.

True, there’s some measure of social stigma to walking a dog in a muzzle, but so what? If yellow ribbons were more widely understood as a signal that one’s dog doesn’t cope well in public, they might carry a stigma, too. And really, isn’t the whole point to keep people away and keep everyone safe?

Maybe, maybe not. Maybe the bigger idea is to confer special status on the owners of reactive dogs, to make up for the failure of the pro training community to offer a solution for them, or to make the dogs themselves more marketable, as there is clearly a surplus of reactive dogs in most shelters. Maybe the big idea is to shift the focus onto passers-by, so they might absorb our collective outrage at being saddled with such dogs. Or maybe it’s just about accessorizing and selling products. As IAABC’s Marjie Alonso put it in one exchange,

These labels insinuate that the condition of the dog is somehow a fixed state. In many ways we’re doing a terrible job of fixing these poor dogs, yet we’re spending inordinate amounts of time, money and energy creating an economy and culture around it.

When did we start fetishizing the special-needs dog? I couldn’t tell you exactly, but it’s been a sad chapter in our political history. And the practice goes well beyond cases of behavioral dysfunction, extending into irrational commitment to poor health and faulty genes.

What if, rather than promoting gimmicks to make owning troubled dogs more fashionable, we focused on making them less troubled? What if we focused as a society on breeding and raising physically robust, mentally stable dogs?

If I could harness the resources to get a single message out to the general population, that is what I would choose.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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If a dog is punished for growling, he will learn to suppress such warnings and go straight for a bite.

Or so I’ve been told innumerable times, most recently in a promotional blurb distributed by Whole Dog Journal. The advertisement was for a new Ebook (just $7.95) that among other things, promises to explain

How punishing a growl will lead to biting without warning

Every trainer is familiar with this caveat. It’s promoted by experts, recited like gospel, and has become a staple argument against the use of positive punishment in dog training.

But where did it come from, and what proof exists to back it up?

The Prevailing Wisdom

An online search yields no shortage of confident exhortations, but few clues as to the origin of this claim. Here is a sampling (emphases mine):

Never Punish a Growling Dog. Many dog owners get understandably upset when a dog growls. Their first reaction is often to suppress the growling by scolding or punishing the dog. This is never a good idea. By teaching your dog that growling is not an acceptable behavior, you are taking away his ability to warn you that he may bite. Often we hear stories of dogs who bite with no warning. In many cases, this is because the owners trained the dog not to give a warning growl first. –About.com

Never punish your dog for growling. This may seem counter-intuitive and may even go against the advice of your dog trainer or dog trainers you have seen on TV. If your dog growls at your child he is sending a clear warning that he is very uncomfortable with the actions or proximity of the child. Be grateful that your dog chose to warn with a growl rather than going straight to a bite. If you punish the growling, you may inhibit the warning growl the next time and the dog may bite without growling first. Punishment or scolding will not make the dog feel better about the child, in fact he may even feel more anxious and be even more likely to bite in the future, especially if you are not there to control the situation. Dog trainer Yamei Ross says, “Punishing a dog for growling is like taking the batteries out of your smoke detector. You don’t want to hear the noise, but the danger is still there.” –doggonesafe.com

Indeed, by punishing a growling dog, owners are not only depriving a dog from a very important warning tool, but are also proving to the dog that the owner is unreliable and unpredictable, significantly increasing the level of stress in the dog. More stress does not solve the problem, and next time the dog encounters the same situation he may appear to be OK with the situation when he is not. Eventually, a bite will come and this time there will be no advance warning. It will come straight and mean to the owner’s eyes –Ask A Behaviorist

Surveying the above, one might assume science had demonstrated this conclusively. After all, how else would such an oddly specific idea have become the prevailing wisdom?

More to the point: Why, in fifteen years of training dogs professionally, have I never seen this happen?

Maybe I’m an outlier, but regardless, something doesn’t add up. Right or wrong, dogs are punished for growling routinely. I’ve done it myself. Dogs do it to each other. And pet owners do it a lot. If the typical result of such temerity were in fact a dog that bit without warning, then why is the world not overrun with such dogs?

I began asking around among seasoned trainers and behavior consultants. Where did this pearl come from, and did they think it fake or genuine?

Responses ran the gamut, but the mean seemed to lie somewhere between moderate skepticism and luke warm endorsement. Some admitted to sharing my disbelief; some defended the claim’s veracity; and several offered up competing interpretations of how aggression sometimes escalates in situations where punishment has been applied.

Among the theory’s higher profile advocates is Pamela Dennison, who not only boasts first hand experience with such a dog, but actually took the trouble to write a book about him. That dog is Shadow, an adopted human-aggressive border collie and the subject of Bringing Light To Shadow: A Dog Trainer’s Diary, published in 2005.

Here is the most salient excerpt, highlighted at the start of chapter 5:

A growl is just a warning–nothing more. It is obvious to me that Shadow had been punished for growling by his previous owner. It is important not to punish the growl out of a dog because if you do, you end up with a flash biter–a dog that bites with no warning. A growling dog doesn’t want to bite–that’s why he is growling. Punishing the growl out of the dog is like telling a police officer that he doesn’t have to say “Stop or I’ll shoot.” A growl is a wake-up call to YOU, to show you that you need to work on desensitizing your dog to whatever it is that he growled at. The important part is not to take it personally, a “How dare you growl at me!” kind of attitude.

I have to wonder what made it so obvious to Dennison that Shadow had been punished for growling, or that this specifically had generated his flash biting, apart from her understanding that such a history could explain the behavior she was witnessing. To my mind, it seems the cause of Shadow’s biting was largely inferred from the same theory his case is enlisted to support.

Many of the examples raised in defense of the theory shared this cyclical format. Relatively few included both a before and after component. Those that did mainly showed only a loose correlation between the punishment and biting, and hardly any were clearly distinguishable from cases involving more straightforward escalation from growl to bite.

As for a scientific basis, no one pointed to any beyond suggesting the claim had been extrapolated from scientific principles, probably by Ian Dunbar.

I dug a bit further and found more references to Dunbar, so I contacted him.

Dunbar’s Hypothesis

He recalled introducing the idea in the late 80′s or early 90′s, and forwarded me a number of his articles from that period. I found the below (emphasis mine) within “Provocative Behavior,” based on a behavior column from the June 1989 issue of the AKC Gazette.

The ‘Solution’ Becomes The Problem

Limiting treatment to punishing the dog for growling generally makes matters worse. The dog is growling because it feels uptight in specific situations, for example, when approached by a stranger. If the dog is punished, it now has two reasons to be uptight: 1. the initial reason – lack of confidence, and 2. the prospect of correction, or punishment, by the  owner/handler, which further destroys the dog’s confidence.

In many cases, punishment may cause the growling to increase in frequency – a paradox of learning. A vicious circle develops, whereby the more the dog is punished, the more it has reason to growl and hence, the more it is punished etc. The ‘attack’ by the handler (the dog’s only immediate ally) tends to make the dog especially  nervous and ‘spooky’. It must be extremely unsettling for the dog to have its best friend suddenly turn against him in times of need. At first the dog can establish neither rhyme nor reason for the handler’s outbursts. Soon, however, the dog learns, the handler’s uneasiness is contingent upon the specific situation, e.g., approach by a stranger. As such, the stranger’s approach now becomes a cue, which forwarns the dog, its owner is about to get upset and punish the dog. Most dogs do not like it when their owners become anxious, apprehensive, or agitated and so, the dog now has a third reason to growl – to keep the stranger at bay, in order to prevent the owner from becomming uneasy.

[...]

For cases wherein punishment successfully inhibits growling. This is disasterous. Firstly, punishment must be extremely severe to stop a worried dog from growling. Extreme punishments in stressful situations are inhumane. Secondly, although the dog still feels uptight, it no longer gives warning. The dog still does not like strangers and it wants to growl, but dare not. This is akin to a smoke alarm with no batteries, or a time-bomb that does not tick. The dog’s temperament is still extremely unstable but on the surface, all appears to be well.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the above, it’s worth noting that Dunbar’s original hypothesis is more nuanced than many subsequent iterations, including those listed at the start of this post. Dunbar draws a clean line between punishing a dog for growling and punishing the growl itself (in the operant conditioning sense), suggesting the average effort to deter growling via punishment will not be successful at suppressing the behavior over time.

Pat Miller, editor of Whole Dog Journal, is also careful to maintain this distinction, as in the introductory Ebook blurb as well as the below from a frequently cited 2005 article.

Worst of all, and most significantly, if you succeed in suppressing the warning signs, you end up with a dog who bites without warning. He has learned that it’s not safe to warn, so he doesn’t. –Pat Miller, “Understanding Why Your Dog Growls: Why you should never punish a dog for growling”, 2005 WDJ

Yet the prospect of generating a stealth biter is continually promoted as a substantive risk, despite its depending on an unlikely coincidence of technical aptitude and poor judgement, whereby the punishment is skillfully applied but the overall strategy is woefully incompetent.

I put my doubts directly to Dunbar, who offered the following (emphasis mine):

Does punishing a dog for growling create a dog that bites without warning? Well, we are talking about two things here:

1. Inhibiting the dog’s growling   2. Provoking the dog to bite

Non-verbal and especially, aversive feedback often cause a bunch of additional problems. However, by its very definition, aversive punishment would absolutely inhibit the dog’s growling; if the frequency of growling is not reduced, then the aversive stimulus cannot be classified as a punishment! The most commonly used definition of punishment is “a stimulus that causes the immediately preceding behavior to decrease in frequency and be less likely to occur in the future.” And so, if the aversive stimulus were used effectively as a punishment, the dog would be less likely to growl and IF the underlying cause for the dog’s unease has not been resolved, the dog would be just as likely to bite, i.e., the dog may bite without warning (growling beforehand). Furthermore, should the dog associate the aversive punishment with a person, the dog may be more likely to bite without growling beforehand. (This may happen when a dog associates the punishment with the punisher, or when a dog is aversively punished in the presence of children for example.)

According to Dunbar, punishing a dog for growling may result in a bite without warning under certain conditions. Those would seem to include the punishment being relatively harsh, the punishment being highly successful, and the absence of productive work (such as a program of desensitization and counterconditioning) toward building confidence, tolerance, or positive associations.

This might explain why I’ve never experienced the phenomenon first hand, despite punishing dogs for growling myself a fair number of times. I can’t imagine using punishment as an isolated strategy, without training alternate behaviors or conditioning a better emotional response to triggers.

But I suspect the more fundamental reason I’ve not witnessed a dog’s warning signals being punished out, is that this is not how aggression mainly works.

Lost in Translation

Before looking at how aggression does escalate, let me briefly address the denial of growling as aggression. I’ve noticed a trend toward framing the growl as a highly desirable behavior, to the point of assigning it a near sacred status. Within this paradigm, the growl is acknowledged as an essentially peaceful alternative to an actual bite, and as such must be left unmolested (if not honored with rounds of applause).

Personally, I take issue with the notion that all growling should be interpreted as an excruciatingly polite request made under duress (as in the excerpt below).

A bite is at the far end of a long line of behaviors a dog uses to communicate displeasure or discomfort. To stop another dog, human, or other animal from doing what he perceives to be an inappropriate or threatening behavior, the dog often starts with body tension, hard eye contact, a freeze, pulling forward of the commissure (corners of the lips). These “please stop!” behaviors may escalate to include a growl, snarl (showing teeth), offensive barking, an air-snap (not making contact), and finally, an actual bite. The dog who does any or all of these things is saying, “Please don’t make me hurt you!” -Pat Miller, ”Teaching Bite Inhibition”, June 2010 WDJ

Undoubtedly, many dogs are pleading to avoid conflict with their growl. But I suspect others are saying something closer to “Bitch, don’t even think about taking my bone!” Bottom line, there’s a difference between the headspace of a dog that growls at his owner for attempting to move him off the couch, and one that growls at his owner out of fear of a beating.

Why does that matter? Because much of the weight of Dunbar’s theory seems to rest on one’s acceptance of the internal narrative assigned the growling dog. Give the hero a different script, and the ending no longer makes sense. Is the dog that growls and lunges at every dog he sees while pulling his owner down the street in fact repeatedly imploring, “Please stop, don’t make me hurt you,” or shouting “Get off my block or I’ll go medieval on your ass!”? I can’t answer that question and neither can Dunbar. But I can recognize one dog’s communication as potentially distinct from another’s, even if they both happen to include what we humans indiscriminately call growling. And I would argue that while a growl can be a laudable expression of restraint, it can also be something very different, something more genuinely offensive.

Shutting Off the Tap

In batting around these questions with trainers who work aggression cases regularly and hands on, some common themes emerged.

First, the implication that aggressive behaviors exist within discreet modules, such that one may be extracted while the rest remain functionally intact, doesn’t sit well. These behaviors are part of a natural sequence involving rising arousal levels. They may be let to proceed, may be accelerated, or may suffer interruption, but they cannot easily be rearranged or reassembled with parts missing.

As trainer Michael Shikashio, CDBC, describes the progression from growl to bite,

My thought is that it is more of a fluid escalation, one where you can “shut the water off” before it spills over the top of the glass.

I think most trainers would agree with this characterization, and in fact acknowledge that interrupting the “flow” with a well-timed punisher has the real potential to halt aggression in its tracks. In such cases, the punishment may be very mild, yet succeed at suppressing the arousal. Another trainer referred to this as response blocking.

Whatever one calls it, it’s a phenomenon with which trainers specializing in aggression are universally familiar. Yet the prevailing wisdom suggests a world in which it’s not even a remote possibility. In this world, punishment either doesn’t work at all (and possibly adds fuel to the fire), or it acts like a perfect surgical strike, annihilating individual behaviors with laser precision while leaving the rest of the picture untouched (and opening the door to biting without warning). And of course, the implication is that one can’t reliably predict which outcome will occur.

Meanwhile, the real capacity to suppress aggression via positive punishment without disastrous fallout is rarely acknowledged in public discussions.

Why is this?

Because a threat that is both profound and unavoidable, striking often and at random, is a powerful deterrent. And that’s ultimately the point, in my estimation, far ahead of enlightening anyone about anything.

An honest discussion of punishing aggression would reflect actual knowledge and actual probabilities. The prevailing wisdom regarding punishing warning signals, based on untested hypothesis and promoted by rumor, reflects neither.

Am I saying that punishing dogs for growling is typically a good idea? Not by a long shot. I may never have witnessed this strategy result in a stealth biter, but I’ve seen plenty of other unpleasantness.

Am I saying it’s impossible to generate such a dog via this formula? Again, no. But research and experience both suggest it is the least probable or even relevant consequence of punishing for posturing, growling, etc. Far more likely to get an immediate escalation of the conflict, a redirection of aggression toward the handler, or an interruption of events accompanied by a suppression of arousal. The fact that all of the above might also happen to include less growling is almost beside the point.

In Conclusion

The claim that punishing a dog for growling may cause him to bite without warning is made so frequently, and with such authority, that it should hold up to a little scrutiny, in my opinion. Yet a casual inspection reveals little foundation and lots of loose ends.

At minimum, it’s an exaggeration of how typical this phenomenon is, and an overstatement of our understanding of how aggression works. At worst, it’s a questionable idea whose main attraction is its utility as a scare tactic.

Aggression is complex, both as a suite of behaviors and as a problem to solve. If it weren’t, every trainer with a basic understanding of theory would be prepared to deal with it swiftly. Meanwhile, our understanding of it, both as individuals and as a profession, is neither crisp nor uniform. It is dynamic and evolving, hopefully in the direction of reality and away from myth.

My thanks to the many accomplished trainers who shared their opinions with me on this topic, and to Dr. Dunbar in particular for responding to my questions.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

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I am a balanced trainer. I use a wide range of tools and approaches as I see fit, and have no moral or ethical qualms with using punishment skillfully and responsibly to meet training goals. I view dog training pragmatically, as a matter of choosing the optimal path for each dog/client team, respectful of individual needs and preferences, but not bound up in specious notions of self-perfection or personal growth.

I do not see dog training as a contest between me and the dog, and have come to bitterly resent the appropriation of the term “balanced” by trainers whose attitude toward dogs is essentially combative.

Forcing unnecessary confrontations is no more “balanced” than a head halter is “positive”. It’s also nothing like genuine leadership, which involves inspiring trust and respect, providing guidance when needed, setting fair boundaries, and creating stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in the context of working with aggression, yet one still hears trainers refer to gloving up and doing battle in such cases, as if resolving aggression issues was simply a matter of going mano a mano.

I tend to attribute this mindset to the combined influence of dog training as television drama, our natural fascination with aggression and its traditional role as a professional proving ground, and the old school myth that one need bring aggression out in order to address it.

Of course, most balanced trainers are not actively looking for a fight. But some are clearly a little too eager to prove they can win a confrontation, or maybe just too comfortable in that arena to bother avoiding one. I would have to put Cesar Milan in the latter category, as his obvious confidence in his physical prowess seems to tempt him into triggering aggression fairly casually.  And in balanced trainer circles, one frequently encounters those who seem to be courting aggression unnecessarily, and, in some cases, suffering the consequences.

Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting that every trainer who’s ever been bitten was asking for it.

I’ve been bitten a number of times, once trying to get a tennis ball away from a
bull mastiff at a dog park before she swallowed it, once breaking up a fight,
once leashing up a kennel-crazy dogo-mix, once in the leg (redirected
aggression), and once because I reflexively reached for the collar of an
aggressive Rottweiler in a moment of confusion (he’d just gotten loose from
another handler). Those were all legit bites requiring medical attention. The
last one was probably four years ago. But none occurred in a training context.

The only time I’ve been bitten while training a dog was around two years ago, when I was nipped by a year-old cattle dog with zero bite inhibition. (Before anyone starts an argument over the meaning of bite inhibition, let me note that this cattle dog was not protesting anything, just executing a Touch command.) I honestly don’t remember if I needed a band aid, but I know I didn’t take it personally.

Again, good trainers can occasionally get bitten in the course of training. But good trainers are damn careful. They not only aren’t looking for a fight, but know how to avoid stumbling into one. As to how that’s accomplished, there are clearly more ways than one. I can only speak for myself, and don’t consider myself an expert, despite a reasonably good track record.

First, I don’t generally use muzzles in training contexts. I own a bunch and use them occasionally while socializing an aggressive dog. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use muzzles while training, just saying I don’t. They interfere with the dog’s demonstration of natural body language, and cause most to feel nervous and/or compromised, potentially inhibiting normal behavior. They can also embolden the handler to take greater risks, as with pushing a dog too close to–or over–threshold. As a friend who worked as a motorcycle messenger once expounded, “I ride a lot more carefully when not wearing a helmet.” Personally, I don’t find helmets to be an issue. But a muzzle is a game changer, and it’s a game I don’t care to play.

Now I will employ a second line, either in conjunction with a second handler, or a tethered to a wall or post. That’s kept me safe in cases where I suspected the dog might come up the leash. And at least in the colder months, I’ve been known to strategically don my trusty pair of Carhartt overalls, just in case.

I don’t train aggressive dogs on psychotropic meds, and I don’t train aggressive
dogs I can’t read, or feel genuinely uncomfortable with. In at least two cases,
that’s meant instructing the client without handling the dog myself at all. In
one case, it meant referring the client out. That dog should probably have been
euthanized (and maybe has been).

I’m not suggesting I read all dogs with ease, by the way, only that I happen to be able to read most of the ones that present to me as clients. There are frankly certain breeds I see so infrequently, that I would hesitate to work with a genuinely aggressive one. (Akitas come to mind.) Bully breeds, on the other hand, are my bread and butter, so I’ve had a lot more practice reading them (and they’re just easier, too, I suspect).

Mostly, I train the dog at whatever pace he needs, in order to keep him
fundamentally on board with the project. That means keeping a sharp eye on the
threshold for a bite at any given moment, and maintaining a keen awareness of
the dog’s overall stress level. Sometimes, it means breaking lessons down into
very tiny steps, so as not to risk confusion or frustration. Sometimes (not
often) it means backing out of an exercise as gracefully as possible, and
revisiting it more carefully or intelligently just a little later on.

I still remember one session with a two-year-old American bulldog mix, newly enrolled in a board/train program. He’d been impressively responsive to a number of introductory exercises, seemed quite enthusiastic, and took the occasional correction totally in stride…until I decided to review his down command. He visibly tensed and braced himself. I went slowly, knowing I had unwittingly trespassed onto precarious ground. I’d given the cue, and felt obliged to enforce it. But just as he averted his gaze in the manner of a dog preparing to bite, I made the call to abort the exercise, returning briefly to something less stressful and ending on a high note, rather than a trip to the emergency room.

Not so long after that, I found myself listening to a young enthusiastic trainer explaining how she’d been bitten in the course of demonstrating an exercise with a client dog. She’d gotten herself into an intractable situation in the course of enforcing a command, and wound up the story with the words, “But you know, you can’t back down. You gotta win, right?”

Sure, if you call that winning.

I acknowledge skillful training can include conflict between dog and handler. But I’m against courting such conflicts
(whether intentionally or carelessly) or rushing headlong into them.

Training should be a collaboration, not between equals, but between parties that
share mutual respect. Sometimes, I think that respect is expressed by a trainer
backing off, and coming back with a better strategy, rather than coming back
with more gear.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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