"Other than that, my dog is perfect!"
On a daily basis we speak with owners at the end of their rope. They have dogs who are running away, who are jumping up and knocking people down, who pull on the leash, who counter surf and chew up shoes. They come in all shapes and sizes and inflict all levels of terror on their well-intended families. Many of them have simple solutions, but some of them take a more competent, experienced hand. These are the anti-socials, the aggressors, the fearful ones, maybe even biters... And they might be out of free passes. Today I’d like to take some time to understand who these dogs are, and give a little insight about how we approach them.
A person wrote to us recently and described having a dog that was showing some alarming aggressive behaviors when she was around people outside of her immediate family. This included guests to the house as well as strangers in public. In public she had pretty poor leash manners and would frequently lunge and bark at people passing by. When guests came to the house she would allow people to pet her, but only after a period of time had gone by and she approached them to initiate it. As she would stay in the room with the visitors, she would often be heard growling, and jump up, startled, at any kind of movement the guest would make. She would also compete for attention if their other (very social) dog was soliciting affection. However, she would do so while displaying very unstable body language - ears back, head low, tail down, suspicious, worried eyes. All of the warning signs were there, but her owner was not convinced that the dog was actually a threat to anyone. To “help” the dog overcome her “fear of people” the owner submerged her in social situations – carnivals, parades, festivals, etc. She also insisted on having the dog be a part of all social gatherings at the house, and allows her to dictate how everyone in the room operates and interacts with her. I personally might not want to come over! Without even meeting this dog, I can only imagine that it’s only a matter of time before something bad happens. My conversation with this person and many others has inspired me to put some thoughts down about this type of dog.
(In future articles I will be addressing nature vs. nurture in the development of a dog’s temperament and personality. I would like to dispel many myths and misunderstandings about this topic. However, in the interest of time, I would like to begin today by touching on the basic approach solely from a training perspective. For more information about temperament, drives, and genetics I urge you to read this article “Elements of Temperament: Drives, Thresholds, and Nerves” http://www.germanshepherdguide.com/temperament.html It’s incredible!)
Finding Freedom in Obedience
The first approach to addressing a problem with a dog showing aggression towards strangers is to go back to the dog’s core understanding of Foundation Obedience. I can’t tell you how many people sign up for training because their dog has embarrassed them beyond belief with their public displays of aggression and almost demand their money back when I want to begin with work on their sit stay. Why do we take this approach? It’s simple. There are two reasons, really. First, the dog needs to have understanding of what they are expected to do instead. The second is that now, I have the ability to change the argument. Fancy trainers call this Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior. Really, I’m saying to the dog “there’s no way you can go Cujo on that dog across the street if you are respectful and attentive to the ‘easy’, no-pull leash command I have asked you for”. The two behaviors are not compatible. If the dog is put into an obedience behavior that he has been taught how to be accountable to, then he simply cannot be doing the undesired behavior at the same time. At this point, if he were to break from the obedience task, then there would then be a consequence for that. However! We must first teach the dog these behaviors outside of the situation where the dog struggles! And so we would begin our Basic Obedience program. These are the things that our Basic Obedience program covers:
- The dog will have a very clear understanding of a marker system. The markers include a release/reward marker, as well as a no/correction marker. Essentially, the dog will learn the fundamentals of how to be taught.
- Sit and down on the first command. This will include another detail of not leaving either behavior until being marked or released. As this evolves, duration as well as distance from the handler will increase. No need for an additional “stay” command. Sit or down until told otherwise.
- Walk “easy” on the right side. No pulling, no lagging, sit automatically when we come to a stop. Ahhhhh…so peaceful. Everyone loves this one.
- Attention Heeling on the left side; looking up very attentively at the handler, with no breaks in attention while maintaining proper positioning on the left side. Also, automatic sits when the handler comes to a stop.
- “Place” command. The dog must go to a specified bed or “place” upon request, and stay until released.
- Come when called (at this point, on leash).
Now what on earth does any of this have to do with aggression problems, you ask? Everything. If you have trained these simple commands, you have rehearsed through the distraction thresholds, and they have become reliable not only in your living room, but at your local park, at your shore house, at the vet office, the groomer, and everywhere in between, then you have really achieved something. You are a leader. Now, you have some tools. And you very likely have a brand new level of attention from your four legged friend that you never experienced before. You are no longer on your dog’s training program (well, perhaps you still are, but you have moved up at least a few ranks). The fact of the matter is, it will never be fair to address all of the negative behaviors you wish to never experience again without first showing your dog some alternatives.
Here are some common things I hear about that don’t work:
Seeking only a few training sessions (and trainers who are willing to do so)
I find that the trainers who only make 1-3 on-site visits, and begin some behavior modification of the aggression without any prior relationship with the dog are only addressing one symptom. This kind of training has never made sense to me. From what I’ve seen, it also never proves to last. These clients always become mine. They say “Well it worked while the trainer was there” or “it worked for a few weeks”. This isn’t good enough for me. I want my client to become their own dog trainer. I want to give them so much understanding of their dog and how it thinks, and a tool box full of so many solutions, that they go home and address their own problems for the next 10 years! It’s amazing how this works. To begin, this requires more than just a session or two. Sometimes this takes 20 sessions. It’s not so different than any other relationship. A couple walks into a therapist’s office complaining about one seemingly obvious and detrimental problem, and quickly realize that the issue really began in their lack of fundamental communication, deep in the foundation. That’s where we need to begin.
Another thing I hear too often is for people (and even some dog trainers) who try to simply immerse their dog in whatever their fear is. This technique almost never goes well. I once sat in on a very productive rehabilitation of a young dog that had become quite fear aggressive, and sadly, had bitten a few people. In an effort to “get her over her fear,” her owner had started taking her to as many heavily populated places that she could think of, and not so surprisingly, the problem got much worse, very quickly. Her new instructor asked the woman “What is something that you are afraid of?” The woman responded, “Snakes. I hate snakes.” So her teacher says “Well I’m going to help you with that. I’m going to fill this room with snakes, and I’m going to put you in it. How would that make you feel?” The point was clear. This type of training is counter-productive, insensitive, and dangerous. We need to remove the dog from the situation, give it the proper coping skills, and then move the dog back into controlled versions of the problem areas. This takes time. Be patient.
Cookies, Cookies, and more cookies!
I often find that fear aggression problems cannot be solved by exclusively positive trainers. Their clients also become mine. It’s simple. When a dog is in full fledged defense drive, he could give a crap less about your cookie. Period. So now what? These trainers and methods are great in theory, but they only really apply to a very specific type of dog, and your aggressive Cujo wannabe is not it. So if a cookie is your only means of getting your dog’s attention, you’re in trouble. Seek balanced training methods. Neither extreme of a training method, be it positive or negative, is a good thing. The good trainers will utilize the best of both worlds to achieve the best results. And they won’t send you away.
Evaluating a Dog’s Temperament (And being HONEST about it!)
I have a pet peeve that has been irking me for many years: People that try to make dogs into something they are not. This is an enormous topic and I could ramble on about it in many different contexts until the day I die. For now, I will scratch the surface and keep it only in regard to a dog’s desire to be social. People seem to have this extremely selfish tendency to just assume that a dog should be whatever they wish for the dog to be. This extends to those who take on extremely high energy dogs and are appalled at their resistance to lying on the couch and eating bon bons all day (who later turn home demolition into their self appointed job), those who buy drivey little terriers and are completely offended at the little dog who will dig up every square foot of their beautiful garden, or the sweet family full of small children who buy (and never train) a very large, protective mastiff breed, and are terrified when they find their 10 year old neighbor pinned against the fence one day with a low, menacing growl when he came over unannounced. I’m also talking about the very social people, who expect and insist on a social dog. Well folks, guess what? Not every dog is social. Hell! Not all people are social either! And that’s okay. There is a perfectly good place in the world for dogs like this, and it might be at your feet as you read this article. I challenge owners to be honest about their dog’s temperament. This, I understand, often takes professional guidance. But let’s talk briefly about an example here…
Mico is a young Malinois that I bred and raised from birth. From a very young age, I socialized the daylights out of him. At this time, I worked at a grooming shop, where he tagged along and met clients and other dogs throughout the day. However, from the very beginning of his little life, he was different than my other dogs. When people engaged with him physically, he absolutely hated it. If he could click his heels and disappear, he would. There was no amount of cookies and friendly, respectful people that would ever change his mind. I did notice, however, that Mico was 100% willing to be neutral around strangers. And instead of inviting everyone and their mothers to pet him, I started being his advocate, and politely asking them not to. I got a lot of funny looks, but Mico’s relationship with people immediately improved. I could feel how much freer and comfortable this made him. I am as social as they come, but Mico is an introvert. I have to respect this. Mico is not alone. There are many dogs like him. Please don’t try to make them something they are not. Let’s give these dogs as many tools as we can to “cope” with uncomfortable situations, and be an integral part of their dog society, but let’s not force them to be social. They want to be left alone.
Dogs are honest beings. If we spent half of the time listening to them tell us who they really are as we do trying to shove them into our cookie cutter fantasies, we might find that we can all live even more peacefully together. Is your dog capable of being the dog you want him to be? Or should you make a compromise...