Aggression: Before the Game Begins

Aggression: Before the Game Begins by Pamela Dennison
© 2005. May not be reprinted without written approval.

Whether we accidentally adopted one, or inadvertently created one, no one in their right mind ever wants to own an aggressive dog. The good news is that many more people are now willing to work with their dogs rather than deciding on euthanasia. The bad news is that there seems to be a mindset of “I just want my dog to stop aggressing,” and to that end, “quasi-” desensitization sessions are attempted. I say “quasi-” because it appears that the desensitization process is often misunderstood or misapplied. Essentially, systematic desensitization is all about defining your dog’s triggers, which begins with writing a list breaking down each fearful event into its smallest components. Once those triggers are understood, beginning at the bottom or least scary step, associate the tiny steps with relaxation and alternate behaviors. If at any time, there is an aggressive response from the dog, the step was too large. “Oops!” WE goofed. Back up, review what happened and try again later.

Taking the time to slowly and carefully teach the dog other behaviors are often neglected, because “I just want my dog to stop aggressing.” (now, dammit!) Without a concrete plan of action, the naive handler then continues to expose their dog to situations he can’t handle, with no alternate or incompatible behaviors in place. Also absent is a long history of calmness during sessions before moving onto the next carefully orchestrated session.

No matter what the dog’s issues/triggers are, I start with teaching the same set of core alternate and incompatible behaviors before starting the systematic desensitization process. Why before? Most of the dogs I come in contact with possess little or no basic training. They may have learned that sit, stay, come, walk on a loose leash are optional behaviors. They may have been traumatized, perhaps through harsh punishment methods. Often trust needs to be re-established or they (dog and handler) must learn what the rules of the game are.

For the aggressive dogs that I work with, it is a prerequisite that all of them know certain behaviors and know them to a certain degree of fluency before being allowed to join the group class. I am a big stickler about this because it isn’t safe to have untrained dogs in the class. It is also important to teach the human half of the team the proper response if their dog does react (this would be “nothing, just hang on tight and whatever you do, don’t drop the leash!”). During those first six weeks (minimum) of private lessons, (one hour per week) we work on some basic and some not-so-basic behaviors—for the dogs and the people. We discuss the pitfalls of using punishment, (many of them experience an “aha!” moment once they understand that their behavior affects their dog’s behavior) how to properly read signs of stress, how dog’s learn (a tiny crash course on classical conditioning and operant conditioning) and how to reclaim a better relationship with their dog.

The basics include:

eye contact (my definition of eye contact is calm willingness to look at owner, without the constant nagging “watch me, watch me, watch me” ad nauseum),
instant name response and instant recall (if your dog happens to look away at the scary bad thing and you don’t have constant attention or instant name response, it will be harder to get his focus back on you and stop him before he reacts),
attention heeling on a loose leash (at the very least, to get from point A to point B without a reaction),
door etiquette (you can’t start a session properly if the dog charges out of the gate with teeth bared),
sit, down, stay (good for more advanced training or at the very least to do the puppy push-ups game),
nose targeting the hand, (my version of getting the dog to look away rather than using a head halter),
a few APDT Rally moves, such as the come front, (“Oops! I didn’t see that person/dog coming around the corner!”) moving down, (“Oops! I didn’t see that person/dog coming around the corner and there is no place for me to get away!”) and the 180-degree pivot (and run like heck).
In addition, depending on the dog’s issues, I teach them the drop on recall, “go to your bed,” (two great behaviors if the person the dog is charging is you) drop while running away, (a “must have” if the dog gets loose or the leash breaks and you need to stop them NOW!) and directionals—move away in the direction I am pointing (a wonderful way to make it fun for the dog to move further away from their provoking stimuli).

Once the basic core behaviors are learned, (and are pretty reliable inside my building as well as outside in the “real” world) I often add in free shaping for confidence (for both dog and handler), problem solving and just for some enjoyment. When working with aggressive dogs, it is important to add that fun element—otherwise the entire process becomes too stressful. Shake paw (“nice to meet you”), doing a figure 8 around two cones, balancing on a Buja board, riding a skateboard, jumping through a hoop or over a low jump, “wipe your feet,” and any number of silly things I can think up.

This may seem like a huge amount of behaviors to teach the dog in only six weeks, but most of the dogs actually learn them quite well. Their owners practice and are quite motivated to get into the group class. Sometimes I run into a dog that needs more training than the six lessons—their owners haven’t practiced enough or they can’t pay attention outside. Most of the aggressive dog classes are held in local parks or on trails, so if the dog can’t focus outside, they are not allowed to join the group.

For the primate half of the team, we work on breathing techniques, positive mental imagery and actually practicing certain scenarios that may happen in the real world. In addition, we work on building up the confidence, timing and “muscle memory” of certain behaviors, so when presented with an “Oops!” moment, they will know what to do so they don’t panic. For instance, I am working with two dogs right now that have a hard time passing people and holy moley if that stranger says “hello!” So, we work on just those types of situations, while still working in privates. That way, the dog is comfortable with me doing potentially scary things and the owner relaxes as well. Then, once they are allowed into the group, dog and handler are both more at ease with the contexts we design in class.

Some students are just too nice and have a hard time making sure that people or people with dogs stay beyond their dog’s threshold. I have one such student now. She is quite timid and was continuing to allow people to approach her human aggressive dog, which of course, was not doing anyone a bit of good. I taught her to be more forceful and gave her some key phrases to practice with. At the same time that she was screaming at the pretend person (actually the T.V.), she was shoveling food to her dog so he would not become afraid if she started screaming at someone to STAY AWAY!

The dogs that make the most progress are the dogs that have a large repertoire of alternate or incompatible behaviors to fall back on. Their owners practice them diligently using positive methods, and make these behaviors fun to do. I have found that most of my students become completely enamored with how easily their dogs learn new things and it seems to take away some of the angst they may be feeling about their dog’s aggression. I always encourage them to come and watch my group class at least once (before signing up or during training). They see how supportive and calm everyone is and how rare it is that any aggression is happening. The people in the group love showing off for guests, relating their stories and successes.

When new people see how the core behaviors and others are utilized within the class, this oftentimes rejuvenates their dedication to help their dog. Those skills, coupled with the new bond with between them, will create a climate where a huge amount of the anxiety/fear/aggression will dissipate. Once that is accomplished, then the process of desensitization can begin.

When I interview a client on the phone to assess whether or not they should come for training, I take a history on the dog including any incidents that have happened. These include exact details of not only the dog’s reactions, but the person’s reactions to the aggressive incident(s) as well. I also ask how long these types of behaviors have been going on, if they have used other trainers to rectify the problem and if they have had a health check recently. In my opinion, the most important aspect is not necessarily the dog, but how committed the owner is to dealing with their dogs’ issues. I try to make it very clear that there is no quick fix—it will take as long as it takes. I also encourage them to come and watch the group class before signing up. If they aren’t dedicated (don’t have the time, money or real desire to see this through the long haul), I will not take them as students.

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