Shark Infested Waters

Shark Infested Waters
Pamela Dennison (c) 2023

Would you willingly go into the deep ocean, not knowing how to swim? Let’s say there are known sharks in the area – would you voluntarily toss yourself off the boat, with no training, not knowing how to swim, without proper equipment for deep sea diving, no safety nets in place???

Working an aggressive or reactive dog without solid foundation skills is like tossing someone who doesn’t know how to swim, into a shark infested ocean and expecting them to make it out alive.

The greater part of all mischief in the world arises from the fact that men do not sufficiently understand their own aims. They have undertaken to build a tower, and spend no more labor on the foundation than would be necessary to erect a hut. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

These days, immersing the dog (flooding) in situations that the dog can’t handle is what’s passing for desensitization. The new cult “wisdom” going around is that teaching obedience to an aggressive or reactive dog is a VERY BAD thing and won’t help the dog to learn how to cope with his triggers. Honestly, I don’t understand the reasoning behind this.

Years ago before one of my R.E.W.A.R.D. Zone seminars, a woman called me wanting to sign up with her aggressive dog. I asked her what foundation skills her dog already knew how to do and listed what I was looking for, so we could then work on the desensitization process and not waste her time in the seminar to build them. She angrily said, “WELL, if my dog knew those I wouldn’t need you!” Then she hung up on me.

From the mouth of babes. YES, if she had taken the time to build a solid foundation, she could then have had a shot of helping her dog. Without them, she was in the deep ocean without a paddle, a life jacket or a boat.

Some people think that management is the be all and end all, that they will have to manage forever, “But isn’t that ignoring the problem? How will my dog ever learn to be calm around XYZ if I don’t expose them to XYZ?”

No, it isn’t ignoring the problem, however, in order for your dog to be calm around his triggers, you’ll need to control each and every aspect of exactly how your dog is exposed to those triggers. I also hear quite often, “I just want my dog to stop aggressing.” Well, nature abhors a vacuum, so “stopping” a behavior isn’t possible. What WILL work is filling in that void with behaviors that are incompatible (to aggressing) behaviors. That dreaded word – “obedience” is what you NEED.

So what are just a few incompatible behaviors and why do you NEED them?

Eye contact – if the dog has no connection with you and vice versa, what will they look at and react to?

Name response – if the dog doesn’t know their name in any and all situations, they won’t respond to you when it matters.

Come response – ditto

Heeling – every dog needs heeling – walking on your left and looking at you adoringly as you move in tandem – (it’s not just for competition obedience!) to get past provoking stimuli safely and calmly. Why on your left? Because if you always train one specific spot, in an emergency, you’ll be able to watch your environment while you reach down, knowing exactly where your dog is, and grab him as needed (Of course another foundation skill is to teach the dog to move into your hand, instead of away from it. Most untrained dogs will do one of two things when being “grabbed” – they’ll scoot away or bite you because hands snaking out to the collar can be seen as a threat).

Loose leash walking – I don’t want your dog to be heeling 24/7 – I want your dog to enjoy being a dog in safe places. And go back to heeling if a trigger shows up. Loose leash walking isn’t about just that – I teach the dogs to check in constantly, so there still is a connection – the dog knows you exist, even while “being a dog.”

Nose target – I use a nose target for two things – to cue the dog to look away from scary bad things AND, because I encourage my clients to play it so much, it becomes a reinforcer as well.

Going behind you – Have you noticed that when you try to block your dog away from triggers, that they just dash around you and continue to react? Teaching the dog to willingly and on cue go behind you, encourages the dog to “let Mom/Dad handle it.” I’ve used this technique for years and have seen fabulous progress (and a sigh of relief from the dog).

“Grazing” – I teach a “find it” game, where on cue, the dog will drop their head and start sniffing the ground (and then you’ll toss a handful of treats). Depending on the situation, you can then “Hansel and Gretel” the dog to safety. Sniffing the ground is a calming signal and no, we can’t “make” our dogs be calm by cueing this, however, I have seen that the dogs do in fact calm down – then you can decide where to go to safety.

“XYZ” noise means to do something else – Raise your hand if your dog goes ballistic and charges when someone rings the doorbell or knocks? Wouldn’t it be a great thing if that noise meant “go to your crate?”

The above is a very, very short list of some of the foundation skills I teach my own dogs and my clients dogs.

Please tell me, what’s wrong with teaching these (and many others)? Will they make your dog worse? Will they take away from his quality of life? Are they FORCING your dog beyond their comfort level? Are they ruining your positive relationship with your dog? Of course NOT!

What they ARE doing is putting the onus on YOU to actually help your dog; help him to see that he can learn to cope, that he CAN learn to offer alternate and incompatible behaviors that are directly in conflict with aggressing. An untrained dog is one that will aggress at the drop of a hat because he doesn’t know what to do instead*. By teaching him all kinds of behaviors, he will focus his mind and body on you, rather than the thing toward which he normally aggresses, thus building TRUST from both ends of the leash.

(*Instead can also mean DRI – Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behaviors. I also use DRA – Differential Reinforcement of Alternate behaviors, and DRL – Differential Reinforcement of a Lower Rate of Response.” Do these sound like that apparently dirty word “Obedience?”)

Re-read the quote above from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe again…and again, until its meaning sinks in.

Part of the equation that is missing from most protocols – the HUMAN aspect. The problems you are having aren’t just about the dog – it takes two to tango. We may not want to hear it, but the relationship you have with your dog isn’t and shouldn’t be a one way street. You may be so sensitized to your dogs provoking stimuli that you hyperventilate, tense up, and yank back because YOU don’t know what to do instead either. So here you both are, with no skills, no coping mechanisms, no “how do I set my dog up to be right,” no “what should I/we do instead?” Don’t you think that you too, need to learn foundation skills? Or would you rather be tossed in the deep end?

Wouldn’t you agree that as your dog’s teacher, your responsibility is to develop solid skills to further ensure success as a team?

So, what are a few skills that YOU as a handler need to master?

Breathing – long, slow inhale, hold for 1-2 seconds and a slower exhale while you consciously push your shoulders down. Your dog will pick up on the tension or relaxation of your breathing – make it count for good and not evil.

Holding the leash properly, so you don’t have to actually use the leash to control your dog. The leash is simply a safety net and shouldn’t be used as a “tool.” Yank and crank, pop and jerk, prong collars, choke collars, shock collars are used to rev police dogs up, so they DO bite. My ex Son-in-Law was a K9 Police officer – I have video, and isn’t biting precisely not what you want with your aggressive or reactive dog?

Positive Mental Imagery – Yup, I mean it. If the thoughts racing through your head are all about the fear you have and are picturing your dog aggressing, he won’t know that isn’t what you want him to do – he’ll read those thoughts and do the very behavior you’re showing him. I’m pretty positive that you think I’m crazy on this one, but I’m not. I’ve seen it work both ways hundreds of times. Think the good thoughts and your dog will do the good behaviors – think the bad thoughts and… I’ve done it myself with my dogs and can “think” them to do certain behaviors – mostly “come,” and I’ve seen my own clients “think” their dogs to do the same.

Learning to read your dogs body language – While dogs do present some threatening signals—growling, barking, lunging, teeth baring—they show even more gestures to avoid conflict. Just as people from different cultures don’t always understand each other’s manners, people have trouble interpreting the signals that dogs exhibit. Dogs do in fact have a language, and I promise you, it isn’t English. If you don’t recognize what your dog is saying, you’re missing 90% of what it takes to help your dog. And if you’re ignoring what he’s saying, well guess what? He won’t trust you to keep him safe. Side note: I’ve watched Turid Rugaas’ video “Calming Signals, What Your Dog Tells You” over 4,000 times. No lie, no exaggeration. Why would I do that? So I can read my own dogs and read my clients dogs as if they’re speaking English, thus not missing much. I can tell if a dog is going to “pop off” way before the owner can, because I put in the work.

Watching your environment – if you’re not cognizant of your environment – sounds, sights, distance, then you’re in shark infested waters. If you aren’t aware and ready to act swiftly and appropriately, and instead let triggers get too close to your dog (or vice versa) and then try to “fix” it – shark infested waters.

The above foundation skills are just a tiny sampling of what you and your dog should master. That may sound daunting, but if you focus on the journey, the learning process and your progress as a team rather than the finish line, it can be a truly rewarding experience.
P.S. – The “obedience” behaviors you’ll teach your dog and yourself should NOT be taught in a group class!!!! That’s just flooding and will get you nowhere fast other than a quick trip to the deep ocean. The “obedience” behaviors you’ll have in place is the START of the desensitization process, not the end of it.

A great read, if I do say so myself, showing what to do and not to do, is my 18 month diary of working with my human aggressive dog Shadow. Comes in paperback and ebook formats: Click here This book is an honest book – I left in all of my mistakes (and highlighted them so you don’t make the same ones!) Before he passed away at age 13, he was able to successfully accomplish quite a bit: ARCHEX Ewe Are Beyond a Shadow of a Doubt, CGC, CD, TD, TSW, NA, NAJ and best of all became 100% reliable in 99% of life’s situations.

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