Dog Aggression, can it really be cured?
Some say yes, some say no I say It Depends…
There are so many variables to take into consideration there are no cut and dry answers, but my answer “it depends” doesn’t mean some can, some cant. It Depends means, that it depends on the owner of the dog, how much time they will commit to teaching and training, how well they can implement my instructions and how well they can maintain the rules.
If I sat down with someone and had a theoretical discussion about why a dog is aggressive or the more modern term “reactive” to other dogs, I can discuss thresholds and the process I go to alter thresholds so in this discussion, I always can provide a solution.
So the answer is “yes, it can be cured“, but when I bring the dogs owner into the equation, the answer is not so clear.
Once I diagnose the problem with a dog, I go through a list of tests in my mind to see what skills the dog will need to have so as I can work with the dog and the owner to decrease the re-activity.
Although it sounds simple, walking calmly on a loose leash is going to be a significant behaviour that the dog needs to have or, the aggressive or re active behaviour will be almost impossible to make any changes to.
The problem is, most people don’t have a dog that walks on a loose leash, maybe the dog doesn’t pull most of the time but he or she does pull at times, of course when they are reacting is one of those times.
People allow their dogs to pull them down the street, or drag them to a telegraph pole or tree to smell or mark, maybe their dog is just hunting the whole time when walking, reward seeking or avoiding conflict, either way, this is a huge factor in overcoming aggression or re activity.
Another what seems to be semantic difference in my training than I see with others is that, I don’t go around correcting dogs for being aggressive or rewarding dogs for not being aggressive, I reward for target behaviours that are suitable such as walking calmly next to me and remaining engaged with me.
In other words, I won’t spend a month training a dog to walk in the heel position only to scream “No” and start giving leash corrections when that dog breaks the heel position to be aggressive.
This is one of the worst things I see people do, and many have been doing it for years and will never stop.
Let’s bring some training terms into discussion here: –
“REINFORCEMENT” – to make stronger.
You start teaching a dog to walk at heel, you apply positive reinforcement to make that behaviour stronger, then you pair this work with a verbal cue “heel”.
When the dog breaks this position you give a No Reward Marker (negative punishment) or you apply a leash correction (negative reinforcement).
Then you walk down the street and your dog starts reacting to another dog, but rather than trying to re establish the training program you have been working on, you start shouting “NO” and rip into the high end leash corrections.
It is pretty easy for your dog to feel that when another dog shows up, it turns my handler into a leash correcting, screaming maniac.
Now some people will have you to believe that this is the fallout that comes from using negative reinforcement, but I don’t believe this, I believe this is the association your dog will have as you are an inconsistent, reactive trainer.
You have planned out a route around your neighbourhood so that you won’t be working on dog aggression today, you think it is OK for your dog to disconnect from you and sniff the ground, pull a little or a lot on the leash, rush up to people to say Hi and get totally engaged with the area the last dog peed, whilst you stand patiently by.
I can promise you 100% this is where the dog re activity comes from.
Sure your dog may have been attacked as a pup, wasn’t socialised properly, was born nervous and or any of these, but today, your dog will go through a process of: –
- Identifying the trigger (other dog on horizon)
- Elevation of arousal over threshold (crossing threshold)
- Initialisation of behaviour (choosing offensive behaviours)
- Carry out behaviour (aggression)
- Intrinsic reward for arousal (arousal produces Dopamine)
Out of these five sure things that occur, most people are trying to battle the dog on number 4 and telling the dog off during number 5. Did you know that these are pretty much the only times when training and communication are largely ineffective…?
Regardless which program you use, be it my program, BAT, LAT, Click to calm, negative reinforcement, flooding etc, you will need to be able to identify each of the above arousal states or you will stand almost no chance of success.
Setting limits to arousal
Don’t underestimate the power of a calm loose leash, if you teach your dog remain within emotional boundaries one leash, you will be able to reduce your dogs access to the Initialisation of the Behaviour stage.
This means the loose leash rule applies all of the time, so yeah that means: –
- When you get your dog out at the park and he anticipates fun and excitement
- When you walk your dog to the park and he sees the ball and gets excited
- When your dog see’s a family member and he just wants to say HI
- When you open the front door and your pulls like hell to the mail box
You get the picture? If you allow high arousal behaviour to develop any time that your dog when the dog feels that it is warranted, you see now why you can’t control the aggression, or you should see why.
So you see, nowhere in this article have I talked about the different types of dog aggression, the triggers to aggression, the reasons for aggression or the importance of good socialisation, because before you can get close to understanding these you need to get control, of yourself, your consistency and set rules and boundaries in which your dogs has access to rewards.
I have had an enormous amount of success rehabilitating dog to dog and dog to human aggressive behaviours over the past near 30 years, and I do attribute that to my ability to read and diagnose dogs, my experience, skill set and education, but teaching dogs rock solid Life Skills has really been one of the most important foundations I have used in almost every case.
I was working with a really nice lady whose dog can be reactive sometimes at the dog park, she cannot really pick which dog it will be, or if it will happen at all and asked how would I deal with this problem.
Now I could spend days, weeks, months or even years teaching her to read the body language of each dog in the dog park and rely on her engaging those skills each and every time she is at the dog park, for the whole time she is at the dog park or… I could advise her to not go to the dog park until she has the dog to a level at which the behaviour is no longer prevalent in her dog.
When she said “but he likes the park sometimes..?“
I said something like
“there are 100 dogs at the dog park including yours, there are 100 people there including you, in all of this you can control some of your own behaviour and a small part of your dogs.
None of the other people or other dogs behaviours, do you like those odds?“
This lady complained multiple times to me that people let their dogs race up to hers and they wave and say “It’s OK, he is friendly“.
Well you know, we can only blame these people so long before we have to start wondering how much responsibility we need to take for going back there time and time again and suffering the same fools.
A lot of rehabilitating these dogs is about initially insulating them from other dogs that we cannot control, controlling ourselves, setting limits to their arousal levels, teaching new skills and being consistent. So if you haven’t guessed just yet, its more about us then them…
Dog Aggression, can it really be cured? It depends doesn’t it? Take a look at this post and see how it is supposed to be done.
As always I welcome your comments and thoughts, so leave us a reply, we are always interested in your thoughts.