Miracle Cure for Dog Aggression!

February 28, 2019

aggressive dog on leash malinois editedI recently came across an online video that stopped me in my tracks. Essentially, it promised to stop dog aggression and reactivity “in minutes”. Naturally, I had to see this miracle for myself. Enter a trio of dogs who were barking reactively at passing dogs. The “trainer” struck the dog who was doing the most barking. Struck as in hit the dog with something that had been given a cutesy name but was actually a rolled up towel. The actual hitting was not shown, but rather, conveyed in text on the screen. (Apparently someone realized no one wants to see a dog being hit.) Not surprisingly, once the dog had been struck and startled, he stopped barking. Dogs are not stupid, and they understand how to behave in the moment in order to avoid being hit again. To be fair, there was mention of some training being done after this since the dogs were now calmer. And so, once again the other dogs were paraded past these dogs, who now remained silent. If you didn’t know any better you might be impressed, and might even believe that the problem had been solved. If you did know better, you’d notice the body language of the newly “trained” dogs, who were displaying subtle signs of anxiety and fear. The trouble is, whether on a television show, a Youtube video, or anywhere else, it’s all too easy to make it seem as though an aggression problem has been solved when in reality, the dog is simply suppressing the reactive behavior to avoid further pain.

Seeing a dog being being hit (or reading about it) gets all of our hackles up, and rightly so. But let’s take the emotion out of the situation for the moment and consider it logically. Does hitting or otherwise punishing a dog who is reactive to other dogs actually solve the problem? The majority of dogs who are classified as “aggressive” to others are actually displaying fear-based reactivity. They’re not comfortable with dogs in close proximity, so they bark and lunge in an attempt to increase the social distance between themselves and those dogs. And it often works, as dogs who are being walked past on leash do seem to move along! But what’s the real problem here? Is it the barking and lunging? No. That behavioral display is merely a symptom of the underlying issue, which is the dog’s emotional response to other dogs.

Dogs make associations between things by learning that one thing predicts the other. It’s simple classical conditioning. To use a human example, let’s say I’m afraid of spiders.  Each time I see one I scream. This really bothers you, and you wish I’d stop. So, you decide that each time I scream, you’re going to smack me. Well, I’m not stupid, so I learn quickly not to scream when you’re around. What did this accomplish? Now whenever I see a spider I’ve got one more thing to worry about, as I’ve associated spiders not only with being scared, but also with being smacked. I think Damn, I knew those spiders were trouble! If, on the other hand, you had shown me spiders at a distance at which I was still comfortable while feeding me enticing morsels of dark chocolate, gradually closing the distance as I became more relaxed, in no time at all I’d be raising my fist in the air and shouting, Bring on the tarantulas! Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. I’d have learned that spiders predict good things. With a bit of patience on your part, I would eventually lose the need to scream when I saw the creepy crawlies, because now they would predict something I really, really like. This example of classical conditioning works similarly for dogs, although it is not, of course, the entire solution to helping a reactive dog. (Just don’t feed them chocolate. Not only is it dangerous, but it leaves more for you.)

The vast majority of the time, behavior modification for serious issues such as fear or aggression is not a quick fix. It takes patience and dedication. It’s not something that is instantly cured as shown in a quick video clip, alluring as that might be. In reality, making meaningful changes in a dog’s behavior can be less than exciting to watch. But you know what? It actually works, and the change in the dog’s behavior lasts a lot longer than the length of a video shoot or the few minutes it takes to brag on camera. Again, real behavior modification takes time. But the reward for all that effort is that the dog’s underlying emotion changes, which naturally changes the behavior in the long term. So don’t be fooled. When things seem too good to be true, they usually are; and that applies double to fixing behavior problems in dogs.
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When “Come!” Means “Run the Other Way!”

February 21, 2019

recall practice crop smallHere’s a conversation I’ve had many times over the years with owners of small dogs:

He won’t come when I call him. He’s so stubborn!”
Could you show me? Can you call him now?”
The dog comes running…and stops a few feet away from the owner.

Why don’t these petite pooches come closer? Are they teasing their poor owners? Do they get near and suddenly smell something bad? No, and no. Those dogs know all too well that when they get close enough, their person will swoop down and pick them up, so they stop just out of arms’ reach. Not only does that swooping motion seem scary from a small dog’s point of view, but many dogs simply do not enjoy being air lifted.

It’s not only small dogs who learn not to comply with requests to come. There can be many reasons, but they all have to do with consequences. Imagine that you need to leave the house for a few hours and your dog, whose superpower seems to be shredding anything within reach, must be crated. You say, “Buddy, come!” Nothing. “Buddy, come on!” Again, nothing. Is Buddy deaf? Nope. Buddy, smart dog that he is, has learned that if he comes to you he’ll be put into the crate, which he does not love. In other words, Buddy has learned that, “Come!” means Run the other way!

Other unpleasant consequences from a dog’s point of view might include being put back on leash after running free, being removed from a dog park where he had been playing (if you’d like to know my feelings about dog parks click here), having to go back inside when he’d been romping in the back yard, being put in the car when the only places he goes is to the vet or the groomer…you get the idea. Coming to you when called should never result in something your dog perceives as unpleasant. Of course, there are times you need your dog to be with you immediately. In those cases, simply go and get your dog, or use a different word or phrase in a high-pitched, happy tone to encourage him to come to you. The reason for using a different word is that you don’t want to sully the magical recall word that predicts good things only.

It’s funny when you think about it. Don’t your dogs come running every time they hear “Cookie!” or “Treat!”? It’s a no-brainer. But are those words really magical? What if, instead of having used those words, you had instead said, “Come!” each and every time your dogs got something yummy? Don’t you think they’d be flying through space at warp speed to reach you when called? It’s all about conditioning. In the first few examples, your dog was conditioned not to come, whereas here, when he’s being rewarded each time he hears that magical word, he develops a positive association with it and is more likely to come whenever he hears it.

Years ago when my German shepherd Soko was alive, I heard barking in the middle of the night. It sounded suspiciously familiar, but it was coming from far off so I didn’t think much of it. When it didn’t stop after a few minutes, though, I ran out on the porch to investigate. Surprise! Soko had managed to get beyond our fencing and had run down the hill, across the dirt road, and up to our neighbor’s property. To say I was not pleased would be an understatement. Standing on my porch at 3 a.m. in my jammies, freezing my butt off while yelling, “Soko, come!” was not my idea of a good time. And yet, I used a pleasant voice, with the same pitch and intonation I used during training sessions, to call her. As she ran to me, although I was saying something along the lines of, “You little s#$)! You are a very bad girl right now!” the words were said in a happy, encouraging voice. When she reached me, I praised her and got her safely back inside. Had I yelled at her when she reached me, which is something I see so many owners do, I would have been punishing her for coming to me, not for what she’d done before that.

Instilling a solid recall is not rocket science, but we do need to be conscious of our actions not only when we’re training, but in everyday life. If we show our dogs over and over that “Come!” predicts only good things, and we are diligent about practicing around distractions, gradually increasing the difficulty over time, always with a positive consequence, our dogs will reliably come when called.
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Want free weekly training and behavior tips delivered right to your inbox? Sign up for Training Tips Tuesdays at www.nicolewilde.com (click on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop Mailing List). For alerts of new blog posts, click Subscribe at the top of this page. You can find my  books, DVDs (including Train Your Dog: The Positive, Gentle Method) and blog on www.nicolewilde.com. 


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