Miracle Cure for Dog Aggression!

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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13 Responses to Miracle Cure for Dog Aggression!

  1. I feel like you’re referencing one of Jeff Gellman’s (Solid K9 Training) videos where he uses the “bonker.” Let me tell you, I don’t think there’s a single “trainer” in the entire world I despise more LOL

    • wildewmn says:

      I don’t know the trainer’s name and I’m not out to disparage anyone on a personal level. It’s the training method only that I’m discussing here.

  2. Gerry Ingram says:

    Recipe for the silent biter.

  3. Yay, Nicole, it never ceases to amaze me how dog owners don’t take time to read the abundant research of the past 10 years that unmistakably prove that hitting dogs, using shock collar and choke chains, etc., actually exacerbate aggression. I’m a behaviorist too, and can’t count how much aversive training I’ve had to “fix” through counter conditioning. Props to you for publishing informed, enlightened content.

  4. Ah yes…..the wonderous ‘bonker’🙄, as demonstrated by possibly the most patronising man I have ever listened to with regards to trainers who criticises this wonder tool, no names needed, just put ‘the bonker’ into you tube and it can be seen very openly.

    • Al G Magaw says:

      in the world of sleddogs, 40 years ago, dogs that fought felt the sting of a signal whip – it worked and it was a quick cure – the dogs that felt the sting seldom fought again – times have changed and new ideas have come into play – not all are as good as we’d like them to be – I think the ‘positive only’ method is the reason so many young dogs wind up in shelters – people don’t realise that no matter what type of training is used, dogs still need structured exercise, boundaries, exposure to the word around them, and love and affection given at APPROPRIATE times – in 2019 I don’t know if I could find the old signal whip if I wanted to use it – today I use an entirely different method of behavior therapy – it doesn’t involve force and it doesn’t involve treats – much of the program is fun for the dogs and is it’s own reward for taking part – it’s a matter of putting the dogs safely in a position close to other dogs and having fun as part of a pack, as well as setting boundaries, and introducing the dog to the world around them – it’s about raising serotonin levels naturally, it’s about stimulating the production of Oxytocin and it’s about getting rid of the dogs frustrations – it’s been remarkably successful, but the results take much longer than the signal whip

  5. Al G Magaw says:

    good post – I’d like to point out that not every aggressive dog is suffering from fear aggression – some seem to think of fighting as a sport, or at least something they really like to do – it’s hard to make a blanket statement, because each time I think there is a rule of thumb, I meet another exception, but fear can often take longer to overcome than the pure aggression that some dogs have

  6. Allison says:

    And what if the dog learns it a different way? What if the dog learns – I react to another dog, I get a treat, I react to another dog, I get a treat hmmm, I think this reaction to another dog is a pretty darn good thing because I get a treat for it. Each time she takes me near other dogs, if I react, I get some chocolate, so hell why would I stop, maybe I’ll react harder because she’ll treat me faster so the more I react the more chocolate I get and the faster she’ll give it to me to try to make me stop – then when she’s not looking I can bite the damn dog that is annoying me cause she’s not giving me the chocolate fast enough, or you know what, I think I’d rather get a piece of the dog than the chocolate cause I’m kinda tired of the chocolate and I want something else? Everything you make sound so righteous can be shown in a different light. The bonker is a towel, not something wrapped around anything as you incorrectly state to enhance your position, it is nothing but a rolled up terrycloth towel that just is a way of telling a dog no. And take your spider analogy – I don’t like spiders, so I’ll go eat something instead, so every time I see a spider I’m going to have some ice cream so I’m not scared….hmmm…spider=ice cream – ice cream is good, spiders are still bad, but I’ll eat ice cream instead to get away from the spider. Doesn’t mean I won’t still think spiders are bad, it just means I’ll go have ice cream instead. – then I want something more than ice cream cause I’m still scared of spiders and the ice cream isn’t soothing me anymore – and what if I see a spider but i’ve run out of ice cream because I saw so many damn spiders I used it all up.
    So I’ll start eating something else, but I’m still afraid of spiders – doesn’t mean I’ve learned spiders are good, just means it gives me the opportunity to eat ice cream without guilt. And then I need a diet!
    Your analogy is full of flaws….but people don’t want to see it that way because of your spin on it. Meanwhile in the time it takes you to give the dog chocolate over a period of months and months – look away and you have a dog fight. Throw a bonker once or twice, dog avoids the problem – problem solved. Dog now knows reacting to other dogs isn’t a good idea and stops cause he remembers the bonker. Doesn’t mean he’s not happy, doesn’t mean he is fearful, – just knows its not a wise decision to make. Doesn’t my explanation sound just as good? Don’t we make decisions every day as to what is a good idea or a bad idea? Are we fearful? Are we damaged? No, we are thinking for ourselves. And in a matter of days it will be fixed as opposed to months and months of chocolate. And I don’t want to be around if you don’t have chocolate or your dog knows you aren’t paying 1,000% attention at the moment giving him his opportunity to strike because you let him down by not being prepared with the chocolate.

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Allison, I’d like to clear up a few things:
      1. I never, EVER recommend giving dogs chocolate as treats. You mention this a few times toward the end of your post. I’m assuming this was an oversight while writing quickly but I don’t want anyone remotely getting the idea that giving dogs chocolate is okay, as it can be toxic.
      2. If the “bonker” is a wrapped up towel I stand corrected, and will edit the post. However, it still works because you are scaring the dog. If it wasn’t scaring the dog, or causing pain, depending on how hard the dog is hit and the dog’s sensitivity, it wouldn’t stop the behavior at the moment.
      3. To address your initial question, that’s not how classical conditioning, in partnership with desensitization, works. In my example with the spiders, I think you may have missed the line “at a distance at which I was comfortable.” This is key. If you simply shoved a spider in my face and gave me a piece of chocolate, it might actually work in reverse, with me having a bad association with chocolate. In classical conditioning one thing *predicts* the other, and we incorporate desensitization as well. So, with a dog-dog reactivity issue, we always start at a distance where the dog is NON-reactive. He sees the other dog, and then receives a treat. He is now beginning, while in a relaxed state, to associate the appearance of another dog with something he likes. As the program is successful, the distance is gradually closed, making sure the dog is not pushed over threshold. When you talk about thinking for ourselves, that is in the realm of operant conditioning, which is about making choices. Again, with classical *conditioning* an animal or person’s emotional response is altered. (And no, the treat does not have to be around forever, but that’s another long explanation.) This is the basic science of dog behavior and psychology, and as someone who has been a trainer and behavior specialist for over 25 years, I can tell you it does work, and it does not necessarily take a long time. I hope this helps you and anyone else who might not have completely understood to better understand the process.

      • Allison says:

        I was using chocolate as the example because you were and I do agree, I didn’t mean to imply in any way that it should be used…I think the point I’m trying to make is there is no one right way – there are different ways that are going to work with different dogs as each dog is different just as humans or babies are. What I’m trying to show is that you can look at this from many different angles. Your way most definitely works, but the other way works as well and it is not cruel and it does not cause pain – its just a different approach. The current movement to make one way the ONLY way that is acceptable is wrong because it may work for one, but not for another – therefore trainers need options when one way isn’t working. And the current movement is trying to limit the options. This is not a one size fits all world, whether it be babies, children, adults or dogs – therefore other options should never be discounted, condemned or considered wrong, they are just that…another option that should be available for use. Because it does work, so while it need not necessarily be the first option it should remain as a choice and an option if the others fail and trust me, the others sometimes fail…

      • wildewmn says:

        We agree that there is more than one way to train a dog. I can’t speak for a movement, but personally, classical conditioning and desensitization are not the only methods I use with dog-reactive dogs. I completely agree that like people, dogs are different and a training approach should be tweaked based on the individual dog (and their owner). Of course hitting a dog with a rolled up towel is not the same as hitting him with a fist or kicking him. It is in the realm of startling the dog, and I honestly don’t have as much of a problem with startling a dog (with a sharp verbal “eh-eh!” for example) as hitting one. We all have our own limits on tools or methods we will not use. But even with a lesser harmful method, as you said, “it need not necessarily be the first option. Unfortunately, there are those who have made that their first option and the centerpiece of their training methods.

      • Allison says:

        Well I do respect the idea that you are willing to admit that sometimes those options have merit – There is a movement to attempt to obliterate those methods and that will not be a wise move – there are lots of dogs out there, I myself having littermates who were 2 of them, where those options became mandatory and brought my dogs from crazy to AKC CGC titled dogs…and not having those options available to me would not have had the same ending…Let’s keep the dogs’ welfare front and foremost in these decisions and not our own ideologies based purely on emotion and not what’s best for the dog,

  7. wildewmn says:

    I didn’t say “those options have merit, meaning smacking a dog (regardless of what with) is a viable option. I am not what some might classify a “purely positive” trainer in that I do use verbal reprimands, and I really I’m not interested in being classified as anything anyway. We all do our best to care for and train our dogs in what we believe is the best way for them. Thanks for the interesting discussion. Got to go run out and train a client’s dog now. 🙂

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