ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Diffusing Aggression

It's very tricky stuff using punishment to "correct" any kind of aggressing behaviors. Because you never know what baggage you may be attaching, for one thing. For example, your dog begins to posture, to lunge, to growl and stress over an oncoming dog. The handler then ADDS a punisher--pain--to the scenario. But does the dog, when stressing, understand what is causing his discomfort? And what if the dog instead comes to pair the pain with the oncoming dog? It happens all the time. It's not a rarity in any way.

It's like the dog who accidently steps on a thorn when a man with a beard jogs by. It is so easy for that dog then to pair the pain in his foot with the appearance of the man with the beard, and from that point on attach a "superstitious behavior" to his responses to any man with a beard. And if the handler then adds a punisher, it sure can confirm what the dog suspected: that when men with beards pass by, bad things happen.

These things happen in real life all the time. And each thing like this can be made worse, or it can be rendered harmless. It's totally up to us, and how we choose to react, and what we choose to reinforce. We have a choice. The dog has a choice. We can try to force the dog to accept our choice, or we can set him up so that our choice is the only choice he wants to make, from his own volition.

So what can we do to change the behavior Lynn is seeing? I think Christy outlined this well, but I'd like to expand it even more. Go into more detail. Cuz I've been there, and shed all the tears myself, spent all those sleepless nights wondering if I should euthanize my out-of-control dog. I know how much this concern eats at you, colors every moment of your life. And I know how much an experienced handler like Lynn can begin to feel like a failure when the tried and true methodology of praise and correction falls short. Been there, done that, and burned the t-shirt.

First, Lynn, have you seen the Turid Rugaas video "Calming Signals"? Or read the little $10 book of the same name? Christy, Nina and Kathleen have queried on what observable behaviors you are seeing, and when you are seeing them. This little gem of a book and equally wonderful video can be an amazing help in training you to "spot" behavior so barely perceptible, most people would never notice them. I found this to be a major "key" in my being able to reshape Peek's agressive responses. First, I had to know what I was seeing. I was so busy trying to MIND READ and figure out WHY he was agressing I missed all the obvious clues. Turid Rugaas' book helped me to forget the whys, and just move from observable behavior.

So I first established WHEN my dog would begin to show signs of stress. He'd first perk his ears up, and then they would slowly move backwards, held rigidly, at about 60 feet from an approaching dog. Then about 5 feet later, I'd notice that his body posture was also getting very rigid, his gait choppy, his steps purposeful. He was gearing up for the confrontation to come, as I interpreted it.

I then noticed that at 50 feet or so, he'd begin to lick his lips, his eyes would narrow and he became oblivious to things he'd normally look at: birds, squirrels, people jogging by. He became totally focused on the approaching dog.

Then at 25 feet, his body became rigid. He began straining at the leash, he could not focus on anything but the oncoming dog. His hackles were upright, his tail lowered, his ears tilting backwards, and every few steps he'd slow down, kick his back legs out ridigly.

Then, when the dog was nearly upon him--even the mildest, sweetest dog--he would begin the lip lift, the low growl, the lungeing behaviors. At that point, he was oblivious to my presence, or to any other environmental distraction. He was focused ONLY on the approaching dog.

So to counter this, I had to start my desensitization program at a point waaaaay back, before he would display his stress signals. He began stressing at apaproximately 60 feet, so I began capturing his attention at 75 feet.

I would pull out my clicker, and my most high-powered treats, knowing there would be a point he'd refuse them, but wanting still to reinforce whataever I could before that point in time. I would then ask for attention behaviors: I'd do quick stops and starts, so he would pop in and out of an automatic sit. And each one I would reinforce heavily. I kept him very, very busy for 10 feet.

Then, knowing the real obsessing part was coming at 50 feet, I began a wide arc, moving INTO his space. Just enough so that he'd be forced to give me his attention, or get run over. Of course, I wouldn't have run him over, but by moving into his "sacred space", he was compelled to pay attention to me, momentarily. I used that moment to reinforce the attention. Click/treat/click/treata/click/treat---all the while moving one step at a time--onne wheelchair stroke--INTO the arc, INTO the dog's space.

Gradually we were facing the other direction, and I kept clicking and treating for attention to me, for stopping and starting. I kept "the bar open", though I did use a clicker. I'm very good at fast clicking now, thanks to Christy. In the "open bar" concept, the goodies flow freely and nonstop as long as the scary object is in view, and as soon as it's gone, the bar closes. I use this same technique, but I add the clicker because it is SO good at capturing his attention. The click itself now means "good things" and is far more powerful than my voice.

So I'm clicking and treating rapidly--maybe getting in 20 clicks in 30 seconds, just constant click/feed, click/feed. I don't care what position he's in, whether he's straight or crooked, whether he sits or just crouches--I just want him focused on ME and not at the object he stresses over.

So we are now at about 40 feet from the approaching dog, and my dog is beginning to tune out to even the clicker, and is no longer accepting treats. I ignore this, keep clicking, offering the treat, whether it's taken or not. I keep marking that moment of attention, and I keep circling INTO the dog's space, coercing him to give me that attention.

I keep this up, tightening up the arc into a circle as the dog continues to approach. What happens is that my dog is so busy side stepping my wheelchair, which is moving into his space, and precariously close to his toes, that he doesn't have TIME to stress and agress posture toward the other dog.

By the time the dog has passed by, he is again taking treats and I note the hackles are down, the tail is coming up, the eyes are widening open again. At that point, I do something FUN. Yeaaaaa! Funnnnnn! Let's play!!! I might give him something to tug on, or a ball to chase, or just throw myself on the ground and wrestle with him. ANything to show him that all his attention on me netted him GREAT FUN and that paying attention to me meant good things will happen.

And that was more than enough for those first few lessons.

Gradually we were able to move forward, instead of in a circle. Normally, I don't like approaching the feared object head on. I think it becomes a difficulty in capturing the dog's attention and focus. So I make it happen. I set him up so that he can ONLY have success, not fail. There is no way he can fail. I keep him too busy.

So the message here is that when scary things come closer, good things begin to happen. The handler's job, as I see it, in the desensitization process is to:

A) Recognize the stress signals the dog is giving off and at what distance from the feared object they are being given.

B) Work backwards, reinforcing what you DO want and ignoring what you don't want. So what if you see the hackles come up, the body grow taught? Ignore it. Circle into the dog, capture his attention, reinforce heavily, rapidly.

C) Make yourself faster and more enticing than the approaching object of fear. Use your body when necessary to get the dog to stop eye contact with the approaching dog. Coerce attention if you can't ask for it. Relax and don't tighten up on the leash, don't add stress.

D) Make daily trips to environments where you will meet the object of his fear, and use each trip as a training opportunity. Plan ahead.

Use a Gentle Leader, not a prong, not a choke. Why? Chokes and prongs will ADD discomfort, and will ADD to the stress. It can backfire on you when you least expect it to. And, it's not necessary to physically suppress beahvior here, only to re-direct it. You're not "correcting errors", but instead, teaching the dog what you DO want and making it impossible for him not to succeed at it.

You can also turn into the dog and begin walking the other way. The Gentle Leader will ensure you that the dog follows, and will do it without the addition of pain, without added stress. The ticket is to start BEFORE the dog begins to stress, to continue heavy reinforcement until the "thing" has passed, and to never, never add physical pain to a dog who is already stressing. It's too easy for them to misinterpret where that pain is coming from and why.

I have come to realize that dog teaching never stops. Never. There are so often little superstitious behaviors that crop up, or new combinations of distractions that can trigger long-nearly extinct behaviors. But when we learn to use operant responding to reinforce what we DO want, and totally abandon correcting for what we don't want, we can forge a strong, indomitable partnership. We can't forsee what may one day trigger our dogs' fear responses, but we can have a plan of easing him through it, of helping him to look to us for leadership and direction.

One thing that will help you here is to teach your dog right now to "check in" with you without being coerced. It won't hold over, in the beginning, when the object of his fear comes into view, but the more you practice "checking in", the faster he will bounce-back and again look to you for leadership.

To teach this, just ignore your dog while reading a book, watching tv, talking to someone. In your peripheral vision, wait to "catch" him looking at you from his own volition. The moment you see him look up at you, click and toss a treat. Then go back to reading, or whatever. No big deal, just teaching him that "checking in" means GOOD THINGS HAPPEN. Do this in every room of the house. Then add distractions. Then take the show on the road, outdoors. Even on relaxing walks, be ready to "mark" that moment he "checks in" of his own accord. It doesn't take long for the dog to realize that "checking in" is a very, very good thing to do, and very rewarding.

Good luck and I hope our posts have give you a place to start. I know you can do this, Lynn. It's just a very different mindset, learning to be PROactive instead of REactive, and there will be moments of supreme frustration. All of us who have "crossed over" have experienced this, and wanted to quit. But those of us who have persevered, have found our skills of communication greatly expanded, and the behaviors we once felt were horrid problems begin to grow extinct from lack of reinforcement. Please don't give up!

This is hard stuff to understand. It's easier for the dogs to learn than it is for us. Everything in our lives, in our culture is punishment based, so that's what's being reinforced in us. We have to step aside, become thinking people, acting people instead of reacting people. And it ain't without frustration.

We get tickets when we speed in our cars, but it doesn't stop us from speeding anymore than retribution of going to prison stops a person from committing another crime, once out of jail. We get "caught" speeding, we get our punisher--our ticket--and we toe the line for a little bit. Maybe a week, maybe a day, maybe an hour. But eventually, if the punishment is not kept up, we will drift back to our old ways of speeding.

Now how about if instead of getting stopped for speeding, we instead randomly got stopped for GOOD DRIVING and were given $500 vouchers? Do you think we may be motivated to exhibit good driving habits more often, with the motivation of perhaps being richly rewarded? I know I would! I'd work HARD to get "caught doing it right." My dog is now the same way. And that's how operant training works. It's very, very proactive and very little reactive. Totally at odds with what is reinforced in our lives every day!

So expect freustration. Expect aggravation. Expect exasperation. And watch your OWN behaviors start to change as you change from a reacting person to a pro-acting person. You're already well on your way, Lynn. I see this all the time with your responses on various lists, where you work to be a peacemaker, to educate instead of confront. You instinctively know that gaining someone's cooperation is far more effective than confronting them, and will change more than the behavior at hand--it will set them up for success to offer more of the same in the future.

I believe that this much more thinking, scientific approach to communication is going to be a natural for you, Lynn. As I see you reaching in this direction all the time, in not only dog issues, but life issues. Good luck and don't hesitate to ask questions, ask for clarification, or let us know when you're confused or upset or flummoxed. We do the same thing. No one has all the answers, so that's why idea forums like this are so valuable. We can get someone from the outside to look at our situation, and assess it without emotional baggage. Sometimes we get incredibly creative ideas from just throwing out a query. None of us are in this game alone.

Debi Davis
copyright 2002 Debi Davis


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