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canine

Addressing Aggression, the Force-Free Way

In this first of a four-part article, Diane Garrod discusses canine aggression and reactivity,

showcasing video examples to highlight two dogs’ progress as they move through a

T

behavior change program

here is a big question that periodically comes up in dog-specific social media. It asks: “Why don’t force free trainers show more ‘before’ videos of their cases.” More often than not, the answer is found to be that force-free trainers do not set up a dog to react, or aggress, or provide any opportunity whatsoever to rehearse any undesired behavior. A useful workaround here is to ask if the client is able to video any behaviors they are concerned about and sign a release, so the material can be used publicly to help others with similar issues. This would allow a trainer to avoid setting up the dog and keep associations positive from the beginning, yet still have a “before” example to evaluate progress. Making more “before” videos available publicly could then be one way to substantiate a behavior issue and show how it is worked through to a results-oriented outcome using force-free methods. When behavior consultants look to address aggression or reactivity, they put the pieces together systematically so the behavior can not only be managed and prevented, but diminished, decreased and often extinguished. I see aggression cases daily in my practice, and, for me, the myth that “challenging” dogs cannot be rehabilitated using force-free methods is dispelled repeatedly. Force-free methods are based on science and there is a growing body of data to support them (see The Case for Scientifically-Informed, Kind Practices on pp.18-26).

Case One: Before and After

Pointer mix Christopher came to his guardian in a transport to be a laboratory test subject. A classic rescue, their eyes met and they both knew it was meant to be. Christopher’s case involved a systematic behavior change program for a dog-reactive male to include acclimation, one dog at a time, outdoors, at home, on the road, and in reactive dog classes using desensitization and counterconditioning in various contexts. Christopher lived in his forever home until he passed away peacefully in Arlington, Washington.

Photo © Diane Garrod

Functionally, aggression may be defined as a threat or attack behavior that works to achieve access to a stimulus, or to escape or avoid a stimulus

In the video RD #2 - Outdoors - teacher dog, we can see Christopher is nervous and reactive to dogs and sounds. Once a reaction occurs, redirecting him is key. In my opinion, working through the known triggers, such as this dog’s fence and leash reactivity, social deficits etc., is more important than any “before” video. In Christopher’s case, it was necessary to move back several steps to increase distance and decrease duration. The video Reactive dog class AFTER shows what Christopher eventually accomplished, confidently and systematically. His guardian said he was “more tuned into us in low-distraction environments. Even when he reacts the time he’s ‘out of his mind’ is less.”

Defining Aggression

Aggressive behavior is a normal survival strategy in the face of perceived or real threats; when a client talks about aggression, what they see might be very different to a clinical definition or expert evaluation of the actual behavior

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Photo © Diane Garrod

BARKS from the Guild/January 2019

What do aggression and reactivity actually look like? How do we define aggression? According to DogNostics Career Center (2018): “Aggressive behaviors are the onset of a coercive or destructive process, and threat. Aggressive operants are growling, snarling, snapping and lunges or bites. Aggressive behaviors are operant behaviors and are reinforced through their consequences. Pets learn that by using aggressive behaviors they can access pleasant stimulus or avoid or escape aversive stimulus.” We might say, then, that, structurally, aggressive behavior in dogs usually refers to snarling, growling, lunging, snapping and/or biting. Functionally, aggression is a threat or attack behavior that works to achieve access to a stimulus, or to escape or avoid a stimulus. It is a normal survival strategy in the face of perceived or real threats and this is why the words "cure" or "fix" are not viable descriptions.

Profile for The Pet Professional Guild

BARKS from the Guild January 2019  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...

BARKS from the Guild January 2019  

BARKS from the Guild is the bi-monthly trade publication from the Pet Professional Guild covering all things animal behavior and training, p...