Posts tagged ‘dog aggression’

Conflicting Conclusions

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not Eureka! (I found it!) but rather, “hmm…. that’s funny….”

Isaac Asimov

Quiz for the day: To prevent or avoid canine aggression problems, should you:

  1. Live in the U.S.; spay or neuter your dog and train him without any aversives under the supervision of a veterinary behaviorist;
  2. Live in Europe; plan ahead to acquire a very large, sexually intact male or spayed female dog; refrain from spoiling your dog; exercise it regularly and train it yourself using effective corrections?

According to a pair of studies published in 2009 — both answers are right.

In the previous post I wrote about Meghan Herron, Frances Shofer, and Ilana Reisner’s (Herron et al.) “Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors“. This study has been quoted extensively as proving that “confrontational training methods” provoke aggressive responses in dogs.

During the same time period that Herron et al’s study was published, Joaquin Perez-Guisado and Andres Munoz-Serrano (PG-MS) published an article in The Journal of Animal and Veterinary Advances stating that owner behavior is the primary factor influencing dominance aggression in dogs.  From the abstract:

Modifiable and non-modifiable factors that are associated with higher levels of dominance aggression and depend on the owner include first time ownership, a lack of obedience training, the owner not being the main obedience trainer, spoiling the dog, not using physical punishment, acquisition as a present, as a pet, impulsively, or to guard and spaying female dogs. Modifiable factors have the greatest influence on dominance aggression in dogs. Dog-dependent factors (gender, breed, age, size and coat color) are fewer than owner-dependent factors.  There was an association between certain dog behavior patterns and higher level of dominance aggression.

The sample for this study included a very number of dogs trained using “confrontational methods”. Dogs that should have reacted aggressively to their owners based on the results reported by Herron et al. Contrary to Herron et al’s finding, PG-MS’s data indicate that the use of physical corrections was inversely correlated to dominance aggression. In other words, their data suggest that the use of aversive training methods prevents aggressive behavior.

How can two groups of scientists study aggression in dogs during the same year and come up with conflicting findings? Tabulated data weren’t published in the PG-MS study, so this review will be more limited than I’d like. Still, a closer look at these apparently contradictory studies may provide some valuable insights.

First there were significant differences in the populations sampled. Herron et al.’s respondents were Americans getting advice from a veterinary behavior clinic on existing behavior problems. PG-MS’s were Spaniards taking their dogs for a walk. Herron et al. surveyed 140 dog owners; PG-MS interviewed 711.

In the previous post I said that I believed that there was a significant bias problem in Herron et al’s sample because it only included owners who were actively seeking help from a veterinary behavior clinic. Given this limitation, all dog owners who found that aversive methods worked effectively for them were removed from Herron et al’s sample. I stated that I thought this was the most significant problem with the study – and PG-MS’s data appear to corroborate my suspicion. In a much larger population without that bias, the correlation between aggressive behavior and aversive training methods not only disappeared – it appears to have been reversed.

How could this happen?

First of all we’re comparing two different varieties of apples here. Herron et al stated that their goal was to assess whether there was a connection between the use of aversive techniques and aggressive responses. PG-MS focused on the importance of nature versus nurture in the development of dominance aggression.

Next, I believe that there were significant differences in how the two groups defined aversiveness.  Herron et al. did it subjectively and included what I thought were a rather odd range of “interventions” in both the aversive and non-aversive groups. They evaluated “hitting and kicking” as a training method. Three different types of verbal corrections were considered separately – but the wide array of techniques used in clicker training were lumped together under a single heading. Two different types of leash corrections are included in the aversive group and avoiding any exposure to triggers is considered training in the “neutral” category. This bizarre mish-mash of categories appears to have been put together by someone with little hands-on experience with dogs.

Instead of using objective criteria (like a measure of the dogs’ responses) to evaluate aversiveness, Herron et al. used subjective value judgments to determine which methods were aversive, neutral and non-aversive. On the other hand, PG-MS don’t provide any information on how they assessed the relative aversiveness of training methods, so there may be problems with their assessment too.

One of the most interesting things I discovered in comparing these studies was that it appears that we’re all so sure we know what defines a method as positive or aversive, that scientists don’t even feel the need to clarify their definitions. And that doesn’t make any sense. Rewards and punishments are, by definition, subjective and personal measures of discomfort and pleasure. If trainers and scientists can’t find something other than subjective measures of “niceness” or “not-niceness” to define training methods – we’ll never agree on how to use them.

Moving beyond the problem of definitions, I think it’s important to ask whether the relative aversiveness or positiveness of a method is the most important factor in dog training.

In an effort to figure out how the dogs involved felt, I took data from tables published in Herron et al. and, ignoring  subjective measures of positive or negativeness, ranked them by percent of positive responses as evaluated by the dogs’ owners. Then I plotted that data against the percent of aggressive responses observed. Here’s the chart (click for big).

There’s an inverse relationship between positive effect and aggressive response. In other words, methods that worked well rarely provoked aggressive responses. You can also see that as positive response decreased, the degree of correlation became much more erratic. How can we explain this?

If you look at the interventions that elicited the highest percentage of aggressive responses (hit or kick, growl at, pulling an item out of a dog’s mouth, alpha-rolling, holding a dog in a submissive position on the ground and scruffing it) – you’ll see that these are the kinds of things people are most likely to do when they’re frustrated with their dogs. As I noted yesterday, I believe it is likely that Herron et al’s sample included an anomalously high number of frustrated dog owners.

PG-MS’s stated that being a first time pet owner, acquiring a pet on impulse, spending less time with your dog, a lack of exercise or obedience training, having someone else train your dog for you and spoiling it were positively correlated with aggressive behavior. In my experience as a dog trainer, these are all good indicators of a potentially frustrated dog owner.

In Herron et al’s study, the interventions that elicited the highest percentage of effective responses (using food to trade for an item, making a dog sit for everything, using food rewards, increasing exercise, using an attention command, clicker training, leash corrections and use of food-stuffed toys) with few exceptions* were methods that require a reasonably calm mind and some forethought. PG-MS correlated aggressive behavior to a lack of training, lack of exercise and excess of pampering. These factors don’t generally indicate mindful behavior.

Going back to the quiz we started with; I don’t believe that the answer to preventing and curing dog aggression will be found in subjective, abstract concepts tossed around by people who are more interested in parsing out behavior than handling and interacting with dogs. I’m convinced that the key to preventing and curing canine aggression is proactive, mindful behavior on the part of dog owners.

In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again.  They really do it.  It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful.  But it happens every day.  I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

Carl Sagan

* Avoiding the problem – which I refuse to accept as training; and the “force down” – which elicited a noticeably higher percentage of aggressive responses than other similarly effective methods.

Note: Based on the recommendations of both studies – Audie should morph into a vicious killing machine any day now. I used aversives to train him and he meets all the criteria for “pampered” according to PG-MS. Stay tuned for further developments…

January 7, 2010 at 3:02 am 10 comments

Don’t Touch Me There

Young Charlie has a few issues.  He lost or was taken from his mother at the age of about four weeks.  In a perfect world he’d have been put with a no-nonsense adult female dog who’d have whipped his snotty little butt into shape. But Charlie was being held as evidence so he was kept in a box stall with a group of similarly-aged motherless puppies.  The little hooligans were regularly handled by people – but they didn’t have an adult dog around to teach them the rules.

As a result of this less-than-perfect upbringing, Charlie grew up to be a very pushy little dog with a short fuse.  Fortunately for Charlie (and for me) one or more of his ancestors were thoughtful enough to bequeath him an exceptionally bright and resilient nature.  Charlie isn’t just a quick study, he recovers from stress as easily as any dog I’ve known.  Still…. we’ve got these issues to deal with.

One of the most problematic issues has been that when he arrived here Charlie had little or no tolerance to be touched with anything but my hands.  If I tried to touch him with absolutely any object held in my hand he turned into a whirling, snarling bundle of snapping jaws that weren’t going to stop until they made contact with flesh. Preferably mine.

I really hate getting bitten and I refuse to let a dog set the boundaries in our relationship – so I had to change Charlie’s opinion about being touched.  Borrowing from horse trainer Pat Parelli, I’ve used a modified version of  The Friendly Game to teach young Charlie that being handled could be a safe – and even enjoyable – part of his life.

The goal of so-called friendly games are to teach an animal how to stay calm when pushed out of its comfort zone.  Using a combination of approach and retreat we get the animal’s permission to touch every place on his body – without forcing him to accept it.   You will progressively use touch to push the dog  just a bit out of his comfort zone and then reward him with a release of pressure (i.e. stop the touching) after he tolerates it calmly. 

When you do this work with a dog he should be on a slack leash.  He must neither be held or restrained tightly nor be allowed to run away to avoid the game.  I generally prefer to put a six-foot leash on the dog and stand on the midpoint of it.  This keeps the dog close while giving him limited room to move and leaves  my hands free to work on him.

Start a session by touching the dog in ways he’s comfortable with and then gradually move on to the places or situations he’s less sure of.   If the dog tries to evade the touch, stay calm, ignore him and keep your hand (or the object you are touching him with) on the spot you have targeted. 

Initial work should be done in small increments to avoid putting so much pressure on the dog that he is pushed into reacting with an excess of fear, aggression or excitement.  Remember, the goal is to push the dog just slightly out of his comfort zone and then reward him for tolerating that pressure by ending the game.  This teaches the dog that he must allow you to touch him and shows him that it is safe to trust you to do it fairly.

As you work with the dog, pay attention to the areas and situations the dog isn’t comfortable with.  These will help you measure your progress and decide how quickly or slowly to move ahead with each new step in the game.  The game should be played a few times per session.  This helps teach the dog that he doesn’t get to decide when and how the game ends.

I’ve used friendly games to help lots of dogs.  Some of them started out dangerously aggressive when they were touched, and every one of them got over it.  Including Charlie.  This morning I put him up on an elevated stand and calmly, quietly brushed several large tufts of loose hair out of his coat.  Three weeks ago he’d have bitten me in the face.  Today I got some puppy wiggles and a big kiss.

Steps I took in desensitizing Charlie included:

  1. Started each session by touching him with firm, extended pressure with my hands starting at his withers and continuing to his hips.
  2. Moved on to using a very thin, light leash to touch his body.  I let the leash hang down from my hands let the loose end brush against his body.  As he got used to the sensation, I flicked the leash gently back and forth over and across his body.
  3. Used a heavier leash to do the same things.
  4. Looped up a 15-foot long line and did the same exercises with several loops of line.
  5. Tied a rubber udder tug to a leash and repeated the exercises, alternating with the looped line.
  6. Used the leash/udder tug combination, then shortened the amount of leash between my hand and the tug.
  7. Touched him lightly with the tug held in my hand, then with a Zoom Groom.

Once I got to the point where I could touch him with the Zoom Groom (about a week from when we started) we moved ahead more quickly.  I used the Zoom Groom and the back (non-bristle side) of a dog brush to touch him all over.  In every session I started by doing things he was comfortable with and in every session I continued on, calmly, quietly and confidently until I pushed Charlie just a bit out of his comfort zone.  I worked that ‘uncomfortable” area gently but persistently until he accepted what I was doing, then I ended the session.

Now as I progress to doing actual grooming work on him I’ll change the game a bit.  When Charlie decides he’s not comfortable with what I’m doing I’ll pause to acknowledge that I recognize his discomfort.  I’ll give him a second or two to regain his composure, then I’ll continue on.  This will teach him to accept working in longer sessions and further increase his self-control resources.

Allowing your dog to set the boundaries in your relationship, especially when it comes to something as healthy and natural as day-to-day handling, puts that relationship in a very unhealthy place. While on the surface it might feel like the easier, “kinder” way to go – in the long run it teaches your dog to be increasingly intolerant of being pushed out of his comfort zone.  And – it also leads to a dog whose comfort zone gets smaller and smaller over time.  This puts your dog into a very ugly feedback loop where he gets less tolerant of stress and  becomes easier to annoy.  In my experience this leads to a dog being rehomed, euthanized or relegated to a life where he is excessively managed.  And that’s not the way any dog would choose to live his life.

September 28, 2009 at 11:38 pm 6 comments

Vicious Pibble Attack!

%$&#@ EVIL DUCK!

It’s a crisis of epidemic proportions. We MUST ban Mallards. And all “mallard-type” ducks.

February 5, 2009 at 2:48 am 5 comments

“He Just Attacked Out of Nowhere!”

As a dog trainer I’m frequently called on to help people deal with aggressive dogs.  It is some of the most difficult, rewarding and sometimes heartbreaking, work I do.  Dogs evolved to be our companions in life – but they can also be very dangerous. 

If you have an aggressive dog in your home, do not try to fix the problem yourself.  Dogs can be very dangerous, even small dogs. Earlier this month a 6-month old child in Lexington, Kentucky was killed by a Jack Russell Terrier.

Don’t risk your life, or worse yet, a child’s life, by ignoring aggressive behavior or trying to trying to fix it on your own. And don’t make the dog someone else’s problem by dumping it with a rescue group without telling them the real reason you are getting rid of him To fix a problem like this you need to hire a dog trainer who has experience working with aggression.  We suggest you look for one who is a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals or the National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors.

Aggression is part of animal life and although there are many ways that animals express aggression, some features are common to most aggressive actions.  One of these is escalation.  Aggressive encounters usually start with a low risk, low intensity exchange of aggressive displays.  If these initial displays don’t end the encounter, increasingly intense – and progressively more dangerous – patterns of behavior follow.  If neither animal backs off, the encounter will eventually end with the most potentially damaging behaviors the animals are capable of.  This progressive increase in the intensity of aggressive behavior is called escalation.

Emotional aggression arises from impulsive actions and is therefore less affected by weighing risk against reward than resource-based aggression is.  Because of this, emotional aggression tends to escalate far more quickly.  A dog that is reacting out of fear, frustration or other emotional triggers will typically escalate more quickly than one who is calmly defending his territory. 

Dogs are masters at emitting and reading subtle contextual cues; most people are not.  The first signals a dog emits when he is aroused are usually very subtle and can therefore be missed by an inexperienced or inattentive person (or dog). When those initial, subtle signals are not acknowledged, the dog’s actions will escalate, especially if he is emotionally aroused.  I believe that this is why many people describe aggressive encounters with dogs as occurring without warning.  The warning was there, but it was so subtle that the person missed it. 

Escalation is a vital factor in canine aggression. The first step to curing problem aggression is being able to recognize key signals the dog exhibits early in the process. If we interrupt the dog at an early stage in arousal, it is usually easy to redirect him to more appropriate behavior. But if the dog has escalated to an overt threat stage by the time we try to intervene, we are far less likely to be successful – and far more likely to be bitten. 

Another key factor to keep in mind when you are faced with an aggressive dog is changes in rates of behavior.  When most people observe an aggressive dog, they look for specific reactions and postures (growling, bared teeth, stiff movement, etc.). These changes of the dog’s outward state are important, but we should also look for changes in rates of behaviors.  Escalation to the next level of aggression is often indicated by changes in rate of behaviors like pacing, panting, blinking, wagging, or other repetitive actions. For example, you may see a dog suddenly start to pace more quickly right before he moves into the next, more intense stage of aggression. 

When you observe a change in the rate of an action like pacing in an aroused dog, make a mental note of the postures, expressions and movements the dog displayed right before the change occurred. Some of these are likely subtle signals of aggression that you’ve missed in the past.  If the dog is still in an early stage in the process, it may be possible to divert his attention and redirect his behavior to another outlet.  If he is strongly aroused, there is more warning to avoid additional conflict or injury.

It is also important to realize that arousal happens quickly and calming down takes time.  Aggressive reactions are physiological, not just psychological, reactions.  Changes like increased respiration, heart rate, elevated adrenaline levels and other factors take more time to abate than they do to begin. To prevent an aroused dog from re-escalating, you should take him away from the source of his arousal and give him a chance to calm down. 

And remember – UNLESS YOU ARE AN EXPERIENCED, PROFESSIONAL DOG TRAINER – do NOT try to work with an aggressive dog yourself.  This article is purely informative.  It is not intended as a guide to working with aggressive dogs.


Links to three photos illustrating increasing levels of aggressive display.  In the first, Zorro is giving subtle signals (intent gaze, head positioned over Audie, tight lips) to young Audie to back off.  The second photo shows Zip intent on taking a toy from Audie.  The intense stare, prominent whites of her eyes, open mouth and ears aimed forward indicate she is in a higher state of arousal than Zorro was.  The third photo shows Aussie Roo (RIP) telling three much larger dogs to back off in no uncertain terms.  The completely bared teeth, tight forward-pressed lips, wide open (almost bulging) eyes and stiff forward posture are warning them that her next step will be to bite.

January 28, 2008 at 5:59 am 4 comments

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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