Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dudes: Maybe Not So Scary

Awhile back, I described a "dude incident," in which Maisy rushed towards a man and circled his legs, nipping (but not making contact) at him while barking and growling. It scared the crap out of me because I don't want her to cross that line between putting on a big display and having a bite history. After talking it over with both my veterinary behaviorist and my dog trainer, we came to the conclusion that Maisy's medication had made her feel brave enough to face her fears.

Since then, I've spent a lot of time in pet stores, on walks, and hanging around outside so that I could counter-condition her to men (especially those wearing hats). Although it's probably too soon to declare complete success, she has come a long way in the last two months. Last weekend, we had another huge snowstorm, and in the aftermath, Maisy had two encounters with dudes. She did well both times.

Sunday night, I was out walking Maisy, trying to see how bad the roads were (and wondering if I'd be able to get to work the next day) when we ran across someone stuck in the road. The dude asked me to help him and I didn't want to say no (in Minnesota, you just don't want to risk that kind of bad karma). I tried, but we couldn't get his car to budge. It was stuck. Then, a nice snowplow driver stopped to help... and yes, the snowplow driver was also a dude. In a hat. Although I was a bit nervous, Maisy did just fine with both of them. She was relaxed and happy to hang out while we shoveled and pushed.

The next day, I took Maisy for another walk, and this time, we ran across our mail carrier who is, yes, a dude. And he was very bundled up, wearing a hat and scarf, carrying a huge bag full of mail, and just generally lumbering along. Again, I thought Maisy might be upset by the sight of him, but she wasn't. In fact, she was super excited, and had a full-on helicopter tail and was wuffing little excitement barks. She really wanted to meet him. Sadly, mail carriers do not feel as fondly about little spastic dogs.

I'm feeling very hopeful about these recent dude encounters. I knew that medication and behavior modification needed to go hand-in-hand, but even so, I'm impressed by how well the two work together. Maisy has made a lot of progress with each separately, but the combination is amazing. And I'm so happy, and so proud of her.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Learning Theory 101: What is Learning Theory?

Professor Maisy says "Class is in session!"

Have you ever run across dog trainers who babble on in psychological jargon? Since you’re reading this blog, the answer is probably yes- I’m guilty of it myself. I’ve made references to things like operant conditioning, the quadrant, extinction, classical conditioning, and desensitization. If you’ve ever wondered what these things mean, and how they apply to living with dogs, you’re in luck! This post is the first in a series about the various concepts collectively referred to as learning theory.

Let’s start with the obvious: just what is learning theory, anyway?

Technically speaking, a learning theory is a way of describing how living beings learn, and there are quite a few different theories. This website identifies five broad theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism, design-based, and humanism. It’s kind of like religion; each faith is a different take on how people can connect with God, just as each theory has its own unique spin on how we learn.

When dog training enthusiasts say “learning theory,” what we’re really referring to is the specific branch of behaviorism. Although it was primarily developed by B.F. Skinner, it has its roots with Edward Thorndike’s work, and I would argue that the Brelands and Baileys have contributed a great deal, as well.

There are three basic assumptions behind behaviorism. First, learning is demonstrated by a change in behavior. Second, the environment shapes the behavior. And third, reinforcement is a key component to explaining how the learning occurred.

So what does that mean in plain English? In the words of Jean Donaldson, dogs do what works. Behaviorism would expand this to other animals and to humans as well, but the basic concept is that we learn to do things that have good consequences, and avoid the things that have bad ones.This means that everything your dog does, whether you find it adorable or annoying, is happening because he's learned that behavior pays off in some way. It's important to understand the principles behind the learning theory of behaviorism, because they allow you to change your dog's behavior in ways you like.

In future posts, I’ll talk about the two main ways this happens: through classical and operant conditioning. I’ll talk about counter-conditioning, which is the mainstay of many behavior modification plans, as well as the concepts of desensitization and extinction. I hope you’ll learn something in the process. If not, well, at least I’ll have had a chance to indulge in my geeky nature.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

So proud!

On Sundays, Maisy and I go to a shaping class. It's taught by my trainer friend, and the other students are friends as well. It's a fairly unstructured class- we each work on our own thing, and sometimes, when we're tired, we simply hang out. Oh, excuse me, we do "mat work."

This past Sunday was one of those relaxed classes, and we spent most of it lying on the ground, laughing and talking, while simultaneously rewarding our dogs for relaxed behavior. In the past, when I've done mat work with Maisy she's been what I termed operantly relaxed- that is, she's been coiled up, ready to spring, and in the words of my friend Elizabeth, "twitching like a crack addict in withdrawal." (No offense meant to any crack addicts, in withdrawal or otherwise. Considering how much I love Maisy, this should be construed as the highest compliment.)

However, this week was different. Although she was initially "on" and ready to play the game, when Maisy realized that I wasn't going to ask her to do anything, she rolled over onto one hip, curled into a ball, and put her chin down. Her muscles were smooth and loose. Her eyes were droopy, and her ears were at half-mast. In other words: she was actually relaxed.

My trainer called it a breakthrough. For my part, I was afraid to breathe. Or move. Or do anything that might wreck the spell... which means that I don't have a picture. But take my word: it was amazing!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Trial Stress: Things I Can Do

In a post last week, I identified a number of stressors that are present at trials, and wondered if it was really that strange that Maisy gets upset about them. I was grateful to hear from others that their dogs find some of the same things stressful, too. Of course, what separates Maisy from other dogs is her response- barking, growling, lunging- all things that are problematic in a trial setting. Still, by identifying the stressors, I am half-way to having a training plan to address those reactions. Today, I want to work on the other half of the plan.

The first stressor I identified was a change in routine. There's a number of things that can happen here, and some I will simply avoid: we will not be driving long distances and staying in a hotel. I can pack our trial bag, crate, etc. the night before. But the early morning walk has to happen, so I will prepare for this by taking her on morning walks a few times a week so that it becomes normal. I really ought to start this now, but it's still cold and dark at 6am, so we'll work on it this summer.

Next, Maisy needs to be comfortable in her crate. I need her to be relaxed between runs, whether that's in the car or in the trial building. Not only that, but she needs to be able to do so despite the noise and chaos going on around her. We've been working on this in our reactive dog class. For the last several months, she's stayed in her crate where she can see the other dogs working for the full hour. She's doing well, although she does mouth off at least once during class. Still, she's lying down and mostly looks calm the rest of the time, which is a huge improvement. We will keep working on this.

Another cause of stress is all the noise: barking, whining, handlers talking to their dogs, applause, dogs running and jumping, equipment being moved... there are lots of sounds. I plan on desensitizing her to these noises by using audio recordings of trials... and since I'm too cheap to buy one, I made one when I stewarded yesterday! I love smart phones. I loaded it on my computer, and I've started playing it at low volume while she's eating. We will also visit run-throughs, training centers, and actual trial sites when we can.

Maisy is very sensitive to visual stimuli, especially movement, but also larger, dark-colored dogs. I will work on this through counter-conditioning. I've been taking her to pet stores lately, but I will also make an effort to go to parks, run-throughs, and trials. Yesterday, Maisy waited in the car while I stewarded, and then she came in for awhile. At first, she was worried by a rottie, and did a small lunge and soft wuff in his direction. I ignored that, but the next time the rottie came out of his crate, I stuffed her full of treats, and by the end of our visit, while she was still pretty tense, she was silent while watching him. This is a great step in the right direction.

Next, navigating the crowded spaces often present at trial sites can be stressful. If she were taller, I'd use targeting to move her through the spaces, but, well, she's not. Instead, I will slowly start exposing her to progressively more populated places, heavily reinforcing good behaviors like eye contact, and monitoring her body language for stress so that I can move her away before she has a reactive episode. Some places I will take her include pet stores, run-throughs and actual trials, and pet adoption events.

Then there are the inevitable space invaders: unwanted physical interactions with other dogs or with people. I feel like she's become more social over the last six months. I'm sure part of this is the medication, but I've also been making an effort to call her away from interactions after several seconds (and thus relieve the social pressure) and giving her a treat. She's figured this out, because sometimes she'll rush to a person when cued, and then rush right back to me and nudge my treat hand. I've also been doing this when dogs sniff her unexpectedly. I will also be assertive and stop the people I can, and will try to protect her crate space by blocking access to it. I've been thinking about either buying an ex-pen and setting that up around her crate- or using folding chairs to surround it- as well as crating in the car when the weather allows.

Finally, there's the little matter of handler stress, and for this, I see only one solution: alcohol, and lots of it. Okay, I kid. I will probably always suffer from ring nerves to some degree, but I've been working on visualization exercises that helped at our last trial. Stewarding seems to be helpful too- seeing trials from the other side makes them far less intimidating.

Anyway, those are just some of my ideas. I know you guys are super-smart, so I'm hoping you'll have some excellent thoughts. Do you think these ideas will work? Is there a way that you think I should change them? Or do you have another suggestion entirely? I'd love to hear what you think!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Maisy is Disappointed

You may remember that last weekend, Maisy and I went on a glorious walk at a local park. According to the local paper, less than 45 minutes later, a goat head was found there.

From the article: A goat head in a brown paper bag was discovered in Marydale Park on Saturday evening, according to St. Paul police. A woman walking through the park in the city's North End made the discovery about 5:15 p.m. when she noticed a grocery bag a few feet from a walking trail, police said. The head was taken to Animal Control, where it's being stored in a frozen state as authorities investigate where it came from and how it ended up in the park.

For the record, Maisy is highly disappointed. The best thing she’s ever found in that park was a dead rabbit!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is my dog the weird one?

Photo by Robin Sallie.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I need to do to get Maisy ready to trial again, and it doesn’t include obedience skills! Rather, I’ve been thinking about what happens outside the ring: the stuff she needs to be comfortable with before we try to compete again. For those of you who have never gone to a dog show or trial, let me set the stage. My typical experience with trials has been like this:

I get up early on a weekend, a day when I usually sleep in. I pack a training bag. I walk Maisy early (both to take off the edge and to make sure she’s empty), whereas I normally walk her in the afternoon. I load her up in the car and drive, sometimes long distances, to places she’s never been before. Sometimes we even stay in a hotel. When we arrive at the trial site, I put her in a crate, something I don’t do very often at home. Although I try to pick an out-of-the-way location, inevitably another dog will come up to her crate for a quick sniff or two. If I cover her crate, she will hear barking, shouting, and equipment banging around, but not know what’s causing all the noise. If I leave her crate uncovered, she has to watch other dogs working and playing- hard for my fun-cop dog. When I finally bring her out of the crate, she has to deal with crowded spaces and the inevitable unwanted physical or social contact (someone, canine or human, is almost guaranteed to swoop down on her). Add to that the fact that the person she’s counting on to be an island of normalcy in this sea of chaos is all stressed out with ring nerves, and good grief! How can I possibly expect her to act normal?

Clearly, we expect a lot out of a performance dog beyond the many skills we expect them to demonstrate in the ring. And while Maisy isn’t exactly normal, I have a hard time thinking she’s all that weird, either.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Above Freezing!

I love this time of year. Temperatures above freezing means that the end of a long, cold, snowy winter is finally in sight. Walking the dog is far more enjoyable: it can happen more frequently (sorry, Maisy, I love you, but I just won't walk when it's 20 below zero before the windchill), and the walks can be longer, and I don't need to wear so many layers that I can barely move anymore. (However, Maisy did still need her booties. Ah, well... spring will come soon enough.)

The best part, though, is twofold. First, there is still enough snow left that there are snowbanks along our favorite trails. This means that it is quite safe to let Maisy off leash even in my urban neighborhood. Better yet, most people aren't out yet with their dogs, which means I don't need to worry about out-of-control dogs nearly as much.

The end result was a very lazy walk. I could amble and soak up the sun and Maisy could enjoy all the smells without being told to hurry up. We will definitely enjoy these precious days together.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My Favorite Things

Snowflakes on noses and big doggy grins;
Bright shining eyes and excited spins;
All of the balls that she constantly brings;
These are a few of my favorite things.

Two mismatched ears and a small scruffy face;
Kisses and play bows and jumping with grace;
The way that she runs like a puppy with wings;
These are a few of my favorite things.

Making new friends with her cute spazzy charms;
Mornings that find her curled up in my arms;
Fluffy white tails that wag circular rings;
These are a few of my favorite things.

When my dog barks,
When the words sting,
When I'm feeling sad,
I simply remember my favorite things,
And then I don't feel so bad!

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Is it ever necessary to use pain or fear in training?

One of the things that I love about blogging is its interactive nature. My last post spawned a great conversation about training methods, the “right” way to train, and the role of punishment in dog training. The thread really made me think about my training philosophy, so much so that I felt the discussion deserved its own post.

Let me start by saying that I think it's impossible to use 100% positive reinforcement. Personally, I probably use approximately 85% positive reinforcement, 10% negative punishment, and 5% positive punishment. (If you're not familiar with these terms, this link does a nice job of discussing them.) This makes me a decidedly lopsided trainer, and while I do use primarily clicks and treats, I'm not afraid to use the occasional “correction.” My “corrections” trend pretty light because of who Maisy is- sensitive and anxious- but also because I believe that it is possible to train without using pain or fear.

Does this mean it's wrong if someone trains differently than me? No, of course not. If a given training method is getting the desired results, if it's fair and consistent, and if it's improving your relationship with your dog, then who am I to say that it's wrong? However, I stand by my statement: I believe you can train a dog without using pain or fear.

This does not mean that I think training should be one-size-fits-all. Frankly, I think that's impossible. Every person, dog and situation is different, and as such, needs a different approach. Further, because the dog defines what's reinforcing and what's punishing, it's impossible to make blanket statements about whether or not a technique is acceptable. For example, some dogs find being sprayed in the face with water incredibly aversive. Maisy happens to love it. If I were to try to stop her from doing something by using a squirt bottle, it probably wouldn't be very effective.

The cool thing about positive training is that there are many different ways to teach the same behavior. If I want my dog to go lie on a mat, I can shape her to do that by clicking small movements in the right direction, I can lure her to do it by tossing a cookie on the mat, or I can capture it by waiting for her to go to the mat herself. More than that, though, I can also manipulate the environment to make it more likely that she'll go to the mat by placing it in the hallway and wait for her to walk down it, or putting it in her favorite napping spot, or putting it in her crate... the possibilities are limited only by your own creativity.

I definitely believe that teaching new behaviors can be done with almost completely positive reinforcement. However, stopping an already existing and unwanted behavior is much more difficult. Personally, I call this type of training “behavior modification” but perhaps that's splitting hairs. Regardless, my approach is to try positive methods first, and if those fail, use punishment in a thoughtful, fair, and consistent manner. The punishment used should be the least invasive and minimally aversive option possible.

I think we can find pain and fear-free punishments that will stop a behavior, however, I will concede that there are situations where we might not have the time to figure out how to do that. Life-and-death situations like a dog trying to eat something poisonous or running towards a busy highway are no time to futz with a clicker. You do what you have to do in that moment, even if it hurts or scares your dog. Of course, I don't think that's training so much as damage control, and once your dog is safe, you teach a stronger "leave it" or a better recall to prevent the situation from occurring again. It should go without saying that I would do that training without pain or fear.

This leads to the question of whether it's ever necessary to use pain or fear in training. Philosophically, I'd say no, but I will grudgingly admit that there are times where using pain or fear in training is the lesser of two evils. For example, if a dog is going to lose his home because he's barking too much while his owner is gone, a bark/shock collar is probably the better option. Do I like this? Of course not. In fact, it makes me really uncomfortable to say it, because I believe there's always a “positive” solution. Unfortunately, people don't always have the time, money or knowledge to find it.

All of which is to say that while I think some training methods are better than others, I recognize that those other methods that not only work but that they might make sense in a given situation. I may not like those methods, I may think they're unnecessary, but I'm trying hard to avoid judging people who use them. I haven't walked in their shoes, and I don't know what they're up against. I will speak out against abuse when I see it, but the rest of the time, I will offer support or suggestions when appropriate. This only makes sense. After all, my goal is to be as positive with people as I am with my dog. By my own calculations, that requires offering them positive reinforcement 85% of the time!

So, let me take this opportunity to positively reinforce everyone who comments on my blog. I appreciate you all, even those of you who disagree with me. Perhaps especially those of you who disagree with me, because it forces me to examine what I've said. Sometimes it strengthens my convictions, and sometimes it causes me rethink my position. Either way, I learn and grow as person and a trainer, and for that, I am grateful.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

We Have Cookies least, we will soon.

Although dog training is my passion, by trade, I am a social worker. For several years now, I have worked at a program that teaches vocational skills to people with disabilities. We do this primarily on-site through a variety of contract jobs that allow our clients to get paid while developing employment skills. We also support them in community work, when it’s available, by providing job coaches.

While this model has been around for 40 or 50 years, it’s no longer sustainable, either economically or socially. Our services are expensive, so the state is looking for cheaper options, and parents want a more normalized work experience for their children. The current trend is moving towards independent community jobs, which my co-workers and I find ridiculous; while our system may not be perfect, many of my clients really don’t have the ability to work alone. Independent job placement might work for some people, but it will never work for ours.

I've always believed this, and in fact, never even questioned this line of thinking until last week. I had this conversation at work, and then went home and posted an entry about people who say positive training can’t work for certain kinds of dogs. Talk about a moment of cognitive dissonance! Here I was, professionally stuck in the very same box I was arguing against.

I’ve never experienced anything other than positive methods. When I first got Maisy, I didn’t know anything about dog training, so while I was committed to having a well-mannered canine citizen, I had no idea where to start. I signed up for a class at the first place that I found, and it was simply by chance that it happened to be clicker-based. I could have just as easily ended up somewhere that used more traditional methods.

I’m glad I didn’t. I have found that positive-reinforcement training is not only effective for a wide variety of issues, but it is also easy, fun, and most importantly, emphasizes relationships and teamwork. I simply couldn’t understand why people would want to inflict pain on their best friends if they didn’t have to.

Then I realized that in my professional life, I am the traditional method. Like traditional training methods, the model I work under is effective for the vast majority. The idea that there is something else that might work equally well, if not better, is hard to swallow- we have a long history of success. More than that, people I respect and admire believe in the way we do things. Thanks, but we’ll just stay over here, doing what we know works, while other people try out new things that may or may not pan out.

So, not only do I have a new-found understanding for the position of people who are using traditional training methods, I am also in awe of the courage it must take to cross over to positive methods. That is a huge leap of faith which requires a radically new mindset and a departure from everything- and everyone- that is familiar.

For my readers that are traditional trainers (if I have any), I think I understand you a little better now. Sticking with the familiar is comfortable and easy, and there's no incentive to try something new if what you're currently doing works. I’m certainly not looking to leave my job just because there might be a better method out there. However, I think you should know that we have cookies.

For my readers that have crossed over, I'm proud of you- and impressed. I'm sure that was a hard decision, and I’d love to hear your story. Did you have a dramatic experience that changed you forever? Or was it a number of little things that convinced you when they were all added up? Or did you just hear that we have cookies?

For my readers that are like me, who have always trained with positive methods, I have a challenge: avoid judging the others. I know how defensive I feel in my professional life when my company is criticized for the services we provide. I’ve been told that I don’t care about the people I work with, that I’m being exploitive and segregating them from the community. But I do care- I just don’t know how to do this differently. The system is set up to maintain the status quo, even while railing against it.

So, while I’m not sure what I will do professionally, I know that personally, I need to strive for kindness in my criticism, for tolerance in my teachings, and above all, I need to remember that a positive trainer is as nice to the people around her as she is to her dog. We need to share the cookies.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Medication Update: 8 weeks at 10mg

Maisy has now been on the increased dose of paroxetine for 8 weeks, which means that it should be at its full effectiveness. At our recheck appointment with the veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Duxbury commented that the level of improvement Maisy had shown would probably be enough for most people. I, being greedy, wanted more, which is why we increased the medication. I am glad we did, because I’m thrilled with the additional improvement I’ve seen in Maisy.

As you may remember, before beginning the medication, Maisy was averaging 3.58 incidents per day in which she would startle, bark, or growl at mild or undetectable stimuli. About a third of these would happen overnight, waking us both up. These behaviors were pretty intense: approximately 1 in 4 lasted longer than a minute, and she would scan the environment and/or or leave the room to look for the trigger roughly 1 in every 3 times.

After seven weeks on the 8mg dosage, she was averaging 2 incidents per day, and thankfully, the number at night had reduced dramatically, happening roughly 1 time out of 10. Similarly, the duration of her behaviors shortened, and she wasn’t showing any vigilance. You can see the logs for the first two months of medication here.

Now? Well, at 8 weeks on the new dose, she’s averaging 1 incident per day, although it’s honestly hard to label some of them as incidents. For example, on Sunday, she simply looked up and softly “wuffed.” I wrote it down to be consistent, but that sort of thing doesn’t concern me in the least. The average duration of her behaviors is 5.7 seconds, which shows that her vigilance has greatly reduced, and that she recovers quickly. And the absolute best thing? She isn’t waking me up at night anymore.

Here’s the chart for the last two months (click to embiggen):

As you can see, it’s been up and down. She actually did the best at four weeks, with a rough spot at six weeks. I saw a similar trend the first time around, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is just a normal reaction to SSRIs. At any rate, it's clear that the increased dose has had positive behavioral effects.

These effects have carried over to Maisy’s behavior outside our house, as well. Recently, I took Maisy to a pet store on a Saturday afternoon, and it was fairly busy inside. There were rude dogs, men in funny hats and unpredictable children, and yet she handled herself well. In the 45 minutes that we were there, she only had one outburst, a very quick bark at a large golden on a flexi, literally dragging a child wearing clompy boots down the aisle towards us. I can hardly blame her for her reaction! I think the best thing about the visit, though, was that I wasn’t actively managing her. I wasn’t requesting behaviors or shoving treats in her mouth, which is a huge change from how it used to be.

Needless to say, I’m thrilled. After consulting with Dr. Duxbury, we agreed to keep Maisy on this dose. Going forward, I’ll take behavior logs once a month, and then return for a follow-up appointment in June.

Even more exciting… Dr. Duxbury said I could work towards getting Maisy ready for trials again! I've been given orders to take things very slow, so I will be very purposeful about the level of stimulation I expose her to. I am working on a training plan to follow so that I don’t accidentally push Maisy too hard, and I’ll share it with you all soon. If there’s anyone with experience with this, I’d love to hear what you did.

For now, I just want to say that I’m so grateful for the knowledge and experience that Dr. Duxbury has shared with me, the support I’ve gotten from you all, and best of all, my newly relaxed dog. It’s been a crazy journey, but it’s been worth it!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Positive Training: More Than Just Ignoring the Bad

One of the greatest misconceptions of positive reinforcement/clicker training (R+ for short) is that it is permissive. Often, R+ training is described as “rewarding the good behaviors and ignoring the bad,” which leads non-R+ trainers to believe that we simply turn a blind eye when our dogs misbehave. While many will concede that this might work for relatively minor infractions, they claim it will never work for dogs who ____. This blank is filled in with a variety of behaviors, but the one I see most commonly is aggression.

You can’t ignore aggression, they say. It’s too dangerous. These are dogs are going to hurt someone, and we need to prevent that. You can’t just coo at Fluffy, telling him his behavior is okay while he’s snarling at someone. It’s not. Fluffy needs to learn that his behavior is unacceptable.

And you know what? They’re right. We can’t ignore aggression. It’s too dangerous. Thankfully, it’s not necessary to hurt or scare our dogs in order to prevent them from hurting others.

An R+ approach to working with aggressive dogs is radically different from more traditional approaches. Instead of waiting for or provoking an aggressive response so that it can be punished with a collar correction or alpha roll, R+ trainers work to prevent the dog from acting aggressively in the first place so that they can teach the dog appropriate behaviors.

The first step to doing this is management. At all costs, we need to prevent the dog from practicing the undesirable behavior. Every time they do, they get better at it, and worse yet, they learn that it works. Whether it’s because whatever they’re barking and growling at goes away, or because it releases endorphins and they feel better, or something else entirely, they find the aggressive display reinforcing. We need to stop that immediately.

Instead, the R+ trainer will watch her dog’s body language. She’ll learn to predict outbursts and preemptively move away. She’ll learn her dog’s triggers, and at what point he reacts to them- something also known as a threshold. She’ll keep him far enough away to prevent him from crossing that threshold and acting aggressively.

Next, she’ll work hard to change his perceptions. This process, called counter-conditioning, teaches the dog that his trigger predicts good things, typically by allowing the aggressive dog to see his trigger and then giving him something very tasty to eat. The R+ trainer will be very careful to remain sub-threshold so that she isn’t accidentally reinforcing the aggressive behavior. If the dog begins to act aggressively, she knows that she’s pushed him too far, and will adjust her approach. As the dog becomes more comfortable, she’ll slowly increase the dog’s exposure to his trigger, usually by bringing him closer.

Finally, she will teach her dog the appropriate behaviors that he should engage in. She can choose basically any behavior she’d like, but generally, R+ trainers will teach the dog to either make eye contact with her, or to perform a calming signal. This can be done in a variety of ways, from simply cuing the behavior to following a more systematic approach such as BAT (behavior adjustment training).

This may take longer than suppressing an aggressive response with punishment, but I think of it as the difference between putting a bandage on a wound versus actually treating it. As a bonus, the dog is far less likely to suffer negative side effects, such as physical injury or inadvertent associations that make the aggression worse.

Incidentally, this basic approach of management and teaching alternate responses can- and should- be used for any problem behavior. It is often not enough to simply ignore the dog when he jumps up, knocks over the garbage can, or runs away. The wise trainer will find a way to prevent the dog from practicing the undesirable action while also working to teach the dog what he ought to do instead.

R+ training isn’t terribly dramatic, at least, not in the sense that it’s exciting to watch the systematic desensitization of a dog to his triggers. In fact, to the outside observer, it’s probably rather boring and dry. There’s no conflict, no power struggle. However, R+ training is dramatic in the sense that it works, and you can achieve some amazing results. The dog and the trainer are on the same side, working towards a common goal, and I can tell you from personal experience: that feels amazing.