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.