I knew from the moment I saw the course schedule that I wanted to attend this session. Not only has my life with Maisy sparked an interest in behavior modification by sheer necessity, but I was also interested in it because it was taught by Ken Ramirez, the senior vice-president of the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Friends who have attended his seminars in the past have raved about him, so the combination of “I want to see that speaker” and “I want to learn more about that topic” made this session a no-brainer for me.
I wasn’t disappointed. A review of the various treatments for aggression could have been dull and dry, but Ken made it fascinating. He’s an energetic, engaging speaker, and he peppered his talk with interesting anecdotes and illustrative video clips. Not only was I so engrossed in his presentation that the time just flew by, but it was also packed with great information. In fact, it was so good that there’s just no way that I can summarize it in just one post. Today’s post will discuss aggression in general, and the next one will focus on his assessment of specific treatments.
For the purposes of his talk, Ken defined aggression as a broad category of behaviors that includes any type of unwanted agonistic behavior. Some examples of this include reactivity (barking, growling, lunging), resource guarding, possessive or protective behavior, and biting. Further, Ken said that all dogs (all animals) have aggressive repertoires. Aggression serves a vital purpose in animal culture: sick dogs will behave aggressively out of self-defense, while mothers will do so to defend their young. It's an evolutionary strategy, a coping mechanism, and therefore, all dogs are capable of being aggressive.
So why do some dogs act aggressively and others don't? Ken identified three main reasons. First, we have the dogs who are reacting to a bad circumstance- they're trapped and have no choice. Second, we have dogs who are genetically predisposed to aggression. And third, some dogs actually learn to be aggressive. Either they accidentally got reinforced for growling or biting, or it was purposefully taught to them. Often, aggression occurs through single-event learning: they try it as a strategy, and either found it highly rewarding or it failed miserably, thus determining whether or not they do it again.
All of this means that every one, every single dog owner, should have an aggression reduction strategy in place in advance of a possible issues. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what I'll do if Maisy growls or lunges so that I'm prepared to react appropriately; I'm sure all of you with reactive or aggressive dogs have. But... what about those of you with the so-called normal dogs? Do you have an aggression reduction strategy in place? You should. Since all dogs have an aggressive repertoire to draw upon, it's those of you with the low-key dogs that will be most surprised if and when it eventually comes out. Since aggression can be learned in a single trial, your reaction in that unexpected moment matters.
With that in mind, let's talk about the five rules of aggression reduction.
- Understand the scenarios. All dog owners should know when a situation might be uncomfortable for their dog, and thus could potentially result in aggression.
- Be able to recognize the precursors to aggression. Know how both your species (that is, dogs in general), and your individual animal reacts when he's upset. Learn his body language and his vocalizations, such as growling, and do not punish your dog for giving a warning.
- Use redirection or apply the appropriate training strategy when needed.We'll cover some of these in the next post.
- Stop or avoid it before it starts. Absolutely do not allow a dog to practice the bad behavior. The old saying is right: practice makes perfect. Do not allow your dog to learn that aggression works.
- Finally, keep good records. You'll need them to help you track progress as well as to evaluate if you're on the right track. If the records show little improvement, you may need to try another approach.
Therefore, a beginner- the general pet owner with an aggressive dog- should not be doing this on their own. They need a professional who can diagnose the aggression, its cause, and the triggers. This is important because not all treatments are equal, and the treatment used should be tailored to the specific dog. This isn't to say that you need to send the dog off to boot camp- on the contrary, I would never do that. It simply means that you should have a qualified professional coaching you.
I have to admit, Ken's adamant stance really made me question some of the stuff I've written on my blog. I know that many people simply can't afford to hire a professional, so I've tried to create some free resources for people who struggle with dogs like my own. But Ken made me question if I should be doing this. Since he said that no one technique is right for all dogs, should I be writing about this method or that method without making it clear which dogs it's suited for? For that matter, do I even know which dogs are well suited to certain techniques? Having heard Ken speak, I guess I have a better idea now, but even so, without having seen the dog in question, how can I possibly recommend a particular approach?
I can’t, of course, but I still believe that it’s important to share information whenever possible, with the caution that one should always consult with a professional. Some people are going to do it themselves no matter what, and if so, it’s better if they have scientifically-sound and dog-friendly methods available to them.
Still, even though I often encourage people to hire a professional, Ken's seminar has inspired me to explain why a professional is a good thing. There are so many different ways to work with aggression, and each technique is better suited to different types of aggression than others. I'll talk about this in my next entry, but in the meantime, I'd love to hear your thoughts. How do you respond to people on email lists or dog forums? Do you give advice? Refer them to a book? Have you thought about whether or not that information is appropriate for that particular dog, or are you simply sharing what's worked for you? Let me know!