Sunday, March 27, 2011

Clicker Expo 2011 (Chicago): Ken Ramirez- Aggression Treatment and Context, Part 1

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.
  1.  Understand the scenarios. All dog owners should know when a situation might be uncomfortable for their dog, and thus could potentially result in aggression.
  2. 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.
  3. Use redirection or apply the appropriate training strategy when needed.We'll cover some of these in the next post.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
I would argue that there is actually a sixth rule, and that is: Don't try this at home! You see, Ken feels very strongly that aggression should be treated by advanced trainers only. This is partially because he believes that trainers should have a thorough understanding of their chosen technique and the science behind it, and partially because it simply requires a tremendous amount of skill to do well. Failure to meet either of these criteria will likely result in the poor implementation of any treatment, and with it, an undesired result. What’s more, this often results in unfounded criticism or senseless controversy over a perfectly valid 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!


Laura, Lance, and Vito said...

I really look forward to your discussion on this topic. Aggression, not just reactivity, is something I don't think I have a really good handle on.

I think about the never punish a growl statement that is often repeated and I whole heartedly agree with the reasoning behind it. But then I have corrected aggressive displays in an effort to teach the dog that a certain behavior does not get them what they want. Can it be helpful or is it hurtful to categorize my response to "aggression" differently if I see it stemming from a dog who is scared vs one who is uncomfortable?

For the example of being restrained on their side I would treat both groups with lots of CC/DS, but with the dog who is more throwing a tantrum at being restrained and not really scared I would also continue to restrain them to teach them that struggling (and possible attempts at nipping) do not work and I will not release them until they return to calmness. That would be in a sense punishing the "growl" (although most don't actually growl and try to bite). Ideally you can move slow enough to prevent the tantrum but it's also not always possible, or mistakes are made, or you just have no clue that this dog was not fluent on the restraint behavior as was expected.

As for giving advice on the internet or in person I still do it. The benefit of positive training is that you're usually not going to make things worse and the person isn't usually in danger. Your average google search people aren't actually going to listen the advice anyway once they realize the problem actually requires work to fix. And most aren't going to seek out professional help anyway but may make one small change based on the advice you gave so will be helped a bit. And then you get to your regular readers who really just want a shoulder to lean on and shared experiences as they go through the same thing. Those type of people are already reading everything they can on a topic and are likely already seeking help.

Crystal said...

Laura, you're lucky that you haven't really had to learn about reactivity and aggression! (Although I'd argue that you know a fair amount- Vito, while awesome, does not seem like an "easy" dog and you've done amazing things with him!)

So far as correcting aggression, I think there's a difference between correcting the precursors or warning signs (ie, the growl), and correcting the aggressive behavior itself (lunging, biting, etc.). You always want a warning from the dog, and the more you get, the better. I actually know of tons of small warning signs from Maisy, things like tail set, stiffening her body, taking treats harder, etc. I like those! Those allow me to help her get out of the situation.

The tricky thing is that in Ken's definition, growling fits the definition of aggression. So, is growling a precursor to aggression, or is it aggression proper? I suppose, like everything, it depends on the dog...

And then, we get to the difficulty of what does it mean to "correct" aggression anyway? Ken actually had a lot of interesting stuff to say about how words trick us up when we're discussing aggression. At any rate, I probably wouldn't call your example of continuing to restrain the tantruming dog (vs. a scared one) a "correction." It's not ideal- like you say, it's better to train the dog to accept the restraint so the tantrum isn't necessary- but sometimes you misjudge, or simply need to get something done, and you want the dog to learn that behavior won't work.

That said, I don't think punishment (ie, pain, fear) is a very good solution to aggression. Ken did talk briefly about using punishment. Basically, he said that you should understand how to use it appropriately, but that it carries a lot of risks and challenges, including the potential for increased aggression.

As for giving advice on the internet, you are absolutely correct that the type of advice I give (positive training) isn't likely to have any detrimental side effects on the dog. However, if it's implemented poorly or half-assedly, I worry that the unskilled trainer will then dismiss all positive approaches as worthless and move on to corrections, which have a higher risk of detrimental side effects.

Kristen said...

I was sad to miss expo! But we got to hear a lot of aggression talk from Ken and it was -fabulous-.

I really liked his emphasis on the prevention of opportunities as well as his description of what aggression is.

When I get calls from people who probably won't commit to lessons and online... I give enough advice to keep everyone safe. "Do not walk him out of your fenced yard until you have consulted a professional, here's how to find one." "Keep 2 doors between your dogs at all times. Do not let them interact or be together at all." "Keep your dog where he cannot see people come into your house, he should be in a closed room." The most simple goal is to keep everyone safe and while those things might seem like logic, to someone who hasn't had to manage a can make the differnce of safety between now and when they decide to get help. I feel ethically obligated to at least give those management pieces of advice.

The Pet Care Magician at Elite Pet Care & Education said...

RE advice online. In this day and age of litigation you have to be very careful that something you say is taken and used and if something bad happens and a child or person gets killed or badly hurt you might be liable. Not sure about the situation in the US but in Australia as a professional trainer and consultant I carry a $2M professional indemnity policy that hopefully protects me. Even with this there are some situations I say no to - like the pit bull cross owner who wanted me to say her dog could have the dangerous dog notification removed as "it had not hurt anyone lately" No way was I taking that liability on and my insurance company agreed. Regards Louise Kerr

Joanna said...

Good to hear that Ken is an engaging speaker. I feel like I really need a vacation and although it's still far away, I've been tossing around the idea of attending this seminar:

24 Paws of Love said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog and have found it very interesting. I have an aggression dog, Brut, who is only aggressive with other dogs. It is part of his genes and from leanrt behavior from his breeder. I have had to do it on my own, by way of videos, books, etc. We live in a rural area with very few trainers. One, kick my dog and the other told me I would have to get rid of my other dogs. That was the only option he gave me. So I've been winging it. It makes for a slower learning process, but we have been making great srides. I have six dogs all together (Brut is only around 3 of them, the other two are seperated from the four).

I'm really glad I found your website. Any other insights would be very helpful. We are through the worst of it, now we are into fine tuning.

I'm a little confused on not correcting when the dog is giving a warning. If Brut is giving a direct warning, he goes into 'target lock', if I don't correct him in the warning stage, he's going to attack. His warning means he's going to attack. Maybe it has to do with the kind of warning. He has his minor warnings and the ones that mean attack. I don't know, this is just part of my awareness of Brut.

Again very glad to have found you and looking forward to more. I can always use more info. Thanks for your blog.

ddbb said...


First of all,i thk the information you shared that means so much to anyone(at least me;)) who has a reactive dog. I am so glad i found your website. In my areas, i cant find any trainer or consultant without using the force method(they are traditional trainers) .

In some dog forums, i do advice some basic principles to them, such as learning the body language, DC/CD..Here, in China most people still apply the traditional method to dogs. That was the basic thing what people should know before they find a professional .

Thank you for sharing so many useful information.^^

Crystal said...

24 Paws of Love-
The "don't correct the warning" advice comes about because you WANT that warning. If you correct the warning out of the dog, you end up with a dog who will aggress (bite, whatever) without notice. That is far more dangerous, because now you don't have a chance to interrupt the behavior, nor to move away safely. You even say yourself that "his warning measn that he's going to attack." If you correct that warning out of him, how will you know when he's going to attack?

For more on this, read my entry (and the links at the bottom) here:

It's really a shame you don't have many trainers in your area. I live in an urban area, so I often forget that others don't have the same access to them that I do.

Without having seen your dog, I really can't give very good advice. I also don't know what you're doing to "correct" him- that word means different things to different people. If you are using physical corrections (pain) to correct him, I would encourage you to consider other options. Dogs typically attack when they are feeling uncomfortable, so think about what you could do to help him feel better when he's showing warning signs- could you move him away from the situation? Kristen outlined some really basic management strategies above, and while those won't solve the problem, they can go a long way to help.

In my next post, I'll give a quick overview of some of the different treatments for aggression. Perhaps one of them will speak to you? If so, we will get you hooked up with the books/DVDs/whatever that could help you learn more about that method.

Thank you for your comment, and I wish you the best of luck. It sounds like you're figuring things out (knowing the difference between "attack" warnings and "minor" warnings takes a fair amount of observation, so good for you!).

Crystal said...

Joanna YES COME TO THAT SEMINAR!!! My husband and I will be there!

Daisy- Thanks for your comment. I'd forgotten that not everyone has access to trainers due to location. It's even harder when people want to train positively and don't have access to positive trainers in their area. I will definitely continue to give general advice, but I'll think twice before giving individual/specific advice.

Kristen- I think giving management advice is a nice compromise, and probably ethically sound.

Louise- Thanks for sharing your liability concerns. I'm not a professional trainer, so I hadn't thought much about it. I agree that those are important considerations. There was a local blogger who was sued for a fair amount of money for something he had written (I think it had to do with damaging someone's reputation, causing them to lose a job).

andrea said...

Interesting food for thought as always! Thanks for sharing. I find the concept of being prepared for agressive episodes really thought provoking. Also the concept of learning aggression made me think - our youngest dog Sampson has three times lost his little gourd growling over (relatively) nothing in the 14 months he has lived with us (twice in the first two months - one last week). We have diverted his attention and waited it out. I am SURE reading your post it was an effective strategy at his first home. Luckily our technique seems to be greatly redcuing his anxiety/aggressive episodes.

Crystal said...

Andrea, I agree. I found that interesting, too. I'm quite sure Maisy learned some of her reactivity- I was so surprised the first time she did it, I had no idea what to do- but a lot of it came from genetics and the lack of early socialization. Still, I think that if I'd had a plan, I could have minimized some of the impact.

elizabeth deitz said...

I also emphasize to my clients that no dog is 100% bomb proof. And, that some dogs are just not party - animals. Not all dogs are candidates for happily hanging out at dog parks. Given the proper considerations (play time, exercise, being a part of the family and not merely yard dogs, etc.) dogs can be quite happy being stay-at-home dogs for the most part.

Joanna said...

Oh oh you're going to be there?! How exciting! That's definitely in the pro column!

By the way, I wanted to make sure you heard that the official CU list is back up:
I've read the book but I feel like I really need to see the stuff in action to understand it. Unfortunately I don't think there are any CU classes in my area (unbelieveable, considering we're almost saturated with R+ trainers!), but mailing lists are sometimes good enough substitutes.

Crystal said...

Yes, Joanna, we are going to be there!! You should totally come. We can hang out and... eat ice cream!!

I did hear that the official CU list is back up and running. I'm really excited because I had discovered CU about 3 weeks before it got shut down, so I've never really gotten a chance to play on it.

They're expensive, but I've heard good things about the DVDs that might be a good way for you to understand the stuff in the book.

Joanna said...

Well, if there's going to be ice cream, how can I say no?! And dogs are allowed in the conference room...

I've heard that the DVDs are very helpful that way, but I can't afford them. :(

Crystal said...

Yay! Ice cream for everyone!!

Joanna said...

Ugh, I just took a look at air fare and it's more expensive than I expected. I didn't think it would be more than it cost me to fly to Boston last year! I'll have to pass this one up -- seminar registration, hotel, and airfare are totalling up to too much. :(

Crystal said...

Boo, Joanna. Check airfare to MSP instead.