In my last Shedd post, I shared some general rules on aggression. Today, we’re going to look at the rules of aggression reduction. These were originally formulated by Turner and Tompkins, and Ken expanded on them. Hopefully I’ve attributed everything correctly! Also, just as a side-note, I have changed the presentation order slightly.
First, and possibly most importantly: stop aggression before it starts. It’s much harder to stop aggression than to prevent it because the animal has practiced the behavior. Ken told us that aggression can also be highly reinforcing to animals, making it a behavior that is easily learned. For example, if your dog is afraid of men, he might bark and lunge at them. If the men then go away, your dog may come to see barking and lunging as a strategy that worked to reduce his fear.
|Aggression is possible: multiple animals and a baby in the area.|
Next, understand which scenarios might lead to aggression. This allows you to be prepared for potentially dangerous situations instead of being caught off guard. Ken shared a number of examples from his work: when an animal has a hard time separating from the group it lives with, frustration resulting from numerous incorrect responses to a cue, when only one animal in a group is being fed, the use of punishment/aversive control resulting in displaced or redirected aggression, a change in what causes an animal to get reinforced, the disruption of sexual activity (especially when the animal is in season/in heat), and pushing an animal too far or too long during training. Keep in mind that the scenarios leading to potential aggression will vary not only by species, but by individual as well. Know your animal!
Now you need to learn to recognize the precursors to aggression. Every animal will warn you before they are aggressive. If yours doesn’t, either you don’t know what to look for or the precursors have been punished. Each species will show these precursors differently. For example, birds tend to have dilated pupils. Dolphins have wide eyes prior to aggressing. Cats hiss and dogs growl. Dolphins will make a chuffing noise. Elephants will flap their ears. In addition, each individual will be unique in the precursors they tend to display. If there are multiple people working with an animal (such as in a family or a shelter), making a list so that everyone knows each animal’s precursors can be very helpful.
Both Turner and Tompkins as well as Ken agree that using DRO or DRI (or another appropriate technique if these fail) is a great technique for reducing aggression. DRO stands for Differential Reinforcement of Other behavior, while DRI stands for Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible behavior. These techniques are basically very sophisticated ways of redirecting an animal. Although Ken acknowledged that they may reinforce the precursors, he feels that aggression is too serious and too dangerous to not interrupt. In addition, in his experience, it is very rare to reinforce precursors to the point that they significantly increase; precursors tend to be more reflexive than consciously chosen behaviors. But even if you do increase them, it’s still better than allowing the aggression to occur.
Finally, it is highly recommended that you keep records. Doing so gives you something to fall back on if the aggression re-emerges. It will help you remember what worked and what didn’t so you don’t repeat ineffective interventions. This is especially important in zoological facilities since staff turnover means that knowledge will be lost, but it can be helpful for pet owners whose memories tend to fade over time.
There are other options, of course. Although DRO is the most commonly used method in the zoological world, the right technique really depends on many factors, including the specific animal, the trainer (and her skill level), and the specific situation.
The bottom line is that something needs to be changed, and there are only four ways to do that (Ken attributed this list to Jean Donaldson). You can change the consequences for the animal’s aggression (operant conditioning). You can change the association an animal has with whatever it is acting aggressively towards (classical conditioning). You can change the animal’s access to the thing eliciting aggression (management). Or, you can change the animal’s brain chemistry (medication).
For more information on Ken’s thoughts about treating aggression in dogs, please see this post from 2011: http://reactivechampion.blogspot.com/2011/03/clicker-expo-2011-chicago-ken-ramirez-29.html