Archive for the ‘red zone dogs’ Tag

Aggression in Fearful Dogs- No Surprise Here

face of a mastiffThe older one gets the less in life seems to surprise us. One of the things that should be no surprise to any of us is for a fearful dog to behave aggressively. Aggression is a normal and predictable response to see in animal who is afraid, often terrified, for their life. Brains are designed so that if an animal is experiencing fear, behaving aggressively–as opposed to taking a deep breath and suggesting that other solutions to the current problem might exist–will happen quickly. It might save an animal’s life. Spend a few extra seconds not fighting back and you might be lunch.

One of the main goals for anyone working with a fearful dog is to never put the dog into situations in which aggression becomes necessary from the dog’s perspective. By keeping a dog feeling safe, however that needs to be sorted out for an individual dog, will help prevent the demonstration or escalation of aggressive behavior. If a dog is troubled by people coming into the house we can be proactive and put the dog away in another room where they are safe, have something yummy to chew, and the scary event can occur without any drama.

The next steps we take address how the dog feels about the scary event. We do this by using desensitization and counterconditioning. Change how the dog feels and you generally will see a change in how they behave. Counterconditioning is a straightforward process, but misunderstood enough that people, including dog trainers, get it wrong. Getting it wrong leads to the idea that it doesn’t work. And when this happens people move on to to less effective ways to work with fear based behavior challenges.

Simply put– when counterconditioning the scary thing comes to predict a wonderful thing. The appearance of the wonderful thing is only contingent on one thing, the awareness by the dog of the scary thing. The wonderful thing, usually food but toys and play can be used if a dog finds them wonderful, appear regardless of the dog’s behavior. We don’t want a dog going bonkers at the end of a leash or scurrying under a chair so we add in the desensitization piece which means we don’t expose them to the scary thing so much that they are too freaked out to eat or play. But even if the dog is behaving in ways we wish they wouldn’t the error was ours in that we over-exposed them to the trigger, but the wonderful thing MUST appear if the scary thing has. That’s it. This has to happen often enough for the dog to put two and two together. Or one and one in this case, scary thing leads to wonderful thing.

Concurrently we begin teaching a dog something else acceptable to us to do. We should take pains to make sure it’s acceptable to the dog too. Going and sitting in a crate when people come into the house can work for both the dog and the owner if the dog feels safe in their crate. Asking a dog to sit quietly while scary monsters pet them is not likely to be acceptable to the dog as much as it makes us feel accomplished and successful. The way we help dogs learn new behaviors and continue helping them learn to feel good about the scary stuff is by using positive reinforcement to train them. By running to their crate when guests show up a dog learns that a favorite delicacy is delivered. It’s worth running to their crate when company comes.

Many of us did not break the dogs we are living with, but we can put the pieces back together again. Keep them feeling safe, desensitize and counter condition to triggers and give them skills using good positive reinforcement training mechanics.

The Recipe for Red Zone Dogs

Don’t Touch my CookieThe term ‘red zone’ dog has come into vogue to describe aggressive dogs. There is the connotation that these dogs are different in some fundamental way from other dogs. The term is often used to justify the use of severe punishment in order to train them. It’s as though, unlike every other dog on the planet, they are only able to learn if punishment is used.

Creating ‘red zone’ dogs is a fairly straight forward process. Take a dog, preferably one who is fearful, and force them to deal with things that upset them. Add one or more humans who are either arrogant, uneducated, ignorant, mentally ill, or some combination of the aforementioned. Do not allow the dog the freedom to get away, and maintain constant pressure on them in the form of punishment or threats of it. Any resistance on the dog’s part should be addressed with physical punishment, almost anything will do, a collar yank, a slap, kick or alpha roll. Yelling at the dog can suffice in some cases. The goal is to remind the dog that they are completely out of control of what happens to them, and that humans will make sure it stays that way.

The domestication process gave us dogs who are not likely to behave aggressively toward humans. Unfortunately some glitch has created people who are all too willing to behave aggressively toward dogs. And like a self-fulfilling prophesy, create the problem that allows them the excuse to continue to do so.

The Belly Button Rule

blond haired baby smiling in bathtub

Creating positive associations with water in a safe place

When I was a young child and our family visited a body of water to swim in my parents instituted the the belly button rule. The older, more proficient swimmers could swim out to rafts in the middle of the lake or play in the waves, but the little kids could go no deeper than their belly buttons. If we lost our footing we would be safe and it was deep enough for us to pretend to be swimming. With our hands on the bottom of the lake we could kick our feet, put our faces in the water, blow bubbles, all the skills that one needs in order to swim, for real.

People living with fearful, shy or reactive dogs are often reluctant to limit their dog’s opportunity to go out into the world, for walks or car rides because they feel as though they are depriving their dog of exercise or variety. It’s thoughtful to take a dog’s needs in these areas into consideration, but not if they routinely end up over their belly buttons and have a bad experience because of it.

I remember wanting so badly to be able to swim with the big kids. My father shot Super 8 movies of me putting my entire face into the water and then coming up, wiping the hair and water from my eyes triumphantly. This was a milestone enroute to becoming a swimmer. My parents did not feel guilty that they were limiting my exposure to deeper water. They did not impede my ability to learn when they called me in when I went too deep or my lips turned blue and my fingers wrinkled.

Until a dog has the skills to come into contact with the things that cause them to react negatively, don’t risk them getting in over their heads. I didn’t have to almost drown to learn to learn to swim.

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