Most of the work I do for clients is to teach their dogs the skills to better cope with difficult situations. The goal of the training, of course, is to reduce displays of fear and aggression because the dog has been able to learn other behaviors that are more social and acceptable. It is important to understand that dogs aggress or escape the typical fight or flight scenario when they cannot cope with a given situation. But even though aggression is normal dog behavior, it behooves us to teach the dog who is acting in aggressive social behaviors. Dogs are animals with teeth. And any animal with teeth can bite if it feels it has exhausted all other known resources to create distance.
There are two basic elements to the convoluted and nuanced process of behavior modification:
1. Changing the emotional state of the dog from being afraid or concerned (this is in my view a spectrum of a “negative” emotion towards a particular trigger or triggers) to now feeling relaxed and even “happy” or positive – not threatened by the stimulus that previously produced fear.
2. Teaching the dog to be able to perform an alternative and more acceptable reaction when in the presence of the offensive triggers.
The two elements above come hand-in-hand.
Now, we need lots of practice in order for the new reactions to become the “norm”. As the dog engages in more social behaviors such as wanting to approach instead of retrieving or aggressing, his confidence begins to grow. As a result of developing a more confident dog in general and in particular for the specific circumstances the dog can begin to relax instead of begin anxious or hyper vigilant. This is a game changer!
As you can imagine living in constant fear or anxiety (defined here as the anticipation of the presentation of a fear producing stimulus) is so incredibly taxing for the dog and as a result the quality of life is lessened.
Nothing gives me more joy and satisfaction than witnessing this transformation! I know that as a result of the behavior modification this dog now has a chance of living a more fulfilling life.
The process, however, just like pretty much anything in life, does not follow a straight and upward trajectory. There is always variability of response in behavior.
Another lovely consequence of the dog’s newly improved “lifestyle” is that the guardian of the dog appears to also get a new lease on life. Take the case of Clifford, an Anatolian shepherd, who has had much difficulty engaging with people he does not know.
With new protocols in place as to how Clifford meets new people, the incidents of aggressive behaviors such as him lunging and barking at strangers has become almost a thing of the past. I say almost because again, it is the nature of behavior that produces many responses. What is different now, is that his behavior has become more manageable and predictable thus affording his guardians as well as Clifford (aka Cliffy) the possibility for a richer life.
In this video you can see him with Yvonne, maneuvering agility obstacles. Not only does he feel safe enough that he can go from one agility “challenge” to the next, but most impressive of all, is that he is participating in a class with other people and their dogs!
Cliffy is one of the lucky ones. He continues to get lots of opportunities for growth and this has provided him with a life that for the most part is now “fun” and engaging.