Each week, I see many dogs and owners who are struggling with aggression and/ or reactivity issues. Yes, that’s right- the dogs are struggling as well.
***While there can be distinct differences between a dog that is reactive (over reacts to certain triggers in their environment- their response may or may not include aggressive displays) and a dog that is aggressive (with the intent to do physical harm), for the purposes of this article we’re not going to distinguish between the two. Controversial I know- but what I want to bring to your attention applies to dogs with EITHER of these issues.***
As humans, we tend to want to address the big issues immediately. They are the issues at the forefront of our minds. When it comes to problems with our dogs, we identify the issues creating the biggest disturbance to our life, our dogs’ life or both and we (hopefully) seek help for that problem first. But what if issues that are more like occasional annoyances are more relevant than you realise?
For instance- Your dog turns into Cujo when they see another dog on the other side of the street. They lunge, bark, growl and try to drag you (sometimes with success) toward the other dog. At this time food rewards, verbal encouragement, warning or correction do so little, you consider doing an interpretive dance to distract onlookers from the frothing out of control creature on the end of your lead. At this time you and your dog are completely disconnected- a lead the only thing preventing your dog from physically being in the same place where they are mentally. There is no focus, no self-control, and no engagement. In this context your dog’s brain is totally inflexible, unable to offer a different behaviour and absolutely unable to look to you for direction.
Back in the home environment, you have no major problems. Well- nothing life altering or likely to trigger interpretive dance… Your dog does barge out your back door when you let them outside after dinner but it’s no big deal. At this time, you generally stand aside to avoid a collision and life continues.
However… At this time you and your dog are completely disconnected. Again, there is no focus, no self-control and no engagement. In this context your dog’s brain is totally inflexible, unable to offer a different behaviour and absolutely unable to look to you for direction. Same dog, same brain, two different contexts. (and this is just one example)
Where would your focus lie? The dog owners’ focus generally lies with their dogs Cujo like behaviour and they direct a dog trainers’ attention to this issue as well. The barging issue may not even be mentioned as, whilst annoying- it’s considered easily managed. However, in both circumstances- the dog lacks vital skill sets. If your dog can’t demonstrate these skill sets in a familiar, low stress environment, how can they suddenly display these skills in a frightening context where they are highly stressed?
If your focus lies only with the high intensity triggers and stressful contexts, your training prognosis is poor. Stress interferes with your dog’s ability to learn. In some cases, no permanent learning takes place at all and it starts to feel like the movie Groundhog Day.. When commencing a behaviour modification plan 50- 90% of your training (the variation depends on the dog and the issue) in the first 2 weeks should focus on the building of relevant skill sets WITHOUT the presence of stressful triggers. You’ll be amazed at how this focus allows your dog to recall the necessary skills more quickly and easily when you introduce the more problematic trigger/ triggers.
Underdog Training recommends getting an experienced professional to assist you in this process which should include-
Identification of ALL triggers
Stress reducing solutions (independent of training)
Development of relevant skill sets in low stress environments
Developing your dog’s brain- Can they problem solve? Are they capable of thinking through conflict? Is their brain flexible enough to offer a different behaviour when the first one doesn’t work?
A plan for complete exposure to the trigger and management strategies to assist in the short term
Contact Underdog Training for assistance- firstname.lastname@example.org