By Gary Wilkes
I work with a number of rescue groups that have a continuing problem. They have dogs that bite people. Sometimes the biting is only a matter of territoriality. The dog goes ballistic when guests come to the house. Sometimes it’s resource guarding. If it is front-door aggression the easy solution is to simply confine the dog when guests arrive. If it’s a food issue you can make sure that food isn’t left lying around. However, if the problem is limited to veterinary care and grooming it takes on a whole new meaning. That’s where we come to Bear.
Bear is a black, formerly ragged, Miniature Schnauzer. He is a delightful example of his breed, except for one thing: In limited circumstances he used to predictably bite people. Specifically, he bit anyone who tried to touch his hind feet. When the rescue group took him to the vet, he lived up to expectations. They told the vet that he bites when you handle is hind feet so the vet grabbed one of his hind legs and Bear bit him. (That is a reminder that none of us are teeth-proof.) My challenge was to get him trustworthy enough that he could be adoptable.
Most people think that behavior modification is an either/or process. That’s how modern trainers and behaviorists speak of it. Either we use positive reinforcement and they like us or we use positive reinforcement and punishment and they call us abusers. Making a choice of either/or isn’t in my job description. My ethical obligation to the clients is to use whatever will work to successfully inhibit a behavior. (I didn’t add the word “safely” to that sentence because skilled handlers don’t injure dogs and safety is an integral part of good handling.) My job is to fix the problem rather than pandering to an ideology that limits my tools.
The Full Context
The most common outcome for a biting dog is euthanasia or a life of periodic terror as expert handlers wrestle and muzzle him into submission. That may be a cheap way to express anal glands but it forms a giant hypocrisy. If we may not use punishment because it may cause fear and possibly pain, how does one justify not using punishment that insures perpetual, periodic terror and pain? If scaring the heck out of a dog three or four times will inhibit the aggression, how does that compare to scaring the heck out of the dog three or four times a year for the rest of its life?
The other shoe is about to drop. The levels of restraint needed to get the job of grooming and veterinary examination done often elevates the aggression over time. Each time you “ride the pony” you will have to crank a little harder than last time. Eventually you get a dog that anticipates what you are going to do and starts offering the aggression automatically at first sight. That places the dog at a much higher risk of euthanasia. That kind of handling often spills over to other previously acceptable handling by the owner. For instance, Bear bit anyone who tried to touch his hind feet, likely because a groomer or previous owner cut a nail too short. I think the logic is simple: If there is an alternative that terrifies him a couple of times but inhibits the biting, we have an ethical solution to his problem.
My first step might not seem connected. I taught him that the sound of a clicker meant a treat was on the way. To change his behavior, it could not be dependent on either pole of behavioral effects. I need to both reinforce good behavior and punish the aggression. If that sounds like the opposite of what behaviorists always propose, take a deep breath. Positive reinforcement increases behavior. It cannot stop or inhibit behavior for the future. Most of you know that. Some of you may not. I have been punishing aggression for more than two decades. If you imagine it brings on the terrible side effects so often predicted, go to YouTube and look at my channel “wilkesgm1.” Watch Bear’s transition from biting to being able to be groomed and tolerate a vet exam. I also have an article on my home page at www.clickandtreat.com that explains how I discovered the process. Look for a link that says “aggression and operant conditioning.”
Back to the story
I needed a precise way to mark good behavior and reward it heavily. That creates contrast in “either/or” fashion. If you try to bite my hand something is going to happen that you aren’t going to like. If you don’t bite my hand you are going to get something tasty. That is what creates a new, dependable repertoire, minus the bad behavior. People who depend on force without the positive side for contrast run the risk of teaching the dog that there is bad stuff and neutral stuff but nothing else. In essence, handling that focuses on getting the job done uses this format. In Bear’s case, we stopped a grooming in the middle because, though we could have pulled it off without being bitten, it would have put us in the hole for the future.
Safety First and Always
My first job was to teach him to like wearing a quick-wrap muzzle with a soft slip lead made of hollow, braided rope. You put it on, take it off, click, and then give him a treat. Repeat. Soon he could have his mouth wrapped and still wag his tail. Some dogs take a while to adapt to this. If you can pull it off, it makes things much easier later on.
Next, I taught him that the word “NO” meant a rolled up towel was going to come flying at him. Rather than attempt to bonk him the first time while grooming, I used the same pre-conditioning strategy I used for the clicker and muzzle. I bonked him for barking wildly when he heard the doorbell. That took about three repetitions to stop. Then he got treats for being quiet. You can see this process again, on my YouTube channel. Three or four of them are from Barkleigh Groom Expos.
Once I could muzzle him without causing him to overreact, I started holding him as his owner handled his feet. If he struggled I restrained him with a firm squeeze and let off the pressure when he relaxed. Intermittent pressure allows the dog to learn. Constant pressure tends to cause constant resistance and escalates the dog’s arousal. On the first couple of attempts I said “NO” and bonked him if he whipped around to bite. After that the behavior was suppressed and we could muzzle him, handle him and shove treats in his mouth.
The whole process took about six hours of instruction over a period of a month. About a week ago I took him back to the vet. I still used a quick-wrap with a lead around his muzzle but it wasn’t very tight and I still didn’t completely trust him. He was relaxed through the whole exam with the same vet he bit. He’s about 95% ready to go into an adoptive home. Mission almost completely accomplished.
Teaching a dog to inhibit aggression and accept the stress of grooming and vet exams is a productive task. Leaving a dog in rescue that actively bites in response to handling means it can never be adopted into a family. Even then, it will have to be tranquilized at the vet and handled securely for every groom…usually getting worse with time. This article isn’t meant to be a recipe so that anyone can do this kind of rehab. It’s simply to let you know that this process exists and can turn a dog around 180°. Every competent groomer has the handling savvy to start moving toward this kind of control. It takes some work and learning but in the end it will offer solutions for some of your toughest problems.