Learning By Doing: Aggression And Practical Solutions

Behavior Clips

By Gary Wilkes

When I was starting a private behavior practice, I had already trained two working dogs for my municipal animal control agency. I knew dogs. I knew training. To broaden the scope of my services, I spent a great deal of time learning about behavior modification.

That left me with a problem. My training knowledge was at odds with the mainstream of “behavioral therapy”.

Behavioral psychologists and their followers seemed woefully ignorant of how to change behavior in a living, breathing organism. For instance, the behavioral science mantra was that positive reinforcement was good and punishment was bad. Everybody said so. They still do.

What wasn’t offered was a convincing reason why the necessary forceful handling in shelters, vet clinics or grooming salons isn’t traumatic, but a dog in training is damaged by 1/10th of that kind of stress. They also said that punishment causes retaliatory aggression, so therefore punishment could not be used to stop aggressive behavior. (That is as fresh as an article in Psychology Today that recently tried to push that concept.)

Why would I be scared of some academic’s boogeyman about triggering aggression—I did that all the time as a dog catcher. I was never injured and I never injured an aggressive dog. This disconnect left me with a simple choice—I could follow someone else’s rules or I could find out for myself what worked and what didn’t. I trusted to my knowledge of dogs and training and realized that I would have to learn by doing.

One of my first clients was a woman who owned two dogs: a Queensland Heeler, Molly, and a Poodle/Terrier mix named Punkie. The problem was that they had suddenly decided to kill each other. On further inquiry, I discovered that they fit the profile for inter–female aggression, perfectly. Punkie, was about 3 years old, and the Heeler was about 18 months. This age pattern is often a predictor of serious aggression. The younger dog was reaching social maturity, while the older dog was not willing to put up with competition from a “youngster”. Any sign of threat from either dog would spark an attack.

While Punkie usually got the worst of the fights, she was unable to prevent them—she had a typical Terrier tail carriage. For hundreds of years, Terriers have been selected for short, ultra–strong tails. This super-musculature causes the tail of a Terrier to ride high, over the back, twitching back and forth with the sideways motion of a mechanical metronome. While this may seem irrelevant, it was actually a critical part of the problem. A dog’s tail, held high over the back and twitching side to side is called “flagging”. It is perceived as a threat by many other dogs. None of Molly’s family did that. Heelers stand with their tails pointing straight to the ground. Punkie was almost constantly flagging. If this behavior corresponded with the slightest hint of eye contact, the Heeler would launch a strike.

A Mistaken Strategy

My first strategy for solving this problem was to teach Punkie to “wag” her tail, side to side, instead of “flagging” it over her back. Within a couple of sessions, the dog would respond to the cue “wag” by dropping her tail into a casual side to side wag. The owner was able to defuse several situations that otherwise would have led to a fight. My goal of teaching an alternate behavior was achieved, and I was confident that positive reinforcement would change the world—at least for these two dogs.

At the end of the third session, I was making even more progress. I had taught Molly to lie quietly while Punkie walked over the top of her, stood in front of her and generally invaded Molly’s space. At the end of the session, I packed my brief case and started to leave. I was talking to the owner, who was not watching the dogs. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Punkie was flagging and looking straight at Molly. One more moment and I would be in the middle of a dog fight.

My brain raced to a couple of conclusions. First, I was too far away to interpose my body or grab either of the dogs. Second, throwing something at the dogs would be a great way to disrupt the fight. The only thing in my hand was my hard-sided, plastic briefcase – which would probably damage one or both of them. The only other throw-able object was a “throw” pillow on the couch. I barked the word “NO!” and then threw the pillow at the heeler. The pillow caught her full in the face, with as much force as I could impart to such a fluffy object. Molly yipped in fear, tucked her tail and ran down the hallway, submissively wetting as she went.

We found her huddling in terror under a bed. She refused to come out. The aggression stopped instantly. There were no more overtures to aggression for two weeks. Molly no longer reacted to formerly threatening gestures—even when Punkie ‘flagged’ her tail. Her sensitivity to positive reinforcement for passive behavior seemed heightened. She did not develop a long lasting tendency to hide under the bed, she did not show fear of me or retaliatory aggression. Go figure.

That was 30 years and about ten thousand dogs ago. That single instance taught me several things. First, the popular attitude about punishment was wrong—by a pretty wide margin. None of the harmful side effects that were preached by the prevailing philosophy happened. On the contrary, the changes in behavior affected by the proper use of “coercion” were beneficial. I was surprised by this conclusion, so I went back and started reading materials that had fostered my earlier beliefs.

Here’s what I found. Invariably, ideological statements about punishment described incorrect applications by people who have no real experience with applying it. The most amazing thing was that these critics sounded exactly like the opponents of using food and clickers in training—only from the opposite perspective.

The “real” side effects of punishment were pretty interesting. My first startling discovery was that the punished animal gets VERY attentive. Suddenly you, the trainer, become an important source of information. This happens immediately. Rather than alienating the dog, it made Molly “suck up and get straight”. I instantly had a much better relationship than if I had used positive reinforcement alone.

Second, I learned that those who believed in the myths of punishment were likely to punish anyone who contradicted their superstitions. Ironically, those who preached exclusively positive reinforcement were the most likely to use “coercion” on anyone who didn’t agree with them.

Third, I learned that there is a powerful tool that can not only stop serious behaviors but prevent them from coming back. The current catechism suggests we should never use it because of “terrible side effects”. How do those side effects compare to having a dog die because it keeps knocking the kids down, destroying property, killing cats, running at large and biting people and other dogs? A smart person would investigate how to reduce or eliminate the side effects—but that would require actually learning how to use the tool. ✂