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. ✂


  1. Cindy Quigley says:

    Thanks Gary!

    I completely agree.

    In my dog training business I use both positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Depending on the dog obviously. I have worked as a vet tech, dog groomer and have owned a dog daycare and boarding facility.

    Dogs use positive punishment to change behavior with each other. If they do it themselves, it is something they automatically understand and cannot be wrong or detrimental to their psyche.

    It bothers me that many positive only trainers do not understand this and will not learn how to properly use it to change behavior.

    It is nice to see an article that finally addresses this.

    The main thing I have discovered that damages a dog’s psyche is living with a person who gives only affection with absolutely no leadership or guidance. This often leads to a neurotic dog with anxiety issues.

    Thanks again for a great article.

  2. Robert Hooker says:

    I’ve been following this thread for several days now, and after much thought, I have decided to offer some of my thoughts on the subject.
    The first thing that bothers me is the sometimes mean-spirited replies to those trainers who train dogs by positive reinforcement. I think we all have the same goal in training dogs to be well mannered and well adjusted dogs that will live their natural lives with their owners – no matter how far the owner(s) want to take their dogs in the training spectrum. Name calling doesn’t serve anyone’s agenda no matter how you feel about different training techniques.
    The second thing that comes to my mind is the example that the author of the article sites as “Positive Punishment.” IMHO breaking up a dog fight is not a trainable moment. The goal is to stop a dog fight as quickly and with as little physical damage to the dogs engaging in the fight and to the person who is stopping the fight. The fact that the pillow stopped the fight IMHO the correct thing to do and the curtailing any more aggression from Molly is a secondary and random cause and effect. But it wasn’t a trained moment. I have worked with dogs where such instances have indeed stopped the fight that was happening then, but did not have any effect on future fights. I don’t think it’s as clear cut as the author portrays that particular example showed.
    While I teach the vast majority of my clients and their dogs using Positive Reinforcement techniques, I also understand that there are times when actions have consequences. One example is my using a remote controlled citronella bark collar on my own dog who is crated in another room while I teach classes. He wants to come and join in and demand barks to tell me so. By using the remote controlled citronella bark collar I have been able to stop his demand barking in just a time of 2 of using the citronella bark collar – BUT the citronella collar causes no physical pain. I never want to physically hurt a dog just because 1). there are tools to do that and 2) study after study has shown a greater incidence in aggressive reactivity when pain is used.
    If you haven’t had the opportunity to attend a Ken Ramirez seminar, I would suggest you do so. His explanation of why large marine mammal trainers NEVER use Negative Reinforcement training techniques. Nobody wants to have a hand or leg bitten off by a 1,500 pound male seal lion while training him to offer behaviors for vet checks. The late Sophia Yin offered the same example when working with Ostriches and trimming their nails.
    Whenever I have a client who insists on using a E collar for training purposes, I ask them to hand me the E collar, allow me to put it around their neck so they can experience what their dog does. I have yet to have an E collar owner hand me the E collar and allow me to use it on them.
    If I can get the same results by Positive Reinforcement training techniques, even if it takes a bit longer, won’t turn the dog into a aggressive pet that has lots of problems that owners hate in their pets, I will choose PR over PP any day of the week.
    We can all agree to disagree and use our own personal experiences to further interesting and IMPORTANT topics, but I also think we can do this without belittling each other in the process.
    Have a Happy, Thoughtful and Safe Memorial Day Holiday as we remember and pay respect for those individuals to chose to serve our Great Nation.
    Thank you for your time.


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