Saturday, December 31, 2011

Excuses, Excuses...

Look at this shameful lack of discipline! I have managed no posts for several days, I now hang my head in shame!

If only I knew how to roll my eyes...
See, while we were on our Christmas holiday a storm blew by. Trees fell, roads were closed, old people laughed at the weak youth of today, that sort of thing. Internet connection at my parents' house is dicey at best, and after the storm cell phone service was nearly non-existent, while land lines were completely down (they were repaired today, apparently). So while we actually did have electricity (as opposed to a lot of other households and businesses, some of which still have no heat or light, so no whining), I gave up on newfangled stuff like the intarnetz. Spending an hour to get one page to load, only to watch cell service disappear again is not good for my blood pressure.

I stopped listening a long time ago...

And then yesterday, we spent all day in the car again, traveling back home. And today is New Year's Eve...

There, that's all the excuses I've got for you, weren't they great!? So, I'm a completely innocent victim of circumstances, and now that we've established that there's only one thing left:

No fizzy drinks for you, weirdo!
(I know a lot of dogs have a hard time right now, Monster and I are sorry about that. We can't really help you - fireworks don't bother Monster, but not thanks to anything I've done, we're just lucky - but we promise at least we won't send off any fireworks. Hold tight, eventually it will be over...)

  • And for the record, I'm for a complete ban on fireworks. They're dangerous, they're full of poison, they terrify animals, and it's perfectly possible to have fun without them - if not, you're doing something wrong! Not to mention, how did it become tradition to have drunks handle bombs?!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Today's Cloud

There have been a lot of people coming and going today, and Monster handled most of it pretty well. When some fairly small children turned up I tried to shut Monster in our bedroom (both so he wouldn't frighten them and so he wouldn't accidentally knock them over), but he wasn't having that and kept opening the door. So I had him beside me and he behaved well. But when they were leaving he must have become frustrated he hadn't been allowed to play (he's fascinated with children to the point of almost fixating on them), so he started barking and jumping.

I won't say it doesn't matter that his behavior wasn't aggressive, of course I'd be a lot more upset if he started aggressing towards children, but bad behavior is still bad behavior and I can't ignore everything just because his aggressive behaviors are worse. I fear I often focus too much on "fixing" that particular problem, somehow subconsciously thinking that once that is gone Monster will be perfect. But dogs without Monster's issues still need lots of training, and naturally so does Monster. I need to remember that.

Today's Sunshine

Today Monster has been sleeping in the middle of the floor most of the day, and he's allowed people stepping over him without even lifting his head to check out what's happening. Unless he's sick with something, he seems to be adjusting and feeling more comfortable here now.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Today's Cloud

Monster ran off to bark at people out walking on the road. People around here are pretty relaxed, and he didn't scare them to death, but that doesn't mean that his behavior was acceptable - and neither was my lax supervision of him!

Today's Sunshine

Monster came when called, after having run off, I guess...

Christmas Cloud

Monster has a problem with my father, and it's getting worse. Dad scared him when he was a puppy and has since done pretty much everything wrong (thinking he knows how to "handle" dogs), and finding Monster's tense behavior and warnings around him to be funny...

I can't get through to my father how much this is harming Monster, I can only try to work on Monster not caring so much about the large, dangerous man, but it's not going well. With children in the house Monster is no longer only worried when dad is close to himself or me, he also feels a need to protect the kids. They know Monster, and can listen when something is explained to them, so I'm not worried about them triggering Monster (by screaming for help when Grandpa is playing with them, for example), but the old man is going to get us all into trouble one of these days...

Christmas Sunshine

With the house full of Dobie's family, I feared things would escalate between Dobie and Monster since Dobie would have new support and Monster would be more nervous at the addition of even more people. Instead, they've both been pretty relaxed!

There have been no new fights, and they've been sleeping next to each other several times. There are still some near misses, when they tense up and fixate, preparing to take each other down, but all have been manageable.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Today's Cloud

Two things cloud today. Firstly, I'm not spending enough time with Monster. We don't go for walks, we don't train on any tricks. The only training he gets is relaxation training when new people come to the house (this is not like our calm home, there are people in and out of this house all the time)... I was going to say that it's because of Christmas, there's so much to do, etc. But that's not the truth. The truth is that I haven't made time, it's as simple as that.

Mom doesn't even remember what this thing is...

Secondly, I think I'm being too hard on Dobie. His behavior towards Monster makes me dislike him, which isn't fair. He is as he is, and the situation is difficult for him too. Not to mention, it's not always Dobie who's starting the fight. Plus, he's three years older and better trained (somewhere Dobiemom is snickering in a combination of pride and irritation), he has a better stay and is easier to banish to another room...

It's just things like this morning, when Monster (who sleeps in my bedroom) and I got up. Monster and Dobie met in the kitchen, and when Monster spotted Dobie he approached him with his tail low and wagging, his ears in a soft back/down, his head lowered so he was looking up, and reached up and licked Dobie in the corners of his mouth... And Dobie raised his hackles and lunged at him. This kind of thing makes me lose my patience!

But no, now I'm trying to make excuses for blaming everything on Dobie and taking it out on him. He's not my dog (although I do love him), and I suspect I'm not seeing things with unbiased eyes. I need to stop caring about blame and start focusing on making things easier for everyone.

Plus, when Dobie sleeps he looks like an old man taking a nap!

Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and four more people are cramming into the house. Hooray, that will make everything so much easier...

Today's Sunshine

No fights today! A couple of close calls, but it was possible to get them to back down again.

Mostly I've been focusing on heading it off before it happens, which means I manage how they leave and enter the house (if Dobie is in the house he has to go lie down and stay before I open the door and allow Monster inside, if it's the other way around I have to keep Monster with me in a sit and stay - because he doesn't have as reliable a stay as Dobie, and he's too scared to lie down when Dobie approaches - and give Dobie something to do as soon as he enters the house). They are never allowed outdoors together. When I leave the house I have to leave them together (simply because I tried putting them apart, but they both broke out of their rooms), and when I come back (which is when their tension becomes very dangerous) I immediately send one dog out of the house. (They seem fine to be alone together, they are unharmed - there's not even any drool on either of them - and nothing is out of place in the house. If two 100 pound dogs fight, furniture tends to go flying...) After a nap, at meal time, etc, I keep close watch and if things start to go wrong I first try to divert their attention, and if it doesn't work I send one of them outside. Right now they're sleeping together under a table, Monster's head on Dobie's leg...

No more, I suppose...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Today's Cloud

Monster and Dobie have gotten into several fights. It's becoming more difficult to call Monster away once they start tightening up against each other (understandable, but still bad). Speaking in a happy, light voice makes Monster wind down (lowering neck, lowering and relaxing tail, folding back ears), but makes Dobie worse. Speaking in an angry, loud voice can get Dobie to wind down (if you sound angry enough), but it makes Monster come much closer to attacking. Walking away has no (positive) effect. Stepping between them is of course not even worth considering.

Dobie has gotten a couple of bites in today, but Monster is no more than bruised, thank god. This is killing my hopes to have Monster feel better around other dogs. And every time I use some "trick" to try to get Monster away and defuse the situation I worry I'm ruining that for future use, making him associate it with a threatening situation. We're keeping them in separate rooms as much as possible, but it's Christmas and everything is a bit upside down.

In two days Dobie's Mom will get here. I go from looking forward to having her here to control her dog, to worrying Dobie will only amp it up once he has his family here to both get support from and guard...

This is a cloudy day.

Today's Sunshine

Everyone's still alive...

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Safety First, People!

As someone who both drives a car and walks the dog, I'm aware how invisible a pedestrian is in the dark for a driver. When you're out walking at night, your eyes adjust so well it's easy to think no one could possibly miss seeing you. When you think about it, pretty much everyone knows that you really need reflectors, but it's still easy to forget that it's not so much that you're difficult to spot without them - it's that you really are invisible. I recently bought a reflector spray I thought sounded interesting, and tried it on a few things while I was packing for this trip. I took some things outside, laid them on the ground and sprayed sort of randomly (it was late, cold and windy, and I had lots left to do).

The spray is nearly invisible, things get a slight gray sheen but you pretty much have to look for it to notice it. Now, I only used it on red, black, gray and yellow surfaces, so I can't guarantee what it looks like on something white (there is white lettering on part of the harness, but it's plastic so I'm not sure it's comparable to a white jacket for example). But on the things you see below, you mostly can't tell it's there. So I took a photo using flash, since I couldn't tell if the spray was working at all. Judge for yourselves:

Dog's black jacket (with a white reflector band), red shoes with gray details, black and yellow harness (with a white reflector strip), and black leather leash.

Well, I'm impressed! My plan after seeing the photo was to spray my jacket, gloves and hat, and all the dog equipment - to start with! However, I am who I am, and lost the spray bottle along the way up here... It's on the list of what I'm buying again, though, and I'm recommending it to everyone! They also had a spray for textiles and fur(!), designed to be washed (or brushed?) away when you get back home, but I preferred the permanent version - I won't spray Monster with it though!

(But it doesn't hurt to wear regular reflectors too!)

Today's Sunshine

After a full night and day of Monster pining and whining, clawing at the door, shying away from people, becoming startled by any sound, running around like a maniac, and being unable to lie down for more than five seconds, things may be starting to look up. Unless it's just because he's exhausted...

Well, I really need some sunshine (there is none here this time of year) so I'll take it anyway:

Today's Sunshine is: Monster has relaxed at his new surroundings, and is sleeping peacefully (and has been for about an hour).

Today's Cloud

Today Monster and Dobie have become rather aggressive towards each other. My parents have a dog as well, a nice young lady they both know and like.

Of course they like me, I'm adorable!

But the power dynamics appear to have shifted - probably because Monster is older now compared to last time they were up here together. Dobie is trying to bully Monster away from their girlfriend (and shoes, people, chairs, toys, etc), which Monster usually (as late as yesterday, when we were still in my home) allows. He'll back away and let me deal with it. But no more. When Dobie tells Monster off, Monster answers. And once Monster's growled back, Dobie won't let it go. I can still call Monster away at this point, and he'll turn away, tail wagging, completely forgetting about the whole macho thing. But when he does, Dobie apparently sees his chance and follows to finish it.

I realize (or at least I believe?) Monster isn't really doing anything wrong. He shouldn't have to put up with bullying. But these posts aren't just about what I or Monster are doing wrong, but also about what's going wrong. And this is not helpful in teaching Monster to relate well to other dogs...

I was looking forward to this time, seeing it as a good opportunity. Now, I'm more worried.

Yesterday's Cloud

After our long journey I was relieved and happy to arrive, only to find Monster did not feel the same. We're at my parents home, and Monster has spent time here before. But now he's nervous and anxious, and can't seem to settle...

Yesterday's Sunshine

We spent 13 hours in the car yesterday, driving up north for Christmas. Hence, no new posts. But I'm not allowed (by me) to not post at least a sunshine and cloud each day, so they may be a day late but here they are.

(The purpose of the Sunshine/Cloud-posts is to make a note each day of success and failure, so I can go back and see progression. It's also to make me actually pay attention - if I've written about the dog barking at our neighbor three times, I'm going to notice it's been three times instead of possibly just shrugging it off and forgetting about it.)

So, yesterday's Sunshine:

Monster spent 13 hours in the car without protesting. We're traveling with our friend Dobie, and he cried and screamed the whole way (driving me crazy - I actually considered driving off the road and crashing the car just to get some peace and quiet!), but Monster just looked at him in confusion, sighed and went to sleep.

Monster was also very well behaved at the pit stops along the road. He did bark at one man, but only after Dobie (who guards the car, with conviction) had started barking and lunging for him (from inside his cage, making it look very strange...).

What!? I'm totally calm! CALM, I tell you!!!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Today's Cloud

Monster barked at the neighbor's car today. It wasn't aggressive or frightened, more of the "Alarm! Alarm! I can see you!"-type of bark, but I don't like that he needed to react.

Today's Sunshine

Difficult to find one today... Lots to do and short on time for my Monster, unfortunately. I suppose that could actually be the sunshine, though. Yeah, let's go with that:

Today Monster has barely complained, even though he got shorter walks and very little training. Usually he hates when I clean, but today he's mostly just sighed and moved out of the way.

Beware, bewaaaare!

One thing which happens when you find yourself with an aggressive dog, is that others gain power over you. You so desperately want it to just stop, you're willing to listen to what anyone has to say as long as they say it with authority. And if they're trainers, you pay them to tell you what to do and what to think.

I could have used that money...
In my case, I was fairly convinced the answer to our problems could be found in positive reinforcement. I didn't know too much about using it to solve a problem behavior, just about using it to learn new things. But it just so happened that we were already enrolled in a dog training class, advertising positive reinforcement and clicker training (which was why I chose it in the first place), scheduled to start some weeks later. Perfect! I contacted the trainer and told her about our new problem, Monster's behavior towards other dogs. I wanted to make sure both that we were still welcome, and that we could get some help. No problem, come on over, seen it before, know just what to do. Well then, soon our problems would be over!

Oh no!
At this class, I was told first of all I needed to immediately neuter my dog. Now, neutering has no guaranteed effect on behavior. And even if you do see a change, it's not necessarily going to be for the better. I was not willing to experiment and hope for the best, which I made clear. (Every subsequent meeting for the class I was again told I needed to neuter my dog, to my annoyance.)

Secondly, I was told something very familiar: I needed to become the boss of my dog. In all things he was to be behind/below me. If we were walking, he must walk behind or beside me. If I was eating, he mustn't eat until I'd finished. You're starting to recognise this too, right? Yeah, this is old school alpha theory...

But what did I know? As I said I didn't know much about the base theories of positive reinforcement training. And we were going to get help!

Next thing actually did seem new to me, so it had to be clickery stuff: when Monster lunged at other dogs, I should let him. With positive reinforcement you never give attention to incorrect behaviors, so when my dog was showing aggression I should just stand there holding the leash and ignore him.

Oh, you're gonna ignore me, you say?

The explanation actually isn't wrong, but the application is horrible. Acting out aggression is self rewarding, meaning you can't ignore it away. Every time your dog lunges at another dog, he becomes more likely to do it again. You can interrupt bad behavior without punishment, which is what you should do.

And do you have any idea what it feels like to have an 80 pound (he was younger then) Cane Corso repeatedly throw himself at another dog while you're holding the leash? He wasn't just barking and growling, he was throwing himself off the ground, being stopped by the leash in mid-air. He and I both were injured, repeatedly.

And how does this weekly experience help him relate better to other dogs?

Not to mention what it did to the other dogs in the class! For hours they had to perform tricks and behave, while a few feet away a complete maniac five times their size was screaming he was going to get them... I'm sure they won't remember that.

It seems insane now that I'm writing this. In fact, you're probably thinking I'm a complete moron for continuing to go there. I did actually find it questionable at the time, but they could point to things showing them that the method was working. I wanted to believe them (again, with an aggressive dog you become desperate to find help), and they were the experts after all...

I think I'm staying home today, Mom...
So off I went, week after week, putting my dog through hell. Helping him, you know. And from time to time he'd stop attacking, lie down, even roll over on his back. I was told this meant he was beginning to get better. When he acted like that he was starting to behave normally.

Of course it was normal behavior! He was fighting for his life, surrounded by enemies, in absolute mortal terror. You'd collapse too. Sooner or later, you too would try to surrender. But it. Just. Wouldn't. Stop.

I hope you're not surprised when I tell you he kept getting worse...

After a couple of months the class was over. (The above was not the only strange techniques we were taught, but I can't handle dragging the rest up right now. Letting Monster aggress freely was by far the worst, and what I regret the most.) This finally woke me up from the dream that they were going to help - the class was over and Monster was not better.

Is it safe to come out now?
Well, now I'd tried that newfangled clicker nonsense! Clearly, it was ridiculous. But no more! Oh no, time to get some real help!

Positive reinforcement hadn't worked - in fact it had been downright idiotic. So, I contacted the strictest (please note, this does not mean the most violent) old school dog trainer I'd ever heard of, packed Monster into the car, and drove off to get some  real help...

You whaaat!?

Now, I write this post for several reasons. One is that writing it down and making it public is a bit of a relief somehow. Another is that I believe in admitting my mistakes, it's too easy to hide from bad decisions. Third, I think it's a fair illustration of how most aggressive behavior isn't built in one day, and it often is a cumulative problem for the dog in question. And finally:

I hope my blog can help someone else struggling with their aggressive dog. And I hope you read this post in particular, because it isn't a jungle out there, it's an insane asylum. You need to find a good trainer. Make sure you have some understanding of the underlying theories. Be clear on how you expect to be helped. Do your research. Before writing this post I looked around at some sites advertising dog training with "positive methods", "clicker methods", "positive reinforcement", and so on, many specifically mentioning training aggressive dogs (or "reactive"). They're lying to you. Or at least they're very wrong. Don't be a sucker like me, so desperate to have someone offer a cure you'll buy the snake oil...

And if you can't find a good trainer, a bad trainer is not the next best thing. You can learn on your own, the information is out there.

I know I keep telling you she's an idiot, but this part's actually not wrong.

You can train in the old school way using techniques from the positive reinforcement methods, like clickers. At a glance, I'd say this is what most trainers are offering. It's not what you want, it's not what you need, it's not going to help you! And if you're unlucky, it may really harm you...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Today's Cloud

Today Monster became interested in another dog walking in the street as we drove by. Monster has so far never displayed aggressive behavior when in the car, even with dogs just outside the window. While he didn't bark at the dog today, I think it's a bad sign that he showed it so much interest.

Today's Sunshine.

I'm going to borrow from yesterday for this one, because I didn't do this then. And this is awesome sunhsine:

Monster used the phone again, showing that his passivity from being corrected isn't permanent!

Natural Born Killer...

A lot of people looking at Monster and me will say (to themselves, to each other, or to us) "Of course he's aggressive! It's the breed."

Watch it!

Now, this is something you come across very often if you own certain breeds of dog. If your dog is badly behaved he's just as they expect him to be, and if he's a marvel of obedience, pleasant manners, and superior calm he cannot be trusted! Possibly, a very well behaved dog of a "dangerous breed" can be accepted as an exception... But he could still snap at any moment!

Who, me?

Let's try to look at things rationally, shall we? Come on, give it a go.

Monster is a very badly behaved dog. He shows severe aggression towards other dogs, and has redirected that aggression towards his owner at times. He fits perfectly with the stereotype of "dangerous breeds", doesn't he? Never mind about all the excuses and reasons for why he behaves the way he does, isn't it true that he is exactly what people talk about when they say "dangerous breeds"? He's flat nosed, big jawed, muscular, and his ancestors have historically been used to guard stuff, and now he's aggressive, it's all right there!


But Monster has nine littermates, who don't share his behavior problems. He has older siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc, who don't behave this way. Now, I may be misunderstanding something, but aren't they also the same breed as he...? Somehow, Monster's behavior is the illustration for the nature of his breed, and his relatives' lack of aggression issues are all exceptions?

I don't follow your math, would you mind walking me through it?

Mmm, yummy steak...

As for Monster being a natural born killer: yes he is! That's natural selection for you. All carnivores are natural born killers, it's in their job description. That goes for you too.


So my previous post was a bit of a downer, I figure I need to even out the complaining a bit. Here's my favorite thing to watch when I need some encouragement about my Monster. Kikopup is an wonderful channel, and they have a lot of help to offer on how to use positive reinforcement to treat aggressive dogs, but when I'm feeling down I don't really want to watch that. This is 15 seconds of awesomeness, and something to watch and think to yourself:
"One day, my dog will be catching a dragon too!"

He will, you know.

Reading Blogs

I'm new to blogging, I'm doing it in part to force myself to keep a kind of journal to see how we're doing and make it easier to evaluate and spot mistakes. But writing the blog made me curious about other dog training blogs out there, so I started snooping around.

Man, was that depressing! I'm sure I can't be doing it right, I must be missing lots of great blogs... But doing a search on aggressive dogs, positive reinforcement, dog training, or living with a problem dog yields page after page of encouragements to just get tougher with your dog. Followed by information about how unfortunately, in some cases, that's just not enough - if correcting your dog won't work, you may have to face the tough decision to put your dog down. I'm not saying some dogs won't be beyond an owner's - possibly anyone's - ability to fix, but "beat your dog, kill it if that doesn't work" is ridiculous! (Yeah, I'm taking the message to the extreme, but it really is what it boils down to.)

After an hour of surfing around on different blogs this was the only bright spot I found:

Drill Sergeants Part III

There were a few others with actual positive reinforcment as the message, but they were by trainers and/or selling equipment or books for "soft" training. What I was looking for was stories about "civilians" training their dogs without punishment, and that was distressingly hard to find.

I've been thinking that I'm late to the party. That a lot of people have figured out that old school methods are plainly a bad idea for the most part. Not everyone of course, I do know lots of people still stick to it. But I did believe there was a fairly large portion of dog owners who had seen the light, so to speak. They were not visible on the blogs, let me tell you. I did the search wrong, right...?

So, Presenting, The One Blog Showing Some Sense: Puddin's Training Tips!

So What's The Secret?

I keep saying I've stopped correcting, and things are getting better with our new method, but what exactly are we doing now then? Well, let me tell you, I've discovered this amazing, brand new and groundbreaking method! For just $19.99 you can learn it too!

I'm gonna eat well tonight!

No, of course not. What we're doing is following one of the very first things you come across when you start looking into the "softer" side of training. Positive reinforcement methods mean that you reward your dog for doing something good, and if he's behaving badly you try to address the reason behind the behavior. In our case the reason can be boiled down to "Dogs are bad!". Instead of correcting the behavior and telling him "I don't care if dogs are bad, you just shut up!", I'm telling him "Actually, dogs are great!". The way to do that, simply put, is to reward him for seeing another dog. If there are dogs around, you're in candyland!

I see a poodle!

But if it's that simple, why did I waffle back and forth, trying this and that, abandoning positive reinforcement for stricter corrections?

Because it's stupid, that's why! Or possibly because I'm stupid, I'm a little fuzzy on the details... No, see, I didn't really get it. I thought I did, I was willing to try it (even though I wasn't entirely convinced it made any sense), but I really didn't. Eventually I found a great instructor who could show me exactly what I needed to do. It was the same things I'd read about, but she could make it make sense for me.

A few things which tripped me up:
  • When do you reward? When your dog experiences something to which he associates negatively, a Bad Thing.
  • But what if he's too busy acting like a Monster? You've made it too hard for him.
  • Alright, see a dog, get a treat. Then what? Then he looks again, and he gets another treat.
  • But he's looking the whole time, should I just keep mashing sausage into his maw? You're still doing it wrong. Give the reward for Bad Thing so he has to look away to take it. Then you'll get a defined moment for his next reward - when he looks back up.
  • But he wont look away to take the treat. If I give to him while he's looking, he'll eat it, but if I hold it away from the Bad Thing he'll just ignore it. Again, you're making it too hard. If your dog won't stop looking, you're too close. Increase the distance to where he'll look away to get his treat.
  • Actually, he won't accept any treats at all. Even if I shove them into his mouth he won't chew, they just fall back out again. He looks ridiculous. I don't think this is working. Listen, Ive said this before, but you clearly weren't paying attention: You're too close! Work at a distance where your dog will show interest in Bad Thing, but has attention to spare for you and your treats. You like chocolate? Do you find eating chocolate a pleasant experience? What if I walk up to you while you're folding laundry and shove chocolate into your mouth, would find that a pleasant experience? No, give the dog treats when he wants them, otherwise it's not a reward. If he doesn't want them you're doing something wrong. Knowing you, I'd say you're too close, but that's just a guess...
  • All right, I'm getting the hang of this now! See a dog, get a treat, see a dog, get a treat, lather, rinse, repeat. But we are out on a walk after all, eventually we'll need to pass that other dog. That means getting closer to it. In fact that dog is getting closer to us as we speak. No! Why won't you listen? You do not have to pass the other dog, you're not even out on a walk, you're training! When you're out walking with no other dogs around, you're just out on a walk. When a dog turns up, your walk becomes training. Keep your working distance to the other dog, reward your dog for being around Bad Thing for maybe ten reps, then turn around and walk away! 
  • I'm not sure what's happening here, but now he wont even look at the other dog! He just keeps begging for treats. Now what? Now you move closer, until you find the distance where he starts becoming interested in the other dog again. This is the whole point, he's begging for treats instead of focusing on the other dog because he now feels comfortable with other dogs at this distance. So you make it a little more challenging aga - no, not that close you moron! Oh, for the love of...

My Mom's an idiot!

As you may have picked up on, it was nearly impossible for me to accept that we had to keep a working disance. Part of it was that I wanted to push it, just a little more. If the lesson was harder, he'd learn more, right? No, the point of the training is to form a positive association. If I put him in a situation where he feels uncomfortable because a dog is too close, treats won't suddenly make it better. We need to be where he's aware and interested in the other dog, but no more.

Another thing I just couldn't grasp was that the working distance really is how close we'll ever get to other dogs. I was fine (eventually) with training Monster at a distance where it wasn't too hard for him, but then I wanted to stop the training and just continue on with our walk. No matter if that meant passing another dog 10 feet away, he'd just have to suck it up and deal with it. It wasn't like running away from the problem was going to solve anything! All right, training him when we're too close to another dog won't work, fine. But that just means we won't train when we're that close!

Yeah, that's of course not how it works. Monster can't learn that being around other dogs is great if he freaks out about other dogs all the time. There's no point telling a dog Bad Thing is good for five minutes, and then spending five minutes telling him Bad Thing is bad (which is what he experiences when he gets too close to something which makes him feel bad). You may as well just give up on the whole thing, it won't work. I did.

But like I said, I did find a trainer who could speak Idiot. She managed to get me to understand what I was doing wrong, why I couldn't get a result. It didn't take that long either, I knew all of it already - it just wouldn't come together in my head. We are now using only positive reinforcements, and while I'm not very good at it (I'm clumsy and slow, and it still doesn't come naturally to me), it's working. When we started, we needed to keep other dogs far, far away (around 1200 feet, maybe). Today our working distance is about 100 feet. If we have an accident, where we perhaps meet a dog unexpectedly around a corner, Monster will certainly react and behave badly - but at his worst he's still nowhere near the frenzied maniac he was before, and he winds back down again much faster once it's over.

(And that's another thing I had trouble grasping. You must not let your dog get too close to Bad Thing, but you can't actually control the world! There could be a Bad Thing around any corner. What then? Well, you accept you screwed up/had bad luck/wasn't paying attention, and you move on. You should be prepared for possibly needing to make training a little easier again, but it's not the end of the world. Don't let it happen too often - that's not unfortunate, it's careless - but don't stress about the occasional accident. Shit happens.)

So, what I think you should do to help your aggressive (or just frightened) dog stop his bad behavior:
Figure out what his Bad Thing is, and start rewarding him for being around it - without letting him get too close!

And read something written by an actual expert, or look up a good trainer... Cause I'm kind of an idiot.

You should see her trying to screw in a lightbulb...

    Saturday, December 17, 2011

    Why Go Hard?

    I brought my puppy home in the usual way - filled with grandiose plans for our future! I grew up with a fairly old school view of how to handle dogs. Dog is wolf, wolf is pack animal, pack is hierarchy = put dog on bottom of family pack hierarchy. Simple, right?

    Weeeeell, if you think about it some things start to look a bit weak though. Especially about the clear hierarchical structure of a natural wolf pack, and how that translates to walking first, eating first, and so on. Wolves aren't stupid, and the whole point of living in a pack structure is to benefit from each other. So, is it somehow the case that there are some kinds of super wolves out there, that are the best at everything and are born leaders? Or is it the case that even if the alpha is a worse tracker than the omega (or beta, or gamma, or...), the alpha must walk first - or lose status and risk a coup? It seems to me, that the reasonable thing to do is let the one who's best at tracking walk in front. But if he's also small and can't bring down anything bigger than a rabbit, you might want to switch who's walking first once you catch up to the buffalo he so masterfully tracked. Perhaps they should have a quick fight about it though, just to make sure everyone knows who's leading the pack...

    Woohoo, I'm first!

    Alright, so it's not quite that simple, and perhaps not quite that stupid. But serious arguments have been made that the early research done on society and behavior in wolf packs, the observations which formed the base of old school thinking and which can be said to have penetrated our culture completely by now (go read a book about werewolves and the handsome alpha males who lead them!), was badly flawed. The studied wolves were in captivity, not in their natural habitat, and it follows that any displayed behavior may not have been natural in turn. Later studies of wild wolves in their natural habitat have shown different results.

    Not to mention, dogs aren't wolves. They're. Not. Wolves. Do you actually believe that if you take in a wolf cub and raise it like a puppy, it will behave like a dog? It won't. Because dogs and wolves are not the same.

    So why do people buy into it? I did, and I'm not sure I've completely abandoned every aspect of it yet. I think the main reason to believe in and use old school dominance ideas is the immediate result. You correct a dog displaying a bad behavior, and odds are he'll stop it right away. That's great!

    Head in the sand is for dummies!

    So why not use it and stick to it? Because you think of it as telling your dog "stop doing that", when what you're telling him is "if you do x something bad happens". You can't really be sure exactly what x is going to be for him. That's why trainers using correction emphasize timing so much - if your timing is off you're creating a bad association to the wrong thing, sometimes with very bad results.

    Another reason, which Monster has shown me so very clearly, is that exposing your dog to discomfort makes him more used to discomfort. Next time you need to correct your dog you may find it requires a much stronger correction than before. Now, some trainers recommend you to go all out from the start. If you want to correct your dog, do it guns blazing - that way he won't gradually get used to it. But he will. You won't necessarily see it until he's reached the threshold, but once you're there what are you going to do? Many grit their teeth and allow themselves to make the correction even stronger (because it used to work, dammit!), pushing the next threshold crossing into the future. Dogs don't live that long, right?

    Another risk you're taking is that corrections are likely to make your dog uncertain and passive. These can be seen as great things for the human (when the effects are moderate)! It means the dog is much less likely to make mischief, he'll stick to you and when not given a command he'll tend to go lie down. Makes life simple. But he's sticking to you because he has no confidence, and he's staying put because he's worried if he tries something he hasn't been told to, things will go badly for him... Nice for a comfy human, hell for an active dog.

    *And as I'm writing this my Monster chose to help me illustrate this point with an example. He went and made a phone call, just for fun. This isn't a trick anyone's taught him, he came up with it himself. He'll walk over to the phone, push the handset off its cradle, and mash the buttons a few times with his paw. Then he'll listen, hoping someone picks up. He started doing it when he was young, and while I don't think it's a very good idea (he might scare or irritate the people he's calling, for example) I've never corrected him for it. I've moved the phone to make it harder for him to reach it, and I've made sure to be observant and stop him if he starts doing it anyway, but I've never told him off. When I moved into the more correction heavy methods of dealing with him, though, this behavior stopped completely. I had formed no negative association to the phone for him, but the general use of corrections made him passive and unwilling to volunteer behavior and experiment with his surroundings. Today was the first time he returned to it again, after I stopped the corrections a couple of months ago. It's very encouraging to see that he's bouncing back.

    Sure, having your dog use the phone is impractical to say the least, but aren't you also a bit amazed at his ingenuity? Would you really like to miss out on your dog doing something equally amazing, just so you can cling to using corrections?

    Correcting your dog for bad behavior also means he just won't like and trust you as much. I'm not saying your dog doesn't love you, I'm sure he does (sleep with one eye open). I'm just saying you're not just the greatest thing since cat leashes (seriously, you might want to lock your bedroom door), you're also a source of discomfort. No matter how "right" you do the correcting (it's not a punishment, its a consequence; your timing is impeccable; you never threaten, you just correct; you never lose your temper, etc), your dog is not an idiot - he knows you're the one causing the discomfort. He may not hate you for it (quick, look behind you!), but the whole point of correcting bad behavior is to create an association between the behavior and the discomfort. That association, although weaker, will form to the person doing the correcting as well. But I'm sure your dog's brain works differently. (run away!)

    For me, however, the strongest argument against using corrections is the thought behind it. You want the dog to form a negative association, "doing that is unpleasant". But it's not likely his thoughts are going to be that clear, and some (or even all) of that association will form to the trigger to his behavior! Meaning, if you correct your dog for barking at strangers, he may stop doing it. But he'll like strangers a lot less, and once something pushes him over into behaving badly at strangers again (bad day, got yelled at for pushing a vase over, feeling a bit sick, unusually suspicious looking stranger, anything really) he may not just bark any more. After all, strangers make bad things happen to him...

    In our case, I corrected Monster for his behavior towards dogs. I had a good trainer demonstrate the when and the how (I'd used mild corrections before that, like telling him off and grabbing him by his neck, but he had never so much as blinked at those), and it worked! I timed the correction perfectly, I made it unpleasant enough that he immediately responded to it, and our walks became blissfully peaceful... For a while. Soon I noticed Monster starting to get tense when another dog approached. Every sighting of dogs made him react earlier and stronger, until he snapped and started his earlier aggressive behavior again. Only much, much worse. Going outside became impossible, we had to go for walks in the middle of the night, or drive off to the remotest areas I could find. Getting Monster into the car meant first going out to scout the area so no dog would turn up while I was loading him.

    Monster had stopped showing agggression towards other dogs when I corrected him. But the reason for his behavior, the thought in his head going something like "Other dogs are a threat, keep at distance!" was not only still there, it was reinforced! Clearly dogs were bad, bad things kept happening when they were around. So the pressure to act on his feelings built, and eventually he snapped.

    Do you want your dog to hate and/or fear the triggers to his bad behavior?

    Dogs are individuals, they respond differently to things, and they also show their responses differently. For lots of people the dominate and correct will work - or seem to be working depending on your viewpoint - perhaps for the dog's entire life. That doesn't mean it's right, it just means your brain likes patterns and causality, and humans form associations as well as dogs.

    Why are you being so mean?
    I'm not saying it doesn't work, I'm saying it doesn't work the way most people think it does.

    So, What Have We Got To Show For Ourselves?

    Our current situation, as the year starts to wind down (while the blog is just starting) is as follows:

    • Monster is 1.5 years old, weighing in at about 100 pounds, and as far as he will tell me of sound mind and body.
    • We can go for walks even when other dog owners are out, but I must be alert to make sure we don't get too close (at around 100 feet away Monster will begin to focus overly on other dogs making it difficult for him to follow commands or pay attention, at around 30 feet away he will display aggressive behavior such as barking and lunging).
    • If allowed to reach a point of aggressive behavior, it's still possible to get some minimal moments of attention from him, he can be brought away from the situation, and he doesn't redirect his aggression towards me.
    • He no longer reacts just towards dogs, his behavior can now be triggered by people, cars, cats, bikes, blowing leaves, etc...
    • He is starting to show more enthusiasm about training, no longer avoiding eye contact or refusing to try.
    • He is in a higher level of stress than before we started our current method of training. He has difficulty focusing for almost any period of time, on almost any activity (does not show when tracking, although he has trouble giving up the "hunt" once he reaches the target). He constantly tries to pull on the leash when out walking.
    • He is becoming more interested in food rewards, although it's still not very important to him.
    • His behavior towards dogs he considers friends (those he grew up with) is becoming ruder. He will play more intensely, with gestures of dominance and some resource guarding.
    • He is showing insecurity towards sudden surprises, like things falling down or sudden noises.

    So, it's mixed results, I suppose... Certainly, we're nowhere close to done - or even acceptable. For people reading this for the first time, the fact that I'm willing to keep at it with a method that's showing a worsening behavior in some aspects probably seems insane. I understand where you're coming from, the increase in stress and the expansion to all things being a trigger is not a pleasant result. But the overall result is still positive, for us.

    I'm starting this blog when we've had aggression issues for a year already. I can't bring you up to speed in just a few posts, unfortunately, so let me just say it's been a lot worse. And I suppose I have faith in where we're headed. Some results are undesireable, but I think I understand why they're cropping up (maybe), and I think they'll die down again if we just keep at it.

    But hey, I've been wrong before... At least it will feel familiar if it turns out I'm wrong again, then.

    Reactive Or Aggressive?

    As I've drifted over toward the "softer" side of dog training (and back to the other side again, and then over here, there, everywhere, and once around backwards on one leg) I've come across the term "reactive" used instead of "aggressive" when describing dogs who behave like Monster. Finding a clear and agreed upon definition for "aggressive dog" and "reactive dog", or pinpointing the exact difference between the terms - if there is one - has proven more than I can manage.

    I'm sticking with "aggressive" when describing Monster, because I honestly see no point in talking around it. Aggressive may not be enough to encompass everything which combines into his behavior, and it may be far from the truth of what lies behind it all, but let's be honest: you see a dog trying to choke himself on his leash, screaming and lunging at you, you don't think the word "aggressive"? Yeah, thought so.

    I have an aggressive dog.

    Does pain teach?

    Sure it does. But what, and do you want that taught?

    [Clarification: when I use the word "pain" I'm not making the claim that the old school way of raising and training your dog means hurting it. I'm using the word as an oversimplification to make a point. The idea behind old school correction is to cause discomfort, physical and/or psychological, when the dog is doing something undesireable. It's not to hurt the dog for funsies, because old schoolers are sadistic serial killers in training, all right? These corrections can be anything from a stern voiced and sharp no to actual physical pain, usually graded to the offense so mischief barking may get a no, while chasing the cat may get an "alpha roll". And all people are individuals, so no two old schoolers correct in the same way.

    There is also some debate about whether dogs are as sensitive to pain as humans, meaning the line between causing the dog discomfort and causing him pain is also not clear.

    So why do I use the word pain? Because of what pain is. Pain is a discomfort signal, it's the body telling us "wrong". What is pain to one person barely registers with another, but most of us feel it at some point. Whether a correction is registered as pain or not, it fills the function of pain. When a child puts its hand on a hot plate it hurts, meaning the body is saying "wrong, don't do that", and when we tug the leash or "bite" the neck of the dog stealing from the table we're telling him "wrong, don't do that".

    Old school dog training contains the potential for causing the dog (mild) pain, but certainly many who train their dogs in this way never actually use pain.

    Just to be extra clear - old school dog training does not mean hitting the dog! I don't believe that it does, I'm not claiming that it does. Some do knowingly cause some pain to get the dog to cease a particularly bad behavior, but the point isn't to harm the dog. People who do this (for training purposes, not as a way to vent frustration) love their dogs too, it is an attempt to help the dog (if done right). I don't condemn people who use physical correction - up to a point. I just think they're barking up the wrong tree.]

    Now, first of all, I'm not any kind of expert. I'm not claiming I have experienced all facets of the different schools of thought on dog training. All I can offer is my own view, based on my own experiences, prejudices and misunderstandings. Let's face it, I'm probably wrong, right? I don't have a problem with that, simply because I don't believe any of us have a clear, objective view of  anything. We filter the world through ourselves, all anyone can tell you is what it looks like to them.

    Or maybe you do know it all?

    What the truth looks like to me is this: I used to believe in the dominance/leadership "old school" stuff. Not to the extremes, I never believed you should abuse your dog to "teach him a lesson" or whatever rabid notions some (thankfully a minority) of the followers of this philosophy claim. I did believe, however, that it's important to be the leader, to dominate your dog, that the natural way to keep order with a dog in a human household was to always reinforce that he was at the bottom of the pack. I also believed that causing discomfort (i.e. correcting, for example through a short, sharp tug on the leash) the dog for incorrect behavior was the responsible and smart thing to do.

    Go ahead, make my day!

    You need to have an obedient dog, you need to be able to control him. Punishing bad behavior makes sense!

    However, my views have changed. While I do still believe that punishment can work, I no longer think it's a good idea to use it. Not because I'm such a nice person, who just doesn't want to be mean to the widdle cuddly-wuddly doggies. No, to be honest: if I could have a guarantee that if I use one extremely hard correction (we're talking real pain here, electric shock, whatever) once, Monster would be cured, I'd probably do it and I wouldn't feel bad about it. Being an aggressive dog hurts Monster too, not just his surroundings - fixing the problem would be worth nearly anything!

    But I have tried correcting him, I have had trainers correct him, and I believe I'm fairly clear sighted when I tell you it wasn't just useless, it made things worse. Sure, for a few weeks after getting help from a correction-heavy old school trainer, Monster was better. In fact, we could pass other dogs on the street without him putting a paw out of place. But it cost us. Not only did he become much more reluctant in all training, even his favorite activities like tracking, but also the correction "cost" kept going up. He was easier to handle in most situations, but if he did start to react to something stopping him demanded greater and greater corrections. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that if you keep going down that route you'll eventually wind up having to use too much force for your own comfort - no matter where you draw the line. You may think I'm too soft to do it correctly, that you would be willing to "do it right". Sure, it's pretty much guaranteed that there will be people who are "tougher" than I am, but my point isn't that you need to be callous and hard to be so cruel as to correct a dog - it's that you're entering a bad cycle where correction makes the dog harder, a harder dog requires a greater correction, which makes the dog harder, which... Well, you get where I'm going. For many dogs it still works, because they're less extreme. They don't have many strong behaviors that need to be corrected, and more importantly they take rather small steps up the hardening ladder. Monster is an individual who climbs up that ladder as if there's a chew toy at the top, which means correcting him is a bad idea.

    Alright, let's see what you're made of...

    But the point I'm really trying to make - in spite of telling you I'm aware I know nothing and am probably wrong - is that I actually think correcting any dog is a bad idea. No matter if it seems to be working for you, it just means your climb up the ladder of escalating corrections is slower than ours. So you may never reach the point where it's no longer possible (much less ethical) to use corrections. But does that really mean that it's working, or are you only pushing your problems forward and hoping you'll never catch up with them?

    Maybe those clicker hippies got to me after all...


    Hi there!

    Here's where I tell you what this blog is, so pay attention - there will be a quiz!


    This is my baby, we're going to call him Monster. He's a beautiful Cane Corso male, and the love of my life. He's perfect: smart, handsome, funny - everything you could wish for! But he's also a monster...

    He was born in the summer of 2010, and he moved in with me in the fall of the same year.

    Happy and free...

    We were going to conquer the world together! We were going to show all other dogs what's what, competing in obedience, tracking, maybe agility, and certainly dog shows...

    And then came January, 2011. One day out walking, Monster suddenly started barking at another dog. No big deal, I thought: he was in an age to be a little loopy, overreact, try new stuff, whatever. I told him to cut it out and carried on with our walk. Next day, same thing. Day after that he did it again. By now I was starting to get a bit annoyed with this rude behavior, but I still didn't really see it as a problem. A week or so later he bit me for the first time...

    Who, me!?

    Here began a year of trying to find a "fix". I grew up with dogs, everyone in my family has dogs, close to everyone I know has dogs. I've known scared dogs, calm dogs, friendly dogs, bored dogs, clever dogs, stupid dogs, sick dogs, old dogs, hyper dogs, "dominant" dogs and I don't know what you are but you're weird dogs. I honestly thought I knew dogs... Hah!

    I've tried the traditional leadership/dominance methods, I've tried the more modern reward-or-ignore methods, I've tried hybrids of these, and I've gone back and forth. I can't say I've definitely found a fix, but I have found something I believe in, and which has shown some positive results (some negative too). I have certainly found what doesn't work. I've met different instructors, I've read a bunch of books, and I've cried and cursed and tried it all again.

    At his worst, Monster would react to the sight of another dog 500 feet away by going up on his hind legs, roaring and chewing foam, hanging himself at the end of the leash. When he couldn't reach the other dog he would turn on me. I have scars from his teeth I'll carry as a reminder long after he's gone. He weighs around 100 pounds, and his behavior was honestly quite dangerous, so I was pretty much willing to try anything to make it stop. Some things made it worse right away, other things made it better for a while only to give a nasty surprise eventually, and some things had no effect whatsoever. I have no amazing reveal of a wonder cure to give you, all I can say so far is that the last few months Monster hasn't bitten me once. Hopefully that is the start of a slow reveal of one way to effectively "fix" an aggressive dog, but I can't promise anything. After all, I don't know yet...

    This was just a quick (all right, stop rolling your eyes back there) introduction to us, our issues, and what this blog is about. From now on I'll be writing about my thoughts on various methods and ideas of training dogs, as well as our successes and failures with Monster's aggression issues. If you have similar problems, check us out from time to time, maybe you can find something useful here. If you're a dog expert and want to tell me all I've done wrong and what I should be doing instead, feel free to leave a comment. I may not listen to you, but that doesn't mean you're not right. If you're just bored and want to laugh at the idiot who kept an aggressive dog even after it bit her, you're welcome too. And if you're a dog hater who wants to find even more reasons why dogs are horrible and should be outlawed, nothing I tell you will mean anything to you anyway so go right ahead. I'll just leave you with this, for now:

    My Monster. He's wonderful.