Monday, December 19, 2011

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...

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