The Need For Balance In Dog Training.

I recently went to see a Romanian rescue collie cross. It was pretty typical in it’s behaviour – frightened of pretty much everything. The owners had had it for almost 4 months. If they vacuumed, it hid in the garden, it hated going out for walks, as it was frightened of traffic, pedestrians, and lunged at cyclists and joggers. But the issue that they were most concerned about was it’s behaviour with visitors. It would lunge barking and growling, and although hadn’t yet bitten, the owners were worried that as he was getting worse, it was just a matter of time. His aggression was even more hostile as people got up to leave, as he would chase after them snapping at their legs and feet.
They called in a force-free behaviourist, and had tried reward only training for three months, ignoring undesirable behaviour, and offering him food instead in order to distract him, but he was so aroused in these situations that he wouldn’t take the food, regardless of how exciting the food was. So they tried ignoring his aggression in the hope that he would see that the visitors/traffic/vacuum cleaner were not a threat, but he didn’t improve. So they asked me to come and see him.

When I went in, he was lunging forward, snarling and growling at me. Although he looked pretty ferocious, it was clear that he was full of fear, and had learnt that attack was the best form of defence. As I moved forward, he moved backwards, still shouting abuse at me all the way into the living room.

So I spent some time teaching them how to teach him how to earn high value rewards for listening to the owners on relatively small, unstimulating tasks, while a stranger was present, until he got that obeying was profitable even with me in the room. But unlike the force free behaviourist they had previously seen, I knew that this would not be enough to stop him from attacking someone in the future. So once he was reliably doing as asked, I showed his owner how to use a rattle can to teach him that although it paid well to listen, that listening wasn’t an option anymore. We used it just loudly enough for him to understand that leaving as asked was not a request, but an instruction. He got it straight away, and only had to be rattled once to make that point. After that, if he didn’t do as asked, the owners only had literally to tap the can with one finger to make him reconsider and change his behaviour. From then on, he behaved perfectly without any further need to use the can.

Before I got up to leave, I passed the owner some very high value treats, and told them that I was now going to get up to leave, something that previously would result in immediate aggression. I asked them that if he even went to stand up, they should calmly ask him to leave. If he showed ANY aggression, they were to tap the can and repeat the instruction. If he showed no aggression, as I shut the door, they were to immediately act as though he is the best dog in the world and to fuss him massively, and then give him the food. The owners commented that they were already amazed that he hadn’t kicked off as I moved when I handed them the treats, as normally, any significant movement from a visitor would prompt aggression. I then stood up and went through all of the usual steps of someone leaving – the loud voice, the handshakes, picking up my bag etc. The dog watched me from his position on the sofa, but never so much as growled. I walked out, shut the door, and heard them jubilantly praising him for showing no aggression – none.

The point I wish to illustrate is that with a combination of both effective rewards for acceptable behaviour, and an effective consequence for behaviour that the owners deemed unacceptable, the dog was able to make a choice that he hadn’t made in almost three months of reward only training, and was also happy to take rewards. Far from the can creating a frightened wreck of a dog who no longer trusted i’s owners, it created a dog that was LESS stressed, and relaxed enough to be able to eat. But there will of course be those who will feel that what I did was terrible, outdated, and likely to damage the bond between the owner and the dog. I believe that they are fundamentally wrong. I believe that the training that they had been offered previously would have been far more damaging, and might have resulted in the dog being returned, or even destroyed. Sometimes we all have to be told to stop, and only by stopping what we are doing do we have to opportunity to make a better choice. None of us live rule-free, and to decide to give that power to an animal capable of killing us is in my mind, a very risky and ultimately costly strategy.

I know that this post will make me even less popular with some than I was already. But I never became a dog trainer to make friends. I did it so that I could do my best to help as many owners and dogs as I can. So if you don’t like what I have written, that is of course your prerogative.