Walking Two Aggressive Dogs Together
I’m working with a big, burly, three-year old chocolate Lab named Boomer, trying to deal with his aggression toward other dogs, and had planned yesterday to take him on a walk with one of his sworn enemies, Malachi, a tall, two-year old black Lab with too much unfocused energy. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first, where does Boomer’s aggression come from? What is the root cause of his behavior? He’s generally a sweet animal, with positive social impulses. What’s going on?
When I first read Natural Dog Training (which is the basis for the way I train dogs), I was struck by something Kevin Behan wrote: that when a dog lunges at another dog, in attack mode, he’s actually highly attracted to that dog. This may sound paradoxical at first (it certainly did to me at the time), but when you think of it in terms of pure magnetic energy, i.e., the polar opposites of electromagnetism -- attraction and resistance -- and then think about how certain emotions carry a strong energetic charge, you may begin to see a little of what Kevin meant. If you add the fact that all aggression is based on some kind of fear (whether it’s a fear of what the other animal might do to you or a fear of what the other animal might take, aka resource guarding), then also add the fact that fear always creates one of two responses -- fight or flight -- and recognize the obvious, that an animal who wants to fight, rather than flee, will tend to move very energetically toward the object of his aggression, then you’ll start to see that a dog in attack mode really is highly attracted to his “enemy.”
If he’s attracted though, you might be thinking, why the intent to kill or harm his enemy? The answer is simple: there is no intent, just emotion and instinct. However, if you need or want to put an intent to the dog’s actions (which is probably anthropomorphic), you could see it as an intent to conquer or destroy his fear by conquering or destroying the object or the source of that fear. “If I kill Malachi,” Boomer would be saying to himself in this kind of scenario, “I’ll be able to get rid of this awful feeling I have inside and feel safe.”
But I think a clearer understanding of pure emotion vs. conscious intent comes from an analysis of the phenomenon of raised hackles. Biologists tell us that an animal raises its hackles in order to make himself look bigger to his enemy. But does a dog (or an owl or a porcupine) intend to make himself look bigger, and thus think, “I should raise my hackles (or my feathers or my quills). Then I’ll be safe!” Of course not. The behavior is controlled by the autonomic nervous system; it’s no more under conscious control than a raise in blood pressure caused by a frightening stimulus. By the same token, neither does Boomer have a conscious intent to damage or harm or kill Malachi; just to reduce or resolve his own emotional tension. And if Malachi is the source of that tension than Boomer will be highly attracted to him as a result. Either that or he’ll run away.
So why doesn’t Boomer (or Malachi, or any dog) always run away?
Good question. I think the answer is because that when a dog is in an aggressive mood he’s already beginning to download his fear energy through aggression. The other part, particularly with Boomie and Mally, is that the most prominent psychological characteristic of dogs as a species, and Labs in general is that they’re friendly animals. They want and need to form strong social bonds, both with humans and with other dogs. So Boomer’s fear is not a pure fear. It’s an amalgam of the fear of what Malachi might do to him, and a desire to make friendly contact with a possible packmate and potential playmate. If it were pure fear then, yeah, Boomer would avoid Malachi like the plague, and vice versa.
If you still think Boomer and Malachi didn’t have an intense attraction for one another, when they first met outside Boomer’s brownstone, my back muscles and knee joints would beg to differ. So would Frances’.
Here’s what happened:
Boomer and his owners live a few blocks away from the promenade in Brooklyn Heights. Malachi was staying with Frances Kuffel, my former literary agent, who lives a few blocks in another direction. She agreed to bring Malachi along for this training exercise, which is simply to try to take both dogs on a walk together. (As I mentioned yesterday, when two dogs hate each other and you walk them together, the parallel movement stimulates a fixed-action pattern similar to the way wolves move in synch, side-by-side, when they go out on the hunt; this type of harmonious movement temporarily dissipates their aggression.)
I met Frances and Malachi at her place, then she and I came over to Boomer’s building. I went inside to get Boomer and had Frances wait across the street with Malachi. She was a little worried about what would happen, and so was I. Make no mistake about it, all theory aside, this was going to be brutal! At least initially. But I knew that once we got the dogs walking together everything would settle down.
When I brought Boomer outside he was happy and excited. Then he saw Frances and Malachi. At first he did nothing. He loves Frances. And Malachi was clear across the street -- no danger there. But Malachi has less impulse control than most dogs, so he began barking at Boomer, and lunged in our direction, nearly pulling Frances off her feet. This caused Boomer to become a “sled dog,” he pulled me toward Malachi, matching the other dog’s barks with vocalizations of his own.
Frances was saying, “Now, Mally, settle down,” in a quiet, reasonable tone. This was kind of amusing to me and basically pointless, but at least she wasn’t screaming “No!” at the dog, which would’ve made things worse. (She should have praised him.)
Meanwhile I got Boomer under control by pulling hard on the six-foot leash with my left hand (which from the flying position I was in threw my lower back muscle into spasms) until I was able to make a temporary loop, which I held in my right. Then I let Boomer lunge by dropping the temporary loop, spun around on my right heel, and ran in the other direction. This discombobulated Boomie long enough for me to show him some kibble, invite him to jump up on me to take it, which he did, and that dissipated his energy momentarily. While Boomer was eating from my hand (with his back turned to Malachi), I told Frances, “Go down to the boardwalk and we’ll meet you there!”
When Boomer and I got to the promenade, and the two dogs were again face-to-face, there was another loud explosion from both of them. This time, however, all I needed to do was make a kissing sound and Boomer spun around to me, ready to jump up and get some more kibble. Then I got him walking toward the far end of the promenade and motioned to Frances to follow. (We couldn’t hear each other very well due to a helicopter flying low above us.)
Frances and Malachi caught up with me and Boomer, and as the four of us walked along there was a bit of aggressive eye contact passing between both dogs, but no lunging or barking. Then, after what amounted to one small city block the dogs had settled down quite nicely; Frances and I were praising them the whole time.
Then an interesting thing happened, Boomer veered energetically off to the left and took a long pee, When he was done, and we moved back next to Frances and Malachi, he started looking over at the younger dog with no aggressive feelings at all. His eyes, which had been narrowed and hard before, and almost glinting, had now softened considerably. So had his muscles and his body language. In fact, he seemed to want to make normal, social contact. He began walking directly behind Malachi, pulling me in that direction (which I allowed him to do, sensing his lack of aggression). He went right up behind the dog he’d tried to kill just minutes before, and began sniffing his butt! That’s akin to a friendly handshake in the human world!
Malachi didn’t like that much, though, so he spun around and barked at Boomer, trying to make him to back off. Boomer didn’t like Malachi barking at him so a tiny fracas ensued, which I was able to easily disperse again with a kissing sound, which caused Boomie to turn around and look at me. Once I got Boomer’s attention, Malachi was fine and there was no more trouble.
We walked clear to the far end of the promenade, then up Montague Street, and met a few other doggies along the way, whom both dogs sniffed and said hello to at the same time, with their noses within mere inches of one another, and there was no emotional tension. At one point I thought Boomer might even relieve himself again, this time to empty his bowels -- which would’ve been a real positive step -- but he still wasn’t feeling like totally letting go of his aggression.
The session ended with both dogs worn out, tired, and mostly in-synch, though not totally in phase, with one another (meaning I won't be allowing them to try to play together at the dog run just yet).
Frances asked, “Does this mean they won’t try to kill each other again?”
I said, “Probably not. It’s just a step. But at least Boomer knows now that he and Malachi can get along. That’s gonna help in the long run.”
"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"