Tuesday, April 14, 2009

In Praise of Aggression

I have great news. I just started writing a blog for Psychology Today online. It's going to be a different kind of blog: a bit more technical and more focused on dog psychology than training ideas, so I'll keep writing my training tips and explanations of the Natural Dog Training approach here as well.

Why You Should Always Praise an Aggressive Dog
Praise is one of the most important training tools we have. Dogs love feeling connected. Most of them even like the feeling of connection they get with practically anyone they meet. The reason praise works as a training tool is because it satisfies that deep social need in dogs.

Since underneath it all, every dog wants to be friends with everyone she meets, aggression is not a normal behavior. Its a sometimes neurotic, sometimes borderline state that feels totally unnatural unless they feel they’re in danger. Praise can often remove that feeling of danger, which is why your first approach when working with an aggressive dog should always be to lavish her with praise.

You have to remember, though, that praise isn
’t being used here to reward the aggression. That’s a key element. Praise works as a positive reinforcer for some behaviors because it makes a dog feel good, makes her feel connected. You also have to remember my little mantra:

All Behavior Comes From Emotion
So When You Change a Dog’s Emotional State
You Automatically Change Her Behavior

Praise is one tool to change a dog
s emotional state, even if youre praising a bad or unwanted behavior.

I lived for a while in Marble Hill, the northernmost neighborhood in Manhattan. Many of the houses are on hillsides with garages below the house, like in San Francisco. Years ago it was an Irish neighborhood, but now there’s a mix of third or fourth generation Irish households—mostly old ladies—and first and second generation Hispanic families.

Though it wasn’t on my usual route to the subway station, I used to sometimes pass by a certain house, where there was a Doberman pinscher kept behind a chain link fence, with signs saying "Cuidado—Pero Malo".

The first time I walked by, the pero malo charged the fence and scared the bejebus out of me. I caught my breath then said, "Good girl!" She continued to snarl and snap. I praised her some more and sort of she quieted down a little. Then I put my hand up the fence to let her sniff it. I was glad the chain link was there! I would've lost a finger!

Over a period of several months every time I passed by—which might have been once a week or once every three weeks—I praised the dog (whose name, I eventually discovered, was Willow), and she barked and snarled and snapped, yet I continued to praise her. Occasionally I’d put my hand up to the fence to see if she'd try to bite it; she usually did.

Over time, though, her aggression began to diminish in small, almost imperceptible increments. And I began to get the impression that she was always curled up at the top of the steps, waiting for me to come by. Then, when I came around the corner and she heard my keys jingling (I wore them hooked to a belt loop), she would race toward the fence and give a few peremptory barks and growls, but she’d also wag her tail. I continued to praise her and let her sniff my hand, still keeping it safely on the other side of the chain link.

Then one day, when I put my hand up to the fence, she licked my fingers! Ah-hah! A breakthrough! So I carefully pushed a few fingers through the chain link, and she nibbled on them happily, the way puppies do when they use your hands as a pacifier.

It turned out that Willow wasn't a pero malo at all. She was a cupcake. From then on, every time I passed by she ran down the steps and wagged her tail happily, hoping—or so I imagined—that I'd poke my fingers through the fence so she could nibble on them and be my friend.

The next story starts with a phone call I got from some potential clients with a female Rottweiler whod been exhibiting severe aggression toward the skateboards, roller bladders, joggers, and cyclists in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. From what I was told she seemed to view these people as prey animals, in desperate need of killing.

I was a bit distracted when I arrived for my first visit at their 1850s era, but recently remodeled two-story house. Normally if I’m dealing with an aggressive dog I’m very careful about how the first meeting takes place, particularly in terms of my entrance through the door to the dog’s “den.” I like to meet such dogs out on the street. But since Twyla’s aggression was supposedly only directed at joggers, skateboarders and the like I mistakenly thought my entrance into Twyla’s den wouldn’t be a problem.

At first it wasn’t.

The husband opened the door. Twyla was sitting obediently by his wife at the back of the entry, next to a set of stairs leading up to the second floor. Her leash was on and she was “happily” wagging her tail.

“Hi, Twyla,” I said, in my friendliest voice.

She pulled the leash out of the wife’s hand, ran to me and jumped up, with her front paws resting on my shoulders. She was a big girl. That 100 lbs. didn’t contain any fat at all. She was long and lean and lanky. And huge!

Normally, I see jumping up as a sign of friendliness, a desire to make social contact. And that’s what Twyla seemed to have in mind too. That is, until I leaned my nose close to hers, expecting her to lick my nose.

Rookie mistake.

Her face turned into a horrible mask of terror and aggression. A low, throaty growl came through her lips, parted now into a vicious snarl of fury. Her teeth were less than two inches away from my nose. She was ready—given the slightest provocation—to rip my entire face off.

Did I mention her teeth were two inches from my nose?

My heart did a funny thing, though. It did nothing. It didn’t skip a beat. If anything it seemed to slow down. Sure, a part of my brain was wondering how much of my face Twyla would be able to tear off and eat before her owners could finally grab the leash and pull her off of me. But for some reason that didn’t faze me.

Instead, I did something I’d trained myself to do over the years. I broke eye contact and praised Twyla vocally in a soft, yet very warm and friendly voice. “Good girl… good girl…”

After a brief pause Twyla jumped down and started licking my hand.

Five minutes later we were all safely inside the house and the dog was lying next to me on the couch, flat on her back, with her legs in the air, using my hand as a pacifier. Just by praising her softly I had changed Twyla from a potential killer, ready for blood, to a complete pussycat.

I’d also saved my face from being severe damaged.

I’m not recommending that you walk up to any dog on the street and try this. In Willow’s case there was a chain link fence between us. In Twyla’s, I did a dumb thing by leaning my face toward hers, which dogs perceive as an act of aggression. Please dont ever do that!

There’s another aspect to it too, though: sincerity. If you try this with your dog (because again, I do not recommend doing it with a strange dog), your praise has to be sincere, and you can’t have even a single trace of fear in your body. And remember: it might not seem to work initially, as happened with Willow. Then again, you might see results right away, as I was lucky to have done with Twyla. Just remember: 

No dog wants to be aggressive. 
It goes against their nature.

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1 comment:

Angela said...

Once again, love your post Lee! As the owner of a formerly 'aggressive' gsd, I have used praise with great success. Even now, if he starts getting anxious on walks on leash (since he had leash aggression), every time we see another dog I tell him in a light, sing song voice, "who is that? it's a friend" Roman now immediately turns to me and wags his tail, whines and jumps up (I let him) then we go on our way...he even meets other dogs on leash now...He's a high drive dog, and I'll probably always have to be 'on top of him', but the use of verbal praise is something that can't be discounted...no matter what training method one subscribes to (something I saw lacking in the positive only/treats camp...where dogs became more focused on a treat or click, than the handler...). Cheers!