Sunday, May 3, 2015

STEEL HULL, or, how not to 'round a buoy.

A bunch of years back when I was mucking around with boats powered by the wind there was a joke. It was kind of involved, and dealt with esoteric points of sailboat racing rules. The gist was that three boats were approaching a point where they had to turn around a buoy. Two of the captains shouted obscure rules at each other as to who had right of way when the third captain simply yelled two words: “STEEL HULL”.

In dog training we  get into the same snit. Trainers and behavior folks love to argue, and the arguments get pretty technical. Reinforcement schedules, attitude and energy, whether we have the “correct” tool of the moment. And then sometimes we get overwhelmed by another voice that yells “STEEL HULL” and mows down everyone. 

Unfortunately, the dog we are working with hasn’t always read the same books we have, and may not really care about which technique is “right”. And the “STEEL HULL” trainer, force-based or not, may mow everyone down in their path, certain they are always correct. Meanwhile, the situation goes from bad to worse, and while we argue the dog-and their owner-are still in trouble.

When we discuss methods, and ideals, and technical points, we have to keep one principle at the very front: we are there to make a positive difference. The owner has come to us with a problem. Their relationship with their dog is suffering. They are suffering. The dog may be suffering. They are looking to us for help, and usually just at the last possible minute.

We have a duty. That duty is to first, do no harm. Our goal is to never make situation worse. That does not mean that we cover everything in unicorns and rainbows: we have an equal duty to be honest with the client. If the dog has problems beyond our skill set or comfort range, we have the obligation to refer. If the situation is serious enough to risk safety and health of dog or human, we have the obligation to explain the issue clearly and openly.

Doing no harm does not equate to never saying no. Doing no harm does not mean that we simply let the dog act however he/she wants, waiting (or praying) that the dog finally does something we can reward, especially when a dog is showing dangerous behavior. We have an obligation to step in and try to prevent the dog harming itself and harming humans.

This does not give us an excuse to be abusive. This does not authorize force. Force is applying violence to effect change. That is not the manner by which I, as a trainer, effect change. Although behavior can be changed using force - over the short run - force produces consequences that build fear. Organisms, humans included, avoid things they fear. Any organism will learn to comply to avoid consequences it fears.

But that is not the relationship I want with a dog. I want a relationship based on mutual trust, and on mutual understanding.

Often the dogs I am called for have serious problems. They are either a threat to themselves or to others, human or animal. Building trust is essential. The dog must learn two equally important things: first, I am not a threat. I am not going to harm the dog. I will be patient. I will be non-threatening. I will communicate with the dog using signals and cues he/she understand.

The second thing we establish is that I will not allow the dog to harm me. Many times, dogs have been placed in situations where they have become fearful, and as a result of the fear have reacted violently. They have bitten. Why? Because biting is a perfectly valid method a dog has to remove a threat, real or perceived. A dog that has become openly violent may have been placed in situations where the only way to feel safe is to manipulate their environment through violence. A scary thing comes up -  the dog bites – the scary thing goes away. The dog has achieved success, in behavioral terms.

But not in life terms. A dog that has learned to deal with fearful or unusual circumstances by biting is at immediate risk of losing its life. Punishing the biting behavior is useless and cruel. The dog is simply reacting as a dog, and is using a method of dealing with a perceived threat that has been successful, that has been reinforced. After all, reinforcement is simply anything that makes a behavior more likely to recur. Success equals reinforcement. Making the scary thing go away is success. Biting becomes reinforced.

How do we break this cycle? First, we have to look to the root cause-fear. Fear and perception of threat is at the root of the problem. If we fail to treat the fear, we are wasting our time and making the dog’s life worse. The dog needs a sanctuary from the fear, and we can build that sanctuary with trust. Our dog learns that, beginning with just one person, there is a safe place. With just a single safe place, we can help the dog build other safe places.

But sometimes we have to get past the success of violent behavior to approach building a safe place. That means that we have to let the dog know that violence is no longer successful. Biting behavior no longer drives everything and everyone back.

If a dog is safely confined in a kennel, that means that I may simply sit in front of the kennel, neutral, and wait. My presence may precipitate a violent display from the dog. After all, the dog has become fearful and learned that violence drives scary things away. Does that mean the dog is “over threshold”, in popular terms? Probably. But the poor dog lives in this territory of “over threshold”. “Over threshold” behavior is the only thing the dog knows. No safe place. No positive reaction. No chance to trust. 

So I wait. It takes quite a while some days. During a visit to England I was at a shelter where a new dog had come in. The dog, fresh from the street, was very fearful. He lunged, snapped, growled and overall carried on like a mad dog. Me? I just sat in front of his kennel. And waited. And waited. I sat with my back turned, ignoring his various efforts – until the moment that he took a breath and relaxed for just one second. And then I acknowledged him with a positive “good boy”. After which he went back to foolishness.

We went back and forth for quite a while. Slowly, he began to calm. Slowly I began to engage him. Slowly, his desire for positive social contact began to sneak out a second or three at a time.

And then I upped the ante. Still sitting, neutral and non-threatening, I started to offer encouragement in the form of nice, smelly, soft dog food in small bits tossed to him. The first time or two we got a brief respite, then back to foolishness. But over time he relaxed. He began to see me as other than a threat, but as a possible resource. And we took small steps. After a couple successful tosses of yummy treats I backed out of sight for a few minutes. He got treats, he took them calmly (ish), and I went away briefly. He returned to quiet baseline, and could process the information. And then we started again.

To distill the process here, after a time the dog came to the fence calmly and took the soft food off a fork. He was not able to quite take the closeness of direct hand contact, but the fork gave him just enough separation to let him begin to trust.

Within a day or so of the staff there taking their time and working with this guy he was able to be walked, fed, and began to become socialized, first to a small group, then to more people in a positive manner. He learned that 1) people could be trusted and 2) biting and violence was no longer successful.

There are those who would say that this was stressful. They may have a point: the dog was placed under stress. Being dumped on the street and taken to a shelter is stressful. Life is full of stress.

Was this aversive? In some eyes yes. Aversive is, by some, interpreted as anything that the dog avoids. In this case the dog wanted to avoid me – he wanted me to leave. He was never forced to come to me. He was not punished. He was not presented with a situation that he did not have the tools to address in a dog appropriate method. Instead, he had choice. Bark and lunge, or not. Snap and bite, or not. Approach, or not. By providing a safe environment where this guy had the chance to make choices, to decide to act one way or another, and then to learn the benefits of acting with other than violence, he was able to take the first step towards a trusting relationship with first one, then many, people.

In this case my method of working with the dog might not be the way another trainer would do it. One trainer might have considered the entire process to be too stressful for the dog. A different trainer might have simply grabbed the dog and forced him to “submit” and comply by adding violence and fear to the fear already present. There are those who would have simply labelled him “vicious” and destroyed him. We could get lost debating fine points of theory, or simply ram through with a  “STEEL HULL” method that we are convinced fits all dogs, all of the time. The points of debate are irrelevant: our duty is to help the dog.  I don’t feel that trying to make every contact unicorns and rainbows is any more successful than violence and force. We should, as trainers, be able to kindly and humanely approach problem behaviors with minimal stress and the least possible aversive situation to help the dog make constructive choices that make sense to the dog-not just to us. We are here to help the dog, not to make esoteric points in some academic debate.

Thursday, April 9, 2015


I see in my email feed nearly every day lists of the "most dangerous dog breeds". The sources range from the commercially driven (Insurance Companies) to the simply crazy. Far too many journalists fall for this tripe, especially as it works so well as click bait for websites. Titles are usually "10 Most Dangerous Breeds", "15 Things That Will Panic You About Vicious Dogs", or "What this dog did after eating three children WILL SHOCK YOU".

In order to keep up with the trashy websites here is my list (in no particular order) of the Seven Most Dangerous Dog Breeds:

1) Miniature Fearful Bitey Armbaby
2) Large Dog In An Undersized Body Terrierist
3) Dogue Unsocializada
4) I-Don't-Know-Children-But-I-Look-Like-I-Need-A-Hug  Untriever
5) Wildicus No-Manner Hound
6) Rottenator (AKA "Mr. I'll Be Back")

I'm sure you may just be a little unfamiliar with these breeds. I can assure you that, as a trainer and behavior consultant I have seen them all. The do present varying levels of danger, so lets look at them one at a time so you can identify them when you find them in the wild.

1) Miniature Fearful Bitey Armbaby. This breed typically weighs less than twenty pounds and comes in both long coated and smooth coated examples. They are naturally found at about four feet above ground level, often contained in a carrier or, as in their natural wild state, in the arms of a clueless human being. The natural range of these dogs is from middle-upper class to the higher socioeconomic groupings, and are observed in tony neighborhoods across the fashionable areas of the planet. These dogs often have underdeveloped pads as they rarely touch ground, but to compensate they have well-developed human accessories that transport them everywhere.

Their snarl and sharp bark are unmistakable, as the bark is usually immediately echoed by their human transport accessory repeating "Oh, she doesn't bite"...which she certainly does.

Although they have trained their human transport accessories to deny their edginess and solicit petting, do not be fooled. Any proferred digits will be happily munched upon. They particularly like engaging with faces, so maintain a safe distance.

2) Large Dog In An Undersized Body Terrierist. These dogs are often just a size or two bigger than the Miniature Armbaby, but they are convinced they are far larger. They can be fearful but overcompensate for that fear by providing a very brazen exterior. Their excited, repetitive bark pierces even the best of noise cancelling technology. The are also wise in the ways of the world-they will confront a human with their violent barking, and then when the human unwisely retreats by turning away they lunge into kill human achilles tendons. They operate on the assumption that a human unable to walk for life will simply stay and feed them cookies to shut them up.

These dogs often cause collateral damage by confronting other breeds, such as the Dogue Unsocializada (when off their chain). They then and write a check with their mouths that their fanny can't cash, requiring some poor, compassionate human to intervene for them. The well meaning human then gets bitten by both the other dog AND by the Terrierist, who takes advantage of any cheap shot that comes his/her way.

3) Dogue Unsocializada. These dogs vary in size and may be found indoors or out. They are related to the above Miniature Armbaby and the Untriever (all part of the Fearful Group) but have a much greater range of size and coat types. Their most noted breed identifying characteristic is their exposed teeth and their retrograde motion when approached by anything bigger than a squirrel.

This dog's natural habitat is attached to a chain, usually in a back yard. This breed is noted for its lack of exposure to anything positive from the humans "caring" for the dogs. They have never met a stranger they didn't fear (or threaten) nor another dog they could deal with. Default behavior by these dogs is a terrifying display of teeth, fierce frantic barking and lunging to the end of the chain, and the general notion that they intend to eat anything smaller than an M1A1 tank.

The frantic display noted is a clear message to reasonable persons that they should never get this dog in a corner. Sometimes, however, impaired adults and children wander into this dog's "circle of terror" (AKA the worn path around their tree) and tragedy strikes. They may become loose cannons in the neighborhood when the owner misjudges the holding capacity of the worn out raggedy piece of rope they have used to mend the rusting chain restraining them, and their lack of confidence, masked of course by their fierce overcompensation, makes them a hazard to approach.

4) I-Don't-Know-Children-But-I-Look-Like-I-Need-A-Hug Untriever.  This poor soul goes through life with big soft eyes, a furry welcoming look, and a horror of anything that suddenly approaches. This is especially seen when the rapidly approching object happens to be a small human with a big smile and wide open arms.

The Untriever just wants to be left alone because he/she has never been properly immunized against the terror. Sure, he may have been around a child once or twice. That may have resulted in tail pulling, poking in the eye, grabbing of ears, and general mauling. Otherwise this poor soul has been able to avoid most close contact with the diminutive, unmannered version of humans. Sadly, the posture this guy takes to try and make the scary world go away looks to small people like he is "sad" and needs a good, tight, face-to-face squishy hug. Which the Untriever just can't take. The result of this is often an application of teeth to the closest piece of the scary munchkin to get it to just GO AWAY. Which is usually the munchkin's face. Leashes amd muzzles help, but only if the child's parents have them properly fitted and in use.

5) Wildicus No-Manner Hound. Also sometimes referred to as the Borderless Collie for the longer haired version. This dog...roams. All of the time. Everywhere. This dog knows no boundaries. International treaties and neighbor fences have no meaning. Often found on someone else's porch or in their garage eating poop out of their cat's litter box, they are usually more of an annoyance than a real danger.

HOWEVER: since the world is their oyster, they may become possessive of other people's stuff. Like their front steps. Or their yard. Once this dog decides that a particular place is theirs they treat it just like they own it. They pee and poo all over it. They freedly dig up moles, flowers, and anywhere they suspect there may be buried treasure. Since they own the place they may well threaten the former owners (the people who actually live there) with violence. This breed may prevent people from entering-or leaving, depending on the day.

This breed also has a high prey drive, and its natural prey usually involves moving bicycles or skateboards. The biggest danger from this breed is that they are capable of not only chasing down prey from behind, but are smart enough to see it coming and lurk along the path, exactly calculating the most likely intercept course.

6) Rottenator (AKA Mr. I'll Be Back). This dog is big. I mean really big. Usually bigger than that. Yep, even a little bigger than that. This guy is intimidating. Since he is often related to the Wildicus he is likely to be loose at least part of the time. This dog scares large children and adults driving anything smaller than a Humvee. At a fence line this dog is fierce, let me tell you.

Fortunately, this breed is most usually more bark than bite. Even though they can remove a torso with a single bite they often turn into big mush-balls when you get past the fierce exterior. Or are invited into their yard by the owner. The big problem is that you can never tell, even when the owner is saying that "He just loves people! He won't bite!" Yep. He loves people for lunch. Or a snack.

This dog can be taught to be fine and friendly, but that requires a little effort from the owner-who is usually clueless about the possible threat their dog presents. Owners may actually encourage the dog to display serious threats to passing people because they want a "Guard Dog". Or worse, the owner finds it funny to scare the pants off anyone passing. Despite the appearence, this dog is not having fun. This dog has actually been perverted from what is likely a desire to be a big couch cushion to being a status symbol for a person compensating for unresolved issues. This dog is doing what he has been rewarded for, but would really rather have a cookie. The size of Missouri.

Well, there they are. Yes, I know I said Seven Most Dangerous Breeds and only gave you six. Since too many people assume that there really are inherently dangerous breeds of dogs, I will leave the last slot for the imaginative or deluded to fill in their favorite breed-of-the-moment. Personally, the breed that I most encounter that is inherently vicious, bites most often, cannot be trusted, and will predictably attack when you least expect it....has two legs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

5 things to do if you see someone attacked by a dog.

Despite the title, this is not one of THOSE articles. 

I hate clickbait articles that purport to give you ten things that will save you marriage, or five things you didn't know about the celebrity family that we know far too much about. But I was contacted the other day by a national magazine publishing an article about "How to be (or not be) a hero". They looked at scenarios where people might want to intervene and help out someone that is being victimized actively in one way or another. The answer is mostly "Don't. Call 911. Let the professionals do this!"

The author still presents advice, and asked me about responding to a dog attack. Honestly, I get this kind of question fairly regularly. Even for professionals, getting involved is very dangerous when it comes to a dog attack. Dog attacks are really scary-and chances are any savior will also get injured, potentially very seriously. Yet we all want to help when we see someone in trouble. 

If you insist on intervening as a good guy you need to think about a couple things.

First off, CALL 911. GET REAL HELP. 

When that is done, IF you decide you just have to do something...
1) DON'T BECOME THE NEXT VICTIM!  Many dogs aroused to attack will, if deprived of their first target, redirect. That means they release one thing and bite the next thing they can reach. That may be you. As they told us as young cops learning to drive fast, you're no help if you don't get there. Battle scars may be cool, but trust me-dog bites hurt like hell. Don't add to the victim count.
2) Try not to scream in panic! The victim is already probably doing that and it just makes things worse. Instead, yell loud and low "NO! LEAVE IT ! SIT!" Yell like you really mean it. Like a drill sergeant. Yell with authority and direction. Sometimes it even works.
3) Try to use something non-human to stick between the victim and the dog. A trashcan lid-or the whole trash can. A big piece of wood. A backpack. Anything that can separate the dog and victim.
4) IMPROVISE. If you can grab a fire extinguisher, hose that puppy down. It will distract and probably drive them away. You can clean up later. If you have a loud noise maker like an air horn, use it to startle and distract the dog. Water works too sometimes.
5) DON'T REACH IN BETWEEN THE DOG AND THE VICTIM. If you feel that you HAVE to put your hands in there, grab the dog from behind, by the back legs. Keep space between you and the business end. The dog, if cranked enough, may turn and redirect to you, so part two is pull the dog back, spin him using his legs as a handle, and toss that bad boy away from you and the victim. THEN use something to keep him from coming back a you, like a physical object or a barrier. Will this harm the dog? Most likely. Is it humane? No. But it works, and we are talking saving a human life here. Firearms should only be used by a trained professional, and then mostly not. Flying lead is more dangerous than the dog. Dogs are small, moving targets in direct contact with the victim. That's too close for a safe shot.
There you go. My five tips on how to play hero and probably get yourself bitten by getting into the middle of a dog attack. Here is the predictable warning in plain terms in case you weren't really listening above:


If you do put on your Superman cape and jump in, try and remember the above suggestions. They might just help you suffer a little less. Who knows: it might just work.

Link to the Men's Health article here: When you should and shouldn't be a hero

Saturday, March 21, 2015


This morning I am sitting in a friend’s kitchen in The Bahamas. Their dog Boss, who sleeps with me when I am here, is not feeling well.

I can tell this, not because he came up and said “Uncle Jim, I don’t feel well”, but because of his actions. Last evening he just wasn't his ebullient self. He was a little…quieter. Boss is usually pretty full of himself, and this was remarkable. At time for bed the dogs here all go out front for last call. Boss, who usually goes charging out into the yard to scare off any bad juju, was reserved. He went out and barely left the porch.

We came in and Boss went directly to his little bed. Now picture this: Boss is a 70 pound Potcake. He could sleep anywhere he wants-but he curls up into a tight little ball and crams himself into a bed at least one size too small. At the foot of my bed I have a large yellow dog crammed into a tiny circular doggie bed. And there Boss usually sleeps.

But at 2AM Boss got me up to go out. That was unusual. Then he wandered about aimlessly, finally walking back into the bedroom and curled up again.

Where he stayed. Through my getting up, shower, some early reading and writing. He was not interested in going out.

Now we are in the kitchen. He is curled up in another bed, and will not go out. His respiration is very rapid and shallow, he whines when his abdomen is palpitated, and he is just not right. So we will be calling the Vet, and likely make a Sunday trip in to have him checked.

I am sure Boss will be OK. Boss is not, however, the reason for this post. Instead, Boss’ morning is an illustration of one of our challenges in dealing with dogs. That challenge is communication.

Boss can’t tell me what is wrong. That is one of the reasons I respect Veterinarians (and Pediatricians) so much: none of their patients can tell them what is wrong. They have to observe, infer, poke, prod, and sometimes even make educated guesses.

Apart from illness we have lots of trouble with dog-human communication. It’s not usually on their part. They are sending messages all of the time. It is we who are failing to receive the information. We are missing the message. As Benjamin Hoff says in The Tao of Pooh, “Lots of people talk to animals…Not very many listen though…that’s the problem.”

Lack of listening is the single most common source of the conflicts between dogs and humans that I face in my training, my rehab work, and the court cases that I am involved in. People don’t recognize the messages their dogs are sending.

Last time in “Mind the Gap” we talked about letting dogs make choices, particularly in approaching people. We talked about sending the message that we are not threats, and respecting a dog’s space. A dog that wants to maintain space is sending a message. When we disregard that message we get stronger signals, which may lead to a bite. And then we have the audacity to blame the dog for “snapping with no warning” when the dog was clearly speaking to us. The dog was trying to communicate; we ignored it.

Lack of communication leads to all kinds of trouble between canine and human. Dogs tell humans “I am afraid”. Humans ignore the message and needlessly stress dogs. Dogs tell humans “Please get away from my person-you are a threat” and humans label the dog vicious. Dogs tell Police Officers “HEY! You are on my turf! I don’t know you and you are doing scary things!” Police Officers, with completely different agendas, answering calls for help from the people there, misjudge the message. With little knowledge of how to communicate with dogs, they react with actions more suited to threats from humans and tragedy strikes.

We are communicators. We, as humans, are storytellers. Storytelling is, according to some anthropologists, the essential quality of being human.  But animals communicate too. Our dogs may not be able to tell us about the time they went to band camp and…. But they do communicate. They tell us their needs, their feelings, their worries and concerns-all in the moment. It is up to us to listen and receive the message, and then use that communication to modify our actions.

Boss will be fine. Boss sent a clear message. I noticed – and understood – “I don’t feel well and need a bit of help here. Maybe you need to call Dr. Grant and let us talk. He has stuff that makes me feel better.” Dr. Grant checked and Boss had simply strained an old back injury. He is back to his normal self, still curling up in a bed three sizes too small.

Our dogs are speaking to us. We have the responsibility to listen. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015


If you have ever been to visit London it is extremely likely that you have used the Underground (in American terms it’s the subway).  If you have, you undoubtedly heard the disembodied voice of the Underground saying “Mind the Gap”.  Fans of Neil Gaiman recognize this as a particularly strong warning, but for the rest of us it means don’t step too close, watch your placement, and try not to fall under the train. Not a complex strategy, and a piece of advice that applies well to dogs and dog bite prevention.

Dogs are not all fluffy cuddle muffins. Some dogs need a little space. Dogs can be wary of strange people approaching them too closely right off the bat. Many times people are bitten, especially children, because they have pushed too closely to a dog that is not ready to accept them.

You see, dogs have a clear language and communicate well. But not all people speak dog. Those who don’t can fail to recognize signals that a dog is uneasy. If we are trying to impart information to another person and they are not listening we tend to raise our voices. Dogs have a bit of a different path. Their body language can express increasing levels of discomfort, but we have to recognize them as such.  How many times have you seen a person that does not speak the same language as someone else start to speak more slowly, and even louder? Slow and loud may sound clearer to the speaker, but the listener still doesn't speak the language, no matter how loud you shout.

That happens with dogs. Dogs start with their own language: body signals. Averted eyes. Tight lips. A turn of the head. Maybe a lip lick, or a yawn. They are speaking ever louder in their own language, but we just refuse to listen. We have limited is choices. Finally (and this may go quickly in our terms since dog signaling tends to be very rapid) the dog raises his voice in the only way he can: he bites, or at lest growls, barks and lunges. The human gets bitten and everyone is suddenly excited as to why the dog “just snapped”, or became “vicious”.

How do we fix this? Mind the gap. Don’t close with a strange dog. Even if the dog seems friendly, let the dog make the final approach to you. Stand with your body slightly turned to the side, don’t stare directly at the dog’s eyes, and let them investigate you at their own speed. Slowly extend the back of your closed hand for them to sniff. Try not to loom over them. Respect their space. Let them cross the gap to you. They will decide-or not. 

If the decide not to come to you, don't be pushy. Give the dog time. It may not be personal. Dogs have their own baggage, their own quirks, their own personalities. We all have our difference, our different level of comfort, our own customs for greeting. As an American I admit that when I first began interacting with a larger number of Europeans, future friends and friends of friends, I was unaccustomed to the hug-kiss-kiss greeting. Honestly, I still get hung up on whether it’s hug-kiss or hug-kiss-kiss.

Your dog can have the same problem. Maybe they come from a reserved owner, who says “Hi Chuck”, gives a gentle pat and then moves on. You, however, ma be “OH HELLO PUPPY YOU’RE SO CUUUUTE I JUST WANNA SQUEEZE YOU SO MUCH…” and we have a communication breakdown. Chuck is freaked, has nowhere to go, and doesn't understand that your over-the-top enthusiasm is just the way you are, not the threatening advance of a total nutjob. One of you bites the other and the situation goes south from there.

Instead of trusting in the good nature of most dogs, or just luck, mind the gap. Don’t fall under the train. Make yourself non-threatening, give out good signals, and don’t step too close too soon. Let the dog choose to close the distance to you. You and the dog will be safer for it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

DOG AGGRESSION AND THE POLICE. Not the band silly....

Dogs and cops. Cops and dogs. Owners and agencies. They seem to be coming into conflict far too often these days.

Are dog shootings rising? Are there more threats to police officers, and are they valid? Is this conflict a long-standing one that is being broadcast more because of the power of social media, blogs, and the opportunity for everyone to be heard by a large Internet audience?

To understand the potential reasons for conflict here we have to first understand what we are talking about. In my classes we often talk about aggression. What is it? Why is it? What do we do about it?

This is information that all of us, police officers included, need to better grasp to understand how we can avoid needlessly escalated conflicts between dogs and people.

So let's first look at what aggression is-and isn't.

Aggression ISN'T: Meanness. Jealousy. Anger. A disease to be treated. A pestilence to be exterminated. Aggressive dogs are not evil, hateful, or natural killers.

Aggression is simply one behavior that a dog-or any organism-can use to change or manipulate it's environment. And behavior is just something that an organism does, an action. So aggression is nothing more than one possible thing that a dog can do to change the things around it.

This may sound pretty simple, but too many people miss this and assign aggression wider and deeper emotional baggage than it deserves.

Let's start with a simple case. An organism (we'll call it George) is happily bumbling through the forest. Suddenly something scary pops up. George doesn't know what it is but it's scary. So George's best response here to make sure he lives another day to make more little Georges is to RUN AWAY.

But George was not paying attention and he wound up right up against a BIG chunk of rock and has nowhere to run. The scary thing is between him and running room.

So George tries for a second to freeze and make believe he's not there, hoping the scary thing might not notice him. But George is purple and yellow striped with orange spots, so that's not gonna work.

So George has one option (other than, he fears, being eaten): Act as big and scary as he possibly can so the scary thing decides to run away and leave George alone.

So George acts "aggressive". He makes a lot of noise, shows whatever weapons he has at his disposal (like teeth, claws, a knife in his pocket...) and acts REALLY REALLY TOUGH. His body goes through some physical changes. His blood pressure goes up, his heart beats faster, his body systems change what they are doing to give him lots of energy to let him fight (or even better RUN AWAY if he gets the opening). Meanwhile inside he is really hoping that he doesn't have to prove any of this. After all, if you fight there is a really good chance that even if you win you will get hurt. And hurt is not fun. Hurt can make George incapable of making little Georges, which is the whole point of George's existence anyhow. Fighting isn't good.

There will be one of a few outcomes here. Either George gets seriously injured, killed, or eaten, OR George scares the scary thing back enough that he gets room to run away. Or the scary thing runs away. In either case, George goes one way and the scary thing goes another, and George lives to go home, tell his buddies the story, and make more little Georges. In technical terms, George's behavior has succeeded.

So what does this have to do with your dog? Your dog is George (minus the purple and yellow stripes with orange spots I hope). Your dog sees the world in similar basic terms to everything else out there. If you are scared you can either run away, freeze and hide, or fight. And if it comes to fighting, your best bet is to look REALLY SCARY so the other thing/dog/monster/person/scary thing figures you might be too scary to fight with and exercises it's own option to run away.

So that long explanation gives us a hint at what dogs want to achieve with an aggressive display (the fancy term for all the noise and bluster that they use to try and be scarier than the scary thing). They want to either get a scary thing to run away or get the chance to run away themselves. Or, as a last option, fight.

Now, what things make George, especially if he is your dog, even want to come across a scary thing? First off, he pretty much doesn't. George is going to be happy just dealing with Mrs. George and the little Georgettes-until they are too big to mooch off him anymore. George just has a few basic needs: food, water, shelter, security, access to Mrs. George. Basic survival needs. (We talked about this a bit two posts ago).

But George will take on scary things to insure that he has these basic needs. He will, in formal terms, protect his resources. He will defend himself against perceived threats. He will try to insure his own survival and the future production of more Georges.

When it comes to your dog and conflict with others, there are a lot of fancy terms and gradations that behaviorists, trainers, and others use to classify the types of aggression. Territorial aggression, "dominance" aggression, fear aggression; the list goes on depending on who is writing it. And there are, for treatment and analysis' sake, differences in the reasons for, and treatments for, the different types of aggressive displays. He will also occasionally have social disagreements with others of his ilk, but that is secondary to actual survival. All of this distills down, in simple, functional terms to this: the ultimate reason conflict happens is that your dog perceives something, or someone, as a threat to his or her safety or resources. Badda bing.

This we can understand. This is simple. Understanding this can make us, our dogs, and those who come into contact with either of us much safer.

Now let's put this into the context of our dog in contact with a police officer tying to do his job. The officer can basically come into contact with our dog in one of two manners; our dog is out running amok in the officer's world and brings attention to his presence, or the officer has to enter into our dog's world and brings attention to his presence. Either way our dog and the officer intersect. And the problem comes when that intersection causes conflict.

The first situation is easy to prevent: KEEP YOUR DOG HOME. The second takes some planning, but is doable.

Let's start with a common occurrence. A police officer is dispatched to your home because something has happened that you need to report. The officer's mission is to come over, get some information, and leave. He is not a threat to you, your dog, or the cookies in your cabinet. Your dog, though, wasn't given the memo. He is in the front yard and sees a strange person pull up, get out with funny clothes and stuff hanging all around his middle, and maybe even wearing a hat-which you never wear (you don't look good in hats-you don't have The Gift).

So George (minus the stripes and spots) sees the stranger open the gate. The stranger is coming into George's territory-the space within which George finds food, water, safety, and a comfy bed under which he hides his favorite toy. Since these things all mean lots to George, he is nervous that the stranger is coming to take one-or more-of them away. He may become anxious. He may even decide that the stranger is going to deprive him of something. So he runs out to check what the stranger is up to. He may even bark to warn the stranger that this is George's place and George is determined to keep all his stuff. Especially the toy under his bed.

The officer-the stranger-has choices. He can be aware of George's needs and the reason for his reactions and adjust his actions accordingly. An understanding officer who has been trained to be aware and compassionate will take a few seconds to interact with George in a positive manner. He will use his body position, his voice, and his overall actions to send a clear message to George: "I am not a threat to you. I am not going to take your food, shelter, or the toy you have under your comfy bed. I, in fact, might just add to the people who are your friends and just might have a cookie or a pet or a friendly word. We can be buddies."

George may or may not have had positive interactions with other strangers, but either way George will start to turn down his reaction. George is getting good messages from the officer. The officer is not approaching directly; he is not staring into George's eyes; he is not making sudden movements. In fact, the officer is sending neutral or even deescalation signals to George,and George begins to relax. At this point the officer has responded to George's signals, things are calming down, and everyone winds up able to continue their jobs. George has made sure his stuff is secure, the officer has taken his report, and at the end George gets to go back to his bed and snuggle with his favorite toy.

This contact is ideal, and it happens all over, every day, with all kinds of dogs and owners and officers and postmen and electric company workers and situations and homes and toys.

But sometimes it isn't George. It might be George's cousin Fred. Fred is not quite as accepting as George. Maybe Fred has had some bad experiences. Maybe Fred is just not as secure in his living space as George. Maybe Fred has a few issues. Either way, Fred isn't George. Fred is determined that the officer is a threat, so Fred takes things to a higher level. Fred puts on airs and makes himself look way scarier than he really is. He barks, growls, bares his teeth, and goes to fully scary mode. Fred isn't going to admit he would really rather be in Philadelphia. Is he dangerous? Is he vicious? Probably not unless you push him. He is lacking in coping skills and doesn't know better.

In this scenario the officer is aware and recognizes that Fred is a bigger problem. So the officer takes a really revolutionary step: he has dispatch call the homeowner and asks to have Fred put away. Sure, he could probably take time and make friends, but he has other things to do today. So on a good day the owner comes out, puts Fred up, and they take care of business.

But what happens if Fred's owner doesn't answer? Or even worse, what if the officer is there on, say, a silent alarm or a disturbance call and calling ahead isn't in the books?

A well trained officer has a backup plan. Pretty much every police officer out there today carries pepper spray, what is technically called Oleoresin Capsicum spray. Or OC. And if they don't carry it they bloody well should.

OC is EXTREMELY effective in dissuading dogs. A spray of about 2 to 3 seconds directly in the face will pretty much deter any dog from closing and engaging with a person. And yet, the OC spray does not do any long term damage and the dog is fine in about 30 or 45 minutes.

The trained and sensible officer uses this information and plans ahead. He puts the spray bottle in his weak hand (so he can still get his gun in case of a real bad guy). He watches Fred, uses the body language skills he has learned to tell Fred he really isn't so scary, and uses his head to employ the other avoidance skills that he has learned. Simple things like giving Fred room and keeping something between him and Fred. Using any opportunity to separate Fred by closing gates. Worst case, if Fred does come too close, the officer uses the non-lethal OC spray and sends Fred into a safe corner of the yard. No harm, no foul.  Fred still has his resources, the officer has done his job, and everyone goes home with no new holes.

This strategy even works if a situation is more rapidly developing. Say Officer Friendly has to arrest Fred's owner. Fred is likely to take umbrage. Officer Friendly is taking his person (his resources) away. Even though Fred's person may not be the finest in the neighborhood, Fred's person has at least fed and watered Fred to some extent. Access to crummy resources is always better than no access at all. So Fred gets excited. And the owner is excited too. We as police officers are taught that the best situation is one that is not excited, but sometime we don't have that choice. But the non-lethal option is still top on the table. If the officer sprays the dog AND the owner-such is life. They will both be fine.

If the situation keeps getting worse then the officer may have to resort to an impact weapon like a baton. Just like with a human target, the officer has the option to strike Fred and get him back. The officer has the unquestioned right to defend himself. However, we have to remember that the standard here is that the officer is restricted to using only the minimum force needed to accomplish the job and to protect himself.

Higher level situations are happily much rarer than the low-impact situation. Most situations never get to this point. Yet we still have to remember that Fred is only responding to the officer based on Fred's perceptions of the situation, not because he is inherently evil or mean or any of the other human categories we slap on him. Fred is a dog. Maybe a frightened dog, maybe a poorly socialized dog, maybe even an abused or mistreated dog, but a dog none the less. The violent or difficult person is a jerk. The dog is just a dog.

This is where process and practice seems to be breaking down. The officer has a job to do. Fred has his job to do. Fred only has a limited box of tools to use-his owner has not prepared him for calm and friendly interaction. And Fred is a dog. He can't go looking for classes and better tools on his own-his owner won't let him drive.

But the officer has never been provided training on just how to deal with Fred. I know myself that, to date, there is no training in the Police Academy on how to deal with dogs. Or cats, or horses, or other four legged creatures. Their training is crammed with stuff for dealing with two legged threats, but not four legs. And we have to remember that people in general have a vast array of experiences with animals in general and dogs in particular. They may have had bad experiences with dogs, just like Fred had bad experiences with people.

The average Joe may be able to make choices and take actions based on personal bad experiences, but as police officers CAN'T DO THAT. We are expected to be professionals. We are expected to be Superman. We are expected to disarm a crowd of hostile people with a glance. To arrest the worst of the bad guys with a stern talking to. To help little old ladies across the street and then get the cat out of the tree.

But we aren't currently being given the tools, a least with animals. We haven't been given the training. We are lost at sea when we run into a perceived threat from Fred, because we haven't been taught how Fred works. Or how to deal with Fred.

And a situation that should have been defused and deflected turns deadly. The poorly trained officer responds with needlessly excessive force and Fred (or even George) winds up shot.

Why? Some times the excuse is that the officer was "afraid". My answer to that: tough shit. There are lots of things that we as police have to face that are scary. As I have said before, I am not crazy about high, exposed places. Yet when my job takes me to the top of a building I have to just get over it. Big people with knives and guns are scary. But we have to deal with it. When we react based on fear that fear has to rise to the level that a well-trained, professional officer reasonably recognizes as a valid, imminent threat and that his or her only reasonable response was deadly force. Otherwise-use the tools and techniques you have been used to address the problem.

And that is where we have broken down. The tools and techniques have not been provided. Officers have not, typically, been trained to recognize the causes of aggressive displays by dogs, and have not been taught how to use the tools they already have to defuse the situations that arise. In fact, they are lacking in the training how to avoid those situations in the first place. How to use simple, low-tech, basic strategies to keep situations at a controlled level. Conflict resolution with humans is trained. Deescalation and control using less- and non-lethal tools is taught for human conflict. But we have failed to teach officers that similar, if not the same, tools and techniques work with dogs too.

What is the answer? It sounds trite and like a broken record, but training is the best answer. Training from the beginning, even before the officer hits the street the first day. Training in recognizing the basic reasons that a dog shows aggression. Some basic techniques that will help the officer keep the conflict at a low level, and a few reminders that the same tools and techniques they train and practice repeatedly with people with also work on dogs. Voice command (try yelling NO! SIT! at a threatening dog. Surprisingly often it works!). Body position and presence. Separation and control. Less- lethal force. Use the tools. And above all, USE THEIR HEADS.

And we as owners? We have responsibilities too. Let Law Enforcement know there are dogs on your property. Put up signs that say "Hi! A dog lives here! Bring cookies!" Keep your dogs contained on your property. Give your dogs an area where they can stay separate from people who approach your home legitimately. If you are expecting visitors, put your dogs up. Control them so they don't run out-so they can't run out-and surprise someone that is not properly trained. Ask to be allowed to put your dogs up if the visit is not expected. A reasonable officer should not only allow putting your dogs away, but should have the presence of mind to ask you to put your dogs away. And don't tell the officer "Oh, they don't bite". Of course they do-they are dogs. Put them away anyhow unless the officer expresses confidence that he or she can interact safely. And then still put the dogs away-accidents happen.

Above all, stress to your local police department that they need to give adequate training. They need to equip their officers to keep themselves and your dog safe. Remind them that the deployment of deadly force against a dog threatens everyone-the dog, the public, and the officer themselves. Officers have been killed by ricochets from bullets fired at dogs. So have citizens. And bystanders.

I support Police Officers. I am one. I also support dog owners. I'm one of those too. Help me help support both owners and officers. Let's work on reducing the needless loss of life. And the wasted time on the reams and reams of paperwork these situations create. Responsible manage your dogs while insisting on proper training for police. You can't expect people to do a job without the right tools. Insist that agencies provide the tools and then insist on their proper use.

End of rant for today.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


If you are expecting my promised post about police and aggression, please hang on to your hats. That will come Tuesday. Right now, though, I have to get on my soapbox for a few minutes to address an issue that just popped up.

A friend forwarded me a post that was on the Cesar's Way blog on October 17th. I'm not going to link to that post, but I will quote some sections here to try and correct a few misstatements that need to be answered quickly.

First off, please remember-I am not just talking out of by rear end here. I deal with LOTS of "red zone" dogs (and hate that term almost as much as I hate using fake mystical crap to qualify how a good dog trainer works), many of which would eat most trainers for lunch. In fact, they have eaten someone for lunch-they have killed a person. Dogs that Cesar has never met.

But I'm not interested in playing "my dogs are badder than yours". That is juvenile and the mark of someone you and your dog should RUN FROM.

Instead, let's look at a couple statements and the behavioral realities.

1) " A red zone dog is only interested in escalating the attack and nothing else." FALSE. A dog that is in the "red zone" is a dog that is responding to something it perceives as a threat. All any organism in full attack mode is interested in, unless it is trying to kill something to eat, is making a perceived threat go away.

If the organism is looking for space, then it is only looking to get space. If it is protecting resources, it is trying to secure the resources by driving the invader away. If it is protecting its young, same thing-drive the threat away. The organism only escalates as far as is minimally necessary. Any more is a waste of energy.

In a social dispute, the organism is only interested in using the minimum force needed to solve the social dispute. After all, if all (or most) social disputes ended in one animal wounded seriously or dead the species would die out. Dog-dog aggressive display is normal and is a form of ritualized combat designed to protect the survival of the breed, not to leave bodies in its wake.

To say that a dog exhibiting an aggressive display is only "interested" in escalating an attack is scientifically just wrong. Given another way out, a dog-or pretty much anything else-is only acting to achieve long term survival. The less energy expended, the less injury received, the less risk of death, the better.

2) "You cannot stop aggression with praise and cookies." First off, someone with a true understanding of what aggression is (hint: it's one of many behaviors. Period. Read Tuesday to find out more) would realize that aggression is not a disease to be stopped. Unwarranted aggression is an undesirable behavior pattern that needs to be redirected. Redirection can definitely be accomplished by using praise and cookies. I do it every day. Interrupt the unwanted behavior-before it becomes an avalanche-and redirect the behavior to an incompatible behavior. Reinforce (with praise, cookies, etc). Rinse and repeat. So yes you can.

3) "Remember: dogs want their pack leaders (human and canine) to tell them how to behave and what they can or cannot do." Mostly wrong. Dogs are hardwired for many behaviors, and are taught in the litter many more. Dogs just want to have their five needs met (see last week). To exist in a home environment dogs need to have boundaries set-but that has nothing to do with force. That involves showing a dog the behavior that is proper and reinforcing that behavior. You don't want the dog on the sofa? Don't beat him. Instead, call him off the sofa, tell him that "Off" is good, and reinforce him sitting quietly on the floor. Or on the chair, if that's what you want. Show and tell is so easy even kindergartners can do it.

4) "Where people get in trouble, though, is in using positive reinforcement without realizing it by showing a dog affection when it is not in a calm, submissive state." OK....point for mostly right. Lots of people unwittingly positively reinforce bad behavior. For an easy example: the person who comes to me with a small dog that is snapping and snarling in their arms as they pet it and say "Oh, Fluffy won't bite. She just does this" while petting Fluffy and telling her that she is a good girl.

Wrong. Fluffy is going to bite the stuffing out of anything or anyone that comes too close because the owner has positively reinforced the animal to display this behavior. So yes, here the inappropriate application of reinforcement has produced a problem-guess that shows just how effective positive reinforcement is. It has taken what should have been a social animal and created an animal that shows behavior counter to its own needs and drives. And yes, this produces an issue that I have to fix.

But the big gap in the above statement is that the dog is not in a "calm, submissive state." Get it straight folks: submission has NOTHING TO DO WITH IT. A dog can be in a calm, relaxed state without submission entering into the situation at all.  Submission is something that occurs in dog-dog social interaction. It is part of how dogs allocate resources and access to certain things. It is not the do-all and be-all that the male dominated, hierarchical society of early behavioral sciences insisted it was. Modern research show that canid groups are more democratic and less firmly stratified than we ever suspected. And ultimately - YOUR DOG DOESN'T THINK YOU ARE A DOG (again, see next post). Your dogs don't get together at night and discuss the issue "OK. When Dad shows some weakness, we take the fridge." This is nonsense that has been dispelled by responsible research. Time to put this "dominate your dog" garbage to bed once and for all.

So back to the post: poor or incorrect information scattered among facts is a really sneaky thing. Most  of the story sounds solid, so we buy the whole farm. But we have to use critical thinking skills and examine every piece. When one understands positive reinforcement and studies the basics of behavior it leads to realizing that positive, science based training is the way to go. It ain't magic, it ain't whispering, and anyone can do it. I recognize and value the contributions Cesar has made to the popularization of dog training. I applaud anyone's efforts that get people and their dogs engaged and spending high quality time together. I only wish that people would understand the value of positive, science based methods and would discard outdated methods based on fear, force, and misunderstanding.