Monday, September 17, 2012

Food Aggression and a Famous Trainer

Those of you who have followed my little blog here for any time know a few things about me. First, I deal with aggressive dogs and their behavior problems, with an eye towards treating the problems.  Second, I evaluate dogs that have been labeled aggressive, and often legally declared Dangerous Dogs, to find out what makes them tick and to recommend, if appropriate, treatment and management options.  Third, I too often deal with truly dangerous dogs-dogs that have killed human beings.  I also do detailed evaluations of those dogs, some of which have been posted here, and give a detailed breakdown of the specific behaviors observed and the circumstances under which they happened.  A few of these are also on the blog.  I also look at other evaluations from time to time to give an opinion of the behavior displayed and quantify that behavior.

That is what I am going to do today.  I was sent the clip of a Famous Dog Trainer from their TV season finale show, and after fielding numerous questions I am going to go frame by frame and explain what I see-and then give a little opinion or two.

The Famous Dog Trainer's clip can be found on YouTube here  I am going to proceed based on that posted clip and use the time marks given on the clip to illustrate the specific behaviors.  If you would like go ahead and pull up the video, grab a beverage, and watch along with me.

One caveat here: remember that when you are in the midst of an evaluation or training session you may not see absolutely everything the dog is doing, based on your angle and the dog's angle-BUT, if you are face to face I certainly expect the trainer/evaluator to have at least basic situation awareness and a general idea of the signals and posture of the dog.

I also have to point out here that the FDT is not wearing any gloves or other protective gear.  I wear protective gloves lined with Spectra/Kevlar when dealing with a potential bite issue for a reason: if I am bitten, not only do I get hurt but, in some jurisdictions, especially with dogs that have been identified as having issues, me getting bitten may be the death sentence for the dog, even if it is my fault (which it usually is).  There is no room for error because the dog is going to pay the price.

At 00:01 the Famous Dog Trainer (hereafter FDT) places a bowl of food in front of the dog.  The dog approaches the food and the FDT stares directly at the dog through 00:09.  As the dog averts her gaze, turns her head to the side and down, showing a clear appeasement signal ("submission" in some people's terms) the FDT says "that's unsure, that's not submission".  The FDT then tells the dog (at 00:11) "good girl" and she begins to eat, ignoring the FDT.

At 00:17 the FDT moves his body directly over the eating dog and the food bowl in a low crouch.  He is staring directly at the dog, frontally positioned.  Dog gives a warning air snap with no physical contact, showing bite control and basic restraint.

At 00:18 FDT strikes the dog in the left side of her neck with his right hand.  The dog retreats, baring teeth and growling, giving both audible and postural warning of discomfort and desire for the FDT to retreat.  The FDT pursues the dog past the food bowl, still in a frontal posture, low crouch, and staring, directly challenging the dog.  The dog gives another air snap and snarl of warning (00:22).  The dog is backed up, but shows restraint by not pursuing the FDT, but instead gives (2) appeasement (submissive) licks (00:23 and 00:24), closes her mouth, gives seven (7) further appeasement licks, averts her gaze (00:28), gives an audible warning snarl (00:33), gives six (6) more licks and averts her gaze repeatedly while the FDT maintains his frontal threatening position and stare, challenging the dog and failing to respond to the many appeasement gestures.  At 00:41 the dog looks the FDT in the eye, immediately averts her gaze, and looks around for an avenue of flight from this strange, aggressive person.  The FDT maintains his overtly challenging threat posture.

At 00:47, looking confused, the dog voluntarily lies down without command or input, yawns, and tries to disengage.  The FDT turns to the audience and talks.  While talking the FDT leans back, averts his face and gaze to address the audience, withdraws his outstretched leg and frontally-positioned body, and the dog calms more.  The dog remains down, looking around with closed mouth, soft eyes, and appears relaxed through 1:10.

At 1:10 the FDT has risen up to his feet and, leaning over, extends his hand over the top of the dog's muzzle (an overtly dominant gesture).  The dog again warns the FDT with an air snap (1:12) and exposed teeth that she is still uncomfortable being closely approached by the FDT, trying to get the FDT to draw back.  The dog then rapidly bites the FDT's leading, ungloved and unprotected hand-the same hand he struck her with before.  The FDT kicks the dog and the dog retreats toward a corner where a photographer is standing.  The dog never redirects toward the photographer.  As the dog backs up the FDT pursues, frontal and challenging.  The dog growls, bares her teeth, gives "hard eyes" and in general tries to get some space away from the FDT.  The dog is now up against a fence and has no room to retreat.

At 1:20 the FDT stops advancing just in front of the dog, who is backed up against the fence.  The dog relaxes her face, closes her mouth, gives repeated appeasement licks and averts her gaze from the FDT, who is still staring the dog down.  The dog still shows tension, but does not pursue or otherwise engage the FDT. She holds her ground as there is no where else to go.  At 1:25 you can see clearly that the dog is backed up against the fence.  

The dog holds her position and calms, showing softened eyes, slack mouth, repeatedly averted gaze (1:43) and does not engage or show any aggressive display towards the FDT, even at close range as the FDT stands facing directly and standing over her, even as he gets a drink of water and washes off his bitten hand.  The dog still (1:53) has no place to retreat.

At 1:58 we can clearly see another appeasement lick, ears down, eyes softened, mouth closed.  At 2:00 a note appears on the screen "Elapsed time 3 min 6 sec" apparently illustrating the time the FDT has had the dog cornered against the fence.  At 2:03 you can clearly see that the dog is holding a body position that is angled away from the FDT and curved (submissive/appeasement signals) to try and defuse the encounter.  The dog is blinking, averting her gaze, ears down, with the angled body, all indicative of appeasement (submission) when the camera man says at 2:06 "She's still not submissive".  The FDT states "No" as the dog again turns her head away and down.  At 2:33 the dog is still standing quietly, body angled and in a crescent, gaze averted, ears down, backed up against the fence.  The dog has a relaxed mouth continuing a non-confrontational posture through the on-screen marker that says "5 min 4 sec" (2:42 video time).  FDT turns away and walks off, back turned to the dog.  The dog makes no effort to pursue or attack-she simply stays up against the fence.

Is this dog "safe", especially around small children?  Not at this juncture.  This dog needs work. Progressive, positive and instructive work to desensitize the problem behavior and replace that behavior with acceptable, calm behavior.  Can that be done?  Most likely, given enough time and safe management of the dog until the problem is mitigated.  That depends on the dog-they are living beings with their own personalities and are influenced by genetics, experience, training, environment-and even just how they feel a certain day.

Now again, I realize that things happen fast in a dog evaluation, especially when something goes awry.  That is the biggest value of video-the ability to dissect the actual situation second by second.  This dissection tells a lot about both the dog in question, and the evaluator.  I have seen in video signals that I have missed.  That is why, when I can, I get another experienced person to watch in real time to warn me of signals that I may have not seen as I looked away or was focusing on other details-like not stepping in a hole.  But the overall purpose of evaluation and treatment is not to ignore clear signals and push a dog into biting you: in my world the purpose of an evaluation is to guide your treatment and diagnose problems, and triggers, without harming anyone.  That includes setting a dog up for future failure because you had to prove you were the baddest on the block.


I think it is time to wade in here with a couple points that the emotions of this sort of issue drags up.  First off, I am NOT bashing any particular trainer.  The trainer involved here put this out as a publicly accessible part of an entertainment show, not an educational seminar.  What I did was provide a point by point analysis of the dog's behavior.  I point out signals and signs that a professional should be looking for and address, during evaluation and during training. I agree that the owners likely bear responsibility for setting this dog up to fail by whatever behavior they tolerated and didn't address much sooner.  I also agree that, in its current state, this dog is not safe around small children.  The trainer publicizing this clip raised questions that parties asked me, and I responded in a fair, balanced manner leaving value judgments aside.

That said there a few other issues.  First, there is no such thing as a Certified "Rehabilitator".  There are trainers, from the person who sticks out a shingle saying "Dog Trainer" with no education or certification to those who possess supported credentials such as through the APDT/CCPDT (which I had) and the IACP to several other oversight organizations such as the Karen Prior Trainers, the Victoria Stilwell Positive Trainers, the Animal Behavior College, and others.  These folks are trainers-of varying skills.  Then there are Behavior Consultants with credentials such as CBCC-KA (me and others), certification from the IAABC, and other behavior based certifying organizations.  Then there are Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists and Veterinary Behaviorists, the top of the pile.  Any or all of these folks, from the guy with a self-declared title of "Dog Trainer" to the Veterinary Behaviorist can function as a rehabilitator of dogs.  That is what trainers and behaviorists do. I have trained a ton of dogs-and have rehabilitated a large number of problem dogs.  That doesn't mean I crown myself "Dog Rehabilitator".  That means I am a trainer, a behavior consultant, and evaluator (through the AKC and others but certification).  Rehabilitator is a meaningless title-to be competent rehabilitation must be based on training, behavior analysis, behavior modification, and perhaps medical intervention by a Veterinary Behaviorist.  

Finally, this post is not about who is right and who is wrong.  There are as many techniques as there are trainers and behaviorists.  I am concerned that this particular dog gave clear signals, repeatedly, that could have guided a trainer to a less invasive, less aggressive method of determining the same conclusion-and without risking the dog or the trainer by causing a potentially legally reportable bite.  

How would I address this issue?  That is a longer post, but it would start with not pushing the dog beyond the first warning signals, but using those to establish the parameters of the problem behavior and then proceeding, gaining the dog's confidence and slowly desensitizing the dog to the particular behavioral issue and pressing those parameters slowly back to help the dog make the right choices-and then reinforce those choices.

Jim Crosby