Training Methods for Aggressive and Reactive Dogs
The training pendulum seems to be busy swinging side to side. Trainers of old beliefs think traditional methods are the answer to train problem dogs. Other trainers believe that modern, science-based training is the correct way to train. Those who do not fit the mold of left or right wing fall somewhere in the middle with the balanced trainers. But which method is correct and why? To help understand which method is best, you need to understand the basis behind each technique.
Traditional methods of training revolve around the pack mentality and that dogs originated from wolves and follow a hierarchy. This theory suggests the trainer or the owner needs to assume the role as ‘alpha dog’ so the dog will look to them for leadership. They will use body language to assert dominance and recreate scenarios where the leader can prove their position in the hierarchy by having priority over the dog when it comes to food, walking, etc. There are also consequences when the dog has failed at completing a command or behavior as desired.
This training technique is taught using setups to challenge the dog and put them in a situation where they will make errors which can be corrected. Unwanted behaviors are discouraged from reoccurring in the future by repeating this process until the desired outcome is reached.
Corrections or aversives can come in many forms. Wikipedia defines aversives as unpleasant stimuli that induce changes in behavior through punishment; by applying an aversive immediately following a behavior, the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future is reduced. In training, this can be anything from a scolding, leash corrections, body posturing, or another form of punishment and can escalate depending on the situation. While some corrections can be mild yet effective, some trainers take things to the extreme. If you work with a more traditionally based trainer, make sure you discuss boundaries as to what is acceptable or not.
There has been a recent push to move away from traditional training techniques. While many trainers have proven results with traditional methods, modern trainers are claiming that using corrections creates fear. In the case of reactive or aggressive dogs, dogs reacting to fear rather than being taught positively to change their reactions can begin to shut down. This may temporarily suppress signs of discomfort and aggression but creates a ticking time bomb of a dog who can easily be pushed past their tolerance and lash out much worse than before.
There is a saying to “never punish a growl”. A growling dog is a dog expressing their discomfort with the situation. Punishing them creates a dog who fails to warn (growl) next time. As things escalate, the dog will not warn before moving to their next defense, a bite. This can create dangerous situations.
Traditional techniques are often used as quick fixes. The results can be astonishing in a few short sessions; however, the results were not always long-lasting and have been known to escalate dogs into more extreme reactions than before.
While traditional training has worked for many dogs and trainers, science-based trainers saw issues with these methods and began moving away from using all aversives. They are opposed to using corrections or anything that could create fear in their dogs and went the complete opposite direction using all positive training methods.
Positive Reward & Science-Based Training
Science-based training examines how reinforcing behaviors positively can influence a dog’s reaction and behaviors. Rather than focusing on what we don’t want, we reward the reactions we do want. Initially, it may take a little more time for the dog to catch on, but once the dog establishes which behavior created a reward (usually marked with a clicker or reward like praise or food) they are eager to repeat the behavior again. A reward is seen as a pleasant experience for the dog, so they are likely to keep repeating it. Thus, reinforcing good behaviors because of the positive outcome.
Modern techniques have been established by studying and observing dogs closely and creating a science-based technique. Despite some people’s skepticism, the methods have been proven very effective with long term results, and more emotionally stable dogs. These techniques are popular among zookeepers who work with very large animals that could not be physically forced to perform a task. The animal had to be convinced to do so on their own. Marking positive behaviors with a clicker for example (and reinforced with food) can be used to teach complex behaviors or establish new ones. Animals are more relaxed and more eager to perform as they are motivated.
Balance trainers fall somewhere in the middle between traditional and modern training. These trainers believe that not every technique is successful with every dog, and not every dog learns the same way. They may use positive techniques with a puppy but use corrections for an older dog or more severe behaviors.
A lot of trainers who use balanced methods are making the crossover from traditional training or found their happy-medium between the other techniques.
While there is plenty of evidence that prove the different methods of training can be effective, not every type fit with the owner’s values and beliefs. In recent years, there has been a movement away from old school training tools like choke chains and have been replaced with more humane collars such as martingales, flat collars and now harnesses. There is no doubt that training is evolving but can be highly influenced by famous TV personalities, fads and trends.
When looking for a trainer to help with reactive and aggressive dogs it is important to understand the different types of training protocols, tools, and theories the trainer will use and find the best way to manage successful, long term results.
Tips Owners with Reactive and Aggressive Dogs
Owning a dog with aggression issues is one of the most challenging things you will encounter as an owner. You walk a fine line between everything being fine and, in a moment, having it all fall apart. Your biggest task will be learning to manage your dog and mitigate potential problems before they arise. They are helpful tips and tricks that can help to make things easier for you.
Identify the cause of reactivity. Understand why your dog reacts. What triggers it. How to recognize it before it happens and know what to do when they do come undone. Reactivity is your dog expressing they are uncomfortable, over-aroused/excited, or frustrated. Do they not like other dogs or people? Are they overly excited by other dogs and want to play but get frustrated by having a leash preventing them from running over to visit? Often reactivity is the first sign of aggression. Reactivity is a serious behaviour to pay attention to and nip in the bud before things escalate.
Educate yourself. Take time to study canine body language, training techniques, and theories about behaviour. The more you know, the more you can help yourself and your dog.
Hire with a professional trainer. Trainers have experience working with different kinds of dogs. Trainers can catch subtle signs and changes in behaviors, often long before an owner. They are skilled and in dealing with these situations and will have the knowledge and experience to help you. They can also offer support and reassurance when you feel like giving up.
Work in controlled environments. Trying to change a bad reaction can take time and require repetitive positive experiences by the dog to finally start to relax and not react. One set back can come at a high cost and set days, weeks, or months of training back to zero.
Keep your faith. Setbacks happen but the sooner you can get back out there and keep working on it, the sooner your dog can start having positive experiences again. Sometimes its one step forward and two steps back, but usually the rebounds begin to come back stronger and faster. You may lose ground, but you will pick it up again.
Celebrate small victories. Some days will feel like you are not making progress. Take a small victory and celebrate it. Moving forward even a baby step is still progress.