Meet Milo, a very aggressive Pug mix that every person in the building knows to stay away from. Many would think that this is a dog that comes from an abusive background and the truth is, we don’t know for certain what his background is, but my guess is that that is not the case. I believe this to be a case of genetics and due to no one knowing how to address this level of behavior, it got worse over time as he learned his “fight” response achieved what he wanted.
People stayed away from him.
I once heard a fellow dog trainer say something that really resonated with me as it described my experience with dogs really well. He said, “When you move a stable dog to an unstable environment they become unstable, but come back to stability when you remove them from that environment. Unstable dogs will be unstable no matter the environment.” When I come across dogs like Milo, I don’t see abuse. I see a dog that is unstable who doesn’t know how to handle stress and hasn’t been taught how.
Dogs that were abused previously tend to be afraid or wary of certain objects. For example, if a broom was used to beat the dog then they will become very stressed or afraid when a broom is brought out. Not so much the person behind the object.
When I tell people that I specialize in aggression they almost always ask if I work with a lot of pit bulls and the answer is yes, but they are not always my aggression cases. Actually, there is no specific breed that I work with more than the other. I’ve worked with everything from Rottweilers to Chihuahuas to German Shepherds to Malteses to everything in-between. On occasion, I may get waves of breeds, but that is just coincidence. Currently, the breed that I’m seeing a lot of is Bernedoodles and Golden Retrievers. I’ve had waves of Pitties, Chihuahuas, German Shepherds, and Labs ranging from obedience to behavior.
The key thing to remember is that any breed or mix breed dog can be aggressive. I also take the word “aggressive” with a grain of salt when someone contacts me to rehab their dog’s aggression because more often than not the dog is not aggressive, but reactive. Reactivity can look similar to aggression, but the difference is once the dog meets or is confronted by the stimulus and given the opportunity to be aggressive, they’re not. This is why I wear a bite suit or bring a bite sleeve because it allows me to confront the dog to see what they’re all about. Bite or bluff?
In the video, you’ll see Milo is clearly reactive and when confronted he bites so there is definite intent there. Now that I know that there’s aggression, I want to know what the severity is and what the root is. The root of Milo’s aggression is fear. He may look confident, but that is because people have reacted the way he wanted to so his ego has grown as no one has ever challenged him, made contact with him, and didn’t back down. Once all this begins to settle in his brain, panic sets in and you see more aggression because he needs to go even further than before in order to get the result that he wants.
When I first walk in you can see him move towards me, but then he quickly backs off as he realizes I’m going in. At this point, fear sets in and he needs to make a point so he charges forward and bites as I make contact. His tail is wagging quickly as panic is setting in and the brain is over stressed. He bites light and frantically, the worst bite being a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. He then stops and tries to posture and act tough as he sees I’m not backing away. Eventually, he begins to understand his aggression isn’t working and he begins to avoid me. You can also hear the lack of confidence in his bark, as it’s more of a WOOO WOOO WOOO sound.
A confident dog is relentless, will not back down, and will continue to move forward.
That’s not what we see here. Milo’s issue is his brain perceives a threat and he is utilizing aggression as a means to keep the stimulus away so that there is no opportunity for him to be hurt. It’s “I’ll hurt you before you hurt me” response. So in order for me to rewire his response system, I need to teach him that people do not mean him any harm and the only way to do that is to do what he fears most: physical contact.
This is where other trainers fall short. They punish the aggression, which is a symptom of an underlying problem. This creates a superficial result. Yes, the dog isn’t lunging and biting at people, but the fear is still there. The dog has only learned that they cannot be reactive, however, the fear is still very much present in their head.
Here, I am directly addressing the fear by making contact with Milo and allowing him to respond however he wants to, but I have the remote collar to address the aggression so that he can begin to see that I do not mean him any harm. Is that all there is to it? No, not by a long shot, but I need to start getting him used to confrontational pressure so that walking by past people will be a breeze. Physical contact is the epitome of what he’s afraid of so if he can handle that then he can handle people moving around him.
The second exercise that we did with him is going over the Heel exercise as this provides with a regular routine of discipline that helps him understand what the collar is communicating to him. This presence of consequence helps the brain to stay passive on a regular basis, which when practiced over time, will help him become a thinking animal and not a reactive animal.
The structured Heel works in conjunction with the pressure exercises. What we’re doing is communicating with Milo that his previous means of handling stress are unacceptable and he needs to learn a healthier approach. This will be used to help guide him through what he can and can’t do when he feels stressed.
As the lesson progressed, things that would normally trigger Milo weren’t triggering him anymore. When I step away for example. During the consultation, every time I stepped away Milo would charge forward taking up the space I had surrendered and moved away when I stepped in because his brain was still stuck on “fight” mode. In the training session, when I stepped in, he began to not have any response as his brain wasn’t in reactive mode and he was able to learn that the aggression isn’t needed.
Previous trainers were of no help to Milo and the veterinarian simply prescribed him Prozac. When the Prozac didn’t help, the veterinarian suggested a stronger sedative. As you can see in the video, it clearly didn’t help with his aggression.
That concludes this week’s blog. Stay tuned to follow Milo’s progress!
Until next time.