Whole Dog Journal's Blog November 23, 2015

When You've Come to the End of a Trainer’s Positive Skill Set

Posted at 04:33PM - Comments: (7)

This happened to two couples I know - one, very recently: They adopted a dog who turned out to have some "issues." Each couple hired a trainer to help them manage and change the dog's behavior. The trainers started out with teaching them very dog-friendly basic training techniques that helped them get their dogs' attention, improved basic obedience and cooperation, and generally encouraged the couples that there was hope for their dogs. But then, when progress wasn't being made fast enough - at least, in the eyes of the trainers - the trainers started using (and encouraging the couples to use) punitive, force-based methods. In both instances, my friends contacted me to ask for a reality check, like, "Is this okay? Is this what we should expect?" In both cases, my answer was, "Oh heck no!"

Dog Pulling on Leash

In the first case, my friends had adopted a small dog who was so reactive on leash, that he would suddenly lunge and snap at passersby. He didn't actually manage to make contact with anyone's flesh, but he bit shopping bags, coat and skirt hems, and the leg of someone's pants, despite the best efforts of his very dedicated owners to keep him away from other people, and especially other dogs, when they walked. On my advice, they hired a trainer who advertised that he used dog-friendly methods, and was an alumni of a prestigious dog-friendly trainer academy, for private lessons.

The trainer taught them to ask the dog to look at them on cue, to look at other dogs or people and then choose to look back at them, to sit and stay very reliably when someone was approaching or passing when they just could not avoid this (they live in a large, busy city), and the dog was making great progress. They were dedicated to training him, and generally happy with his progress, but the hardest nut to crack (so to speak) was the unpredictable lunge-and-snap behavior. I kept encouraging my friends, because it seemed like they were getting somewhere and were highly invested in the dog – and they even took the dog in for several extensive veterinary workups and blood tests, to make sure there wasn't a physical problem or thyroid imbalance that would help explain his hard-to-predict aggressive behavior.

But around this time, it seemed like the trainer grew frustrated with the persistence of the dog's lunge-and-snap behavior. He brought a choke chain to their next few sessions, and showed my friends how to "pop" the dog if it looked like he was about to lunge. They saw that the trainer's method was successful in (at least temporarily) controlling the dog, so they tried it, with a little success. Maybe all the positive stuff had to be balanced with a little discipline, they thought.

In very little time, however, the dog's aggressive behavior started to increase, and he began to behave aggressively in more situations, many of them unpredictable. And while he had seemed to improve in the first few sessions in which the trainer had "popped" him, he abruptly started getting worse, growing much more dramatically aggressive when subjected to the things that triggered him (people and especially other dogs passing by). My friends discontinued their lessons with the trainer after one session in which the trainer appeared to lose his temper repeatedly, yanking the dog repeatedly with the choke chain, at several points lifting him off the ground, and yelling at him loudly.

My friends consulted with another trainer, who witnessed the behavior and had some minor suggestions, but admitted she didn't have any significant answers about what else could be done.

Some weeks later, when one of my friends was sweeping their front sidewalk, and his partner opened the front door to tell him something, the dog bolted out the front door and ran like a lightning bolt next door, where their neighbor was also sweeping, and without a second of premeditation, attacked the neighbor, biting him in the leg. With great sadness, they decided they could not keep an animal that was this sort of unpredictable liability, and they returned him to the shelter he was adopted from. After an evaluation by the shelter, he was euthanized.

This is a story I will tell over Thanksgiving to my in-laws, who have a lovely adopted Boxer, and are fostering another one – and who are dealing with the first dog's mild reactivity to other dogs when walking on leash. They, too, hired a trainer who advertises as "dog-friendly" to help them, and the lessons have paid off in spades. Their dog now knows to "look at" them on cue, and to sit calmly when cued, ignoring the passersby and their dogs, too. Yet, while I haven't yet heard why, the same trainer also insisted that they buy and use a prong collar on the dog when walking. "Should we use it?" my sister-in-law asked me. "No!" I responded. Instead, I'll help them when they come to stay in my office/house for a few days over Thanksgiving, and we go out for walks every day. And I'll be sure to tell them the sad story of my other friends' dog.

Folks, read our back articles. Pain-based, force-based, intimidation-based, fear-based, and even discomfort-based methods all tend to make aggressive behavior worse over time. You may be able to intimidate a dog into behaving better in certain circumstances, but unless you seriously and systematically address his stress - the things that get him anxious or aroused - the behavior will continue to pop up from time to time, and pretty much always when you least expect it and least wish for it to happen. You have to improve how he feels when he's exposed to his stressors - and leash pops and yelling certainly won't make him any less anxious or defensive about them. And next, you have to teach him a more rewarding response, something he should do (as opposed to telling him all the things he should NOT do) when he sees one of his stressors. The process takes time and commitment, but it can be, and has been, done time and time again. Usually, with people who are working with trainers who have lots of tools in their training "toolbox," and who don't give up on the dog-friendly stuff when they get stuck.

Friendly Dogs Who Display Leash Aggression

Modifying Aggressive Dog Behavior

Constructional Aggression Treatment

Canine Aggresion and Body Language

Addressing Unwanted Dog-Reactive Behaviors

Survive Your Dog's Arousal Biting

Comments (7)

I am a balanced trainer, who prefers and loves positive reinforcement, and if every dog could be trained using strictly positive methods, would be in heaven. However, I also strongly believe that dogs are too intelligent, individual, and unique to all be lumped into one box...so I try to keep one of every tool in my "toolbox," and that sometimes includes an aversive tool, depending on the dog and the situation. A tool is only as good or as bad as the person using it, and every tool can be abused--from a prong collar to a treat pouch!
However, the handler's frustration or anger should never enter into that equation, and that is where I believe those trainers failed--they were simply over their heads and let their emotions get the better of them. If a handler is calm, confident, and happy with their dog, that's going to go further than any tool ever will. :)

Posted by: allyc2007 | November 30, 2015 9:23 PM    Report this comment

Love this article, and I plan on sharing it with my clients. To comment on the one of the above comments, reactivity can be treated, and it can be done using rewards based methods. I hope everyone discovers this one day. While it is intrinsically rewarding and feels good to a dog to bark, a program consisting of proper management, counterconditioning, incompatible behaviors, and positive reinforcement can "cure" reactivity. I've witnessed it, and have had great success with it as I am a strictly rewards based trainer. Thank you so much for this article!!!!!!!

Posted by: jlb4813 | November 25, 2015 12:14 AM    Report this comment

We are currently fostering an abused small dog who will always suffer from PTSD based on ten years of bad behavior on the part of the previous owner. I am happy to say that positive reinforcement has made a big positive change in her behavior. She will never be 100% but she has made great strides which she would not have done with any negative reinforcement.

Posted by: Furrykids | November 24, 2015 4:47 PM    Report this comment

Managing human expectations seems to be really important. I have a dog-reactive golden retriever. Despite my early efforts with puppy play groups and all sorts of training, being around other dogs has always been a problem. We went through "growly dog" training over 6 years ago, which helped give me the tools to work with him, but it certainly isn't a quick fix! Even though he is much better, something as innocuous as a change in weather can ratchet up his edginess and make him more reactive than he was in a similar situation the day before. I'm thankful I don't have to worry about him around people, but I expect to be cautious around other dogs for the rest of his life.

Posted by: Kathi | November 24, 2015 4:00 PM    Report this comment

I was told by the owner of a well known positive reinforcement school that dog reactivity is like an addiction and can't be changed because the reinforcement is a surge of adrenaline that won't change with training.

Posted by: Vyse | November 24, 2015 2:43 PM    Report this comment

We lost our first Aussie to exactly this - He had displaced aggression when he got scared, nervous or excited and would jump up and grab and tear our clothing. We went to training class when he was 8 mos old and were told to use a prong collar and pull on it hard enough so "he is afraid of us" - words of the trainer. The first time we did this he jumped up and bit my husband on the forearm and drew blood. We went back to the trainer who said we weren't doing it hard enough "that he should think we are going to kill him". Needless to say we left that training class. But the damage was done - the biting kept escalating and we were pretty much clueless about the effects of this type of training on a dog that already has issues. Had we known to seek out a different trainer that uses positive training methods maybe we could have reversed this. When a bite to the upper arm was severe enough to send my husband to the emergency room (he was big enough by then to jump that high and he grabbed on and dragged my husband to the ground) we contacted the breeder who took him back. By then he was almost a year and a half old and the love of our lives - a wonderful dog in spite of this problem. We have never gotten over that heartbreak but sure learned a lot!! Now 4 Aussies later we have never had any issues that can't be solved with clicker training and positive reinforcement.

Posted by: katgue | November 24, 2015 10:48 AM    Report this comment

So very sad. Sometimes correcting behavior takes a long time with all of us. :)

Posted by: CarolC | November 24, 2015 10:39 AM    Report this comment

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