Last night I attended an evening with John McGuigan (The Glasgow Dog Trainer) who gave a talk on dog aggression, its causes and its treatment. This is something I am fascinated in since dog aggression is becoming increasingly common. As well as this, one of the dogs I currently work with is leash reactive and I wanted to get some more information on how best to deal with this.
What I found most interesting about John was that he openly admitted that he started dog training using dominance methods and said that this destroyed his dogs. Through constantly correcting his dogs using leash jerks and dominating behaviour he created fear based aggression in both of them. It was this that led him to positive reinforcement training and being so passionate about advocating this method. John also put a lot of emphasise on the need for more scientific research on dog behaviour, because the more we understand why they do certain things the easier it will be to training them effectively!
SET YOUR DOG UP FOR SUCCESS!
If you have a reactive dog it is important that you don’t set them up for failures by continuously putting them in situations that tips them over threshold. This means managing your environment, so if you have a dog that is fearful of people or other dogs, take them to quiet places where you are less likely to run into trouble. Since life is full of unexpected surprises, if your dog does end up confronting something that makes them reactive get them out of there to re-group.
John also talked about how each situation that leads to reactivity increasingly puts your dog on edge, and big reactions can take up to 24 hours to cool down. This means that when training your dog you don’t want to have dedicated sessions more than 3 or 4 times a week. Also be aware that if your dog has had a big reaction to something then give them time to cool off before starting training again.
As John said, dog training is not rocket science, it is made up of simple things…but it is tricky to get right!
The main method that he uses is classical conditioning. This is based on the theory that everything we do is made up of simple patterns of stimulus and response. A famous example of this is the study by Pavlov where he rang a bell before feeding a dog and eventually the sound of the bell itself caused the dog to salivate as it associated it with the appearance of food. In this case the bell is the stimulus and the response is the dog salivating. This is exactly how clicker training works, where the click signals that something good is coming.
Classical conditioning is something that we can do by mistake, which is how many aggression cases start. So if every time your dog sees another dog and you jerk the lead, either to stop them pulling towards them or barking, eventually your dog will associate the negative feelings from the leash jerk with another dog approaching. This is how fear based aggression begins and it can become a vicious cycle where you jerk more because your dog is becoming more reactive.
- Get the threshold right (start at a distance where your dog is not over threshold)
- If your dog barks move further away
- Click and treat for looking at dog
- Eventually move to click and treat for looking at you
- Click and treat for giving you more attention
- USE HIGH VALUE TREATS!!!
This has the same format as Grisha Stewart’s Behaviour Adjustment Training (BAT) methods.
John also talked about operant conditioning. This is where adding or taking away a reward is used to modify the dogs behaviour. In case of frustrated dogs that pull to greet other dogs, moving further away from the other dogs acts as removing a reward. Or for fearful dogs, the reward is to move away from the scary stimulus.
SYMPATHETIC LEAD HANDLING
John emphasised the importance of having a loose lead when do these training exercises, he demonstrates this really well on his youtube clips. He believes that the majority of reactivity cases can be greatly reduced just through good lead handling skills.
He finished off by discrediting some of the poor training techniques used by certain famous dog trainers (and unfortunately many others!!). I’ve mentioned the most commonly used one below.
Snapping dog out using leash pops and corrections
People that use this technique believe that this breaks the dogs focus on whatever they are reacting to. However, this fails to properly understand dog behaviour and the effects of classical conditioning. While this technique does work in the short term, as it corrects the dogs behaviour at that moment, what it is really doing is building up a negative association to whatever the dog was reacting too, leading to fear based aggression.
Anyone who has a leash reactive dog or a dog that has dog-dog aggression I would definitely recommend to get in touch with John, or if not make sure you use a trainer that only uses positive methods. Dogs are man’s best friend and they deserve that we use the most up to date and human methods to train them!