Whenever I’m working with an aggressive dog—or sometimes even when I meet one on the street—my first point of attack is usually to praise the dog, even while the dog is acting aggressive.
All aggression is based on fear. And it’s my experience that dogs have two basic being states: The “me” state, which is always focused on need (“I need that bone,” “I need to protect myself from that other dog,” etc.), and the “us” state, which is based on desire (“I want that bone,” “I want to feel safe around that other dog,” etc.). The “me” state is tight, inflexible, defensive, possessive, protective, etc., and puts the dog’s natural social intelligence on hold. The “us” state is open, expansive, flowing, generous, cooperative, etc., and allows the dog’s natural social intelligence to flourish.
Think of how your chest feels when you feel that you really, really need something. It gets tight; your heart might even feel as it’s being squeezed by a giant fist. But when you have a strong desire for something your chest actually expands; your heart feels open.
When a dog feels he needs “that bone,” he has no behavioral options except one. But if he just wants it, his emotions and behavior are far more flexible, and he’s capable of coming up with any number of alternative solutions, including the possibility of giving up the bone if it’ll help maintain social (“us”) harmony.
In her 15 year study (“The Social Organization of the Domestic Dog; A Longitudinal Study of Domestic Canine Behavior and the Ontogeny of Canine Social Systems:” www.nonlineardogs.com) Alexandra Semyonova describes dog society as an autopoietic (self-organizing) system, where each dog’s emotional and social well-being is important to all other dogs. Using autopoietic terms (fitness hills, fitness landscapes) she writes:
“The system’s border at the third level of organization (groups larger than two) is porous. Each time another dog passes through this border, all inner states and fitness landscapes may be perturbed, information is exchanged, inner states find new equilibriums, and shifts among individual optima may take place to accommodate the new system participant. Unlike a war or a capitalist market situation, where parties try to completely flatten other actors’ hills and maximize the height of their own, in this canine system participants migrate to the closest attractor available, striving to restore the stability and predictability generated by consensus rather than to heighten individual hills at the cost of the other(s). In fact, the very presence of the other(s) constitutes in itself a heightening of a dog’s fitness hill if only the dog has undergone normal production processes.”
Semyonova also makes an important distinction between actual aggression—biting that breaks the skin—and warning signals, such as growling, barking, air-biting, etc. And she postulates that dogs have, within their own society, a very strict non-aggression (“no real biting”) rule. Dogs who break the rule are ostracized.
This gibes with something I’ve felt about dogs for years: in my experience no dog ever wants to be aggressive. They don’t even want to feel aggressive if they can help it. If given the chance they will always gravitate away from the “me” state toward the “us” state. And that’s not just part of their nature, it is their nature.
What does this have to do with rewarding a dog for acting aggressive?
I never said I was rewarding the dog. I said I was praising her.
Okay, so what’s the difference?
Good question. Praise only works as a reward or positive reinforcer if it makes the dog feel good. Why does it make dogs feel good? Because it makes them feel emotionally connected to us, which essentially takes them out of a “me” state and puts them back into an “us” state.
These changes may not be visible right away, and a lot depends on how energetic and sincere your praise is. Sometimes you might not see any results for months, if at all. But praise is important because it’s that first chink in the armor that allows you to switch the dog from “me” to “us.” That’s the key.
There’s a border terrier in my neighborhood who was a bit of a terror with other dogs when his owners first started taking him for walks. The first time this happened to me and my dog, I stopped a moment to recommend to his owners they praise him instead of correcting him.
They listened politely, then ignored me.
But over the course of several months, every time I saw the dog, I went ahead and praised him anyway on my own: “Hi, Otto! Good boy! Who’s the good boy?”
This meant nothing to Otto at first. And yet I persisted.
Then one day, Otto saw me and my dog Freddie coming toward him. His head got low; he was ready to go into one of his screaming fits, but he didn’t. He looked me in the eyes, almost as if to say, “Isn’t this where you’re supposed to tell me I’m a good boy?”
I did that and he wagged his tail. That was also the first time he didn’t bark at Freddie.
Ever since that day he’s acted like I’m his best friend. He’s not totally cured (yet), but he’s come a long way. (As I said, praise is just the first step.)
The next story starts with a phone call I got from some potential clients with a female Rottweiler who had been exhibiting severe aggression toward the skateboards, roller bladders, joggers, and cyclists in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg.
Normally if I’m dealing with an aggressive dog I’m very careful about how the first meeting takes place, particularly in terms of my entrance through the door to the dog’s “den.” I like to meet such dogs out on the street. But since Twyla’s aggression was supposedly only directed at joggers, skateboarders and the like I mistakenly thought my entrance into Twyla’s den wouldn’t be a problem.
At first it wasn’t. The husband opened the door.
Twyla was sitting obediently by his wife at the back of the entry, next to a set of stairs leading to the second floor. Her leash was on and she was “happily” wagging her tail.
I immediately liked her and said, “Hello, Twyla,” in my friendliest voice.
She pulled the leash out of the wife’s hand, ran to me and jumped up, putting her front paws on my shoulders. She was huge!
I tend to see jumping up as a sign of friendliness. And that’s what Twyla seemed to have in mind too. That is, until I leaned my nose in, expecting her to give me a kiss.
Her friendly face turned into a horrible mask of terror and aggression. A low, throaty growl came through her lips, parted now into a vicious snarl of fury. Her teeth were less than two inches away from my nose. She was ready-given the slightest provocation-to rip my entire face off.
Did I mention her teeth were two inches from my nose?
My heart did a funny thing, though. It did nothing. It didn’t skip a beat. If anything it seemed to actually slow down. Sure, a part of my brain was wondering how much of my face Twyla would be able to rip off and eat before her owners could finally grab the leash and pull her off. But for some reason that didn’t faze me.
Instead, I broke eye contact and praised Twyla vocally in a soft, yet very warm and friendly, and very sincere, voice. “Good girl... good girl...”
There was a brief pause, then Twyla jumped down and started licking my hand. Five minutes later she was lying next to me on the couch, flat on her back, with all four legs in the air, using my hand as a pacifier.
Just by praising her softly I had changed Twyla from a potential killer to a complete pussycat. I’d also saved myself from coming away with a severely damaged my face.
Of course, this one event did not change Twyla’s aggression toward skateboarders, etc. That a took a lot of work. But if I hadn’t turned that first moment around—by praising her while she was ready to tear my face off—it would’ve been much harder for me and her owners to instigate the behavioral changes necessary to eventually cure her. And if instead of using praise I had tried to be the pack leader, as some trainers recommend, I would have really been in trouble.
Also, I’m not recommending that you walk up to any dog on the street and try this. In Otto’s case he was on the leash, and I could tell he wasn’t going to bite me; he was just trying to keep my dog from violating his space. In Twyla’s case, I did a dumb thing by leaning my face toward hers, which was also a violation of her space.
And remember, the praise has to be energetic and sincere. It’s also a good idea to have no fear. In my case, I actually loved both Twyla and Otto from the minute I saw them. So it’s not a bad idea to not only have no fear, but to also to be able to see how lovable the dog really is, or could be if given a chance. And frankly, there are dogs I’ll steer clear of on the street, or be very cautious around if I’m hired to work with them. You get a vibe from some dogs that they’re not just in the usual “me” state—they’re in a “hyper-me” state, and anything could set them off—even praise. I might still praise them, but I have no illusions that they’ll roll over on their backs five minutes later. But for dogs with mild to moderate aggression, praise is always my first point of attack.