Friday, April 8, 2011

A Tale of Two Canines: Leash Aggression and the Power of Pavlov.

Last year I related the story of my young Akita, Kiku, who I was working on to curb her tendency to lunge and bark at other dogs while on a leash and discussed the source of leash aggression/reactivity. Often during our walks we see other people working on the same issue because it is such a common behavior among canines. While the behavior is relatively common, how people address this behavior can be quite different.

On our walks I often run into other owners who have leash aggressive dogs who opt to use more forceful techniques. There is one owner I used to run into fairly regularly who had a choke chain on her dog and she would yell and scream at the dog while yanking on the choke chain. It was a very uncomfortable experience running into these two because you could hear her screaming all the way down the block and the force she would exert on the choke chain would pull the dog of his front feet.  She would also violently yank on the choke chain even when her dog looked in the direction of my dog but did not lunge or bark. I see other owners doing this as well and have even witnessed people hitting their dogs. So, the end result of these aversive techniques is that the dog is effectively punished for just glancing at another dog. Whenever, I see this, I think to myself, what message is the owner sending the dog? See dog, jerk on collar, pain. The dog is associating the presence of other dogs with physical punishment.  This also illustrates the problem of physical punishment; incorrect application and timing.  In this case, the owner was punishing the dog when the dog is actually not doing anything wrong per se leaving the dog confused and walking on eggshells. 

I like to call Kiku "Ms. Control Freak." She likes to know what is going on around her and can be a little intense and vigilant. Trying to make her sit and ignore the dogs around her is just a little too much for her to bear and it makes her more anxious and feel out of control.  She has gone through all kinds of group classes from puppy kindergarten up through intermediate/advanced levels of obedience with few outbursts and enjoys being in class. But it is the non-class setting or unfamiliar areas where she is the most reactive. My favorite technique has been associating the presence of other dogs with a food reward. Like the bell in Pavlov’s dogs, when my dog looks at another dog she gets her favorite treat (boiled chicken or string cheese in her case). This technique of pairing something that the dog finds unpleasant with something that the dog likes (in this case a tasty treat) is called “counter-conditioning.” The goal of this technique is to change the emotional response of the dog towards the object that causes the fearful or aggressive behavior (in this case the dog but it could be the vacuum cleaner or any other object). I eventually turned this routine into a game where she gets a click and treat when she first looks at another dog and then looks back at me.1 So unlike the owner who punishes their dog for looking towards another dog (probably because the owner fears or anticipates an outburst), I actually encourage it. For my particular dog, being able to see the other dog rather than ignoring the dog is a more comfortable situation for her and I am pairing the presence of other dogs with something the dog likes. 

Kiku, ever vigilant, scanning the horizon.
I recently attended a webinar on leash aggression led by Kathy Sdao (Cujo Meets Pavlov) who is a great clicker trainer and behaviorist. She reminded everyone of a video made by Dr. Sophia Yin demonstrating the effectiveness of counterconditioning. In this video Dr. Yin is working with an aggressive Jack Russell Terrier and the results are very dramatic:
Training Aggression?: counterconditioning a dog to blowing in the face

You can see that the dog initially reacted to being blown in the face by biting and lunging but by the end of the training sessions, he no longer reacts aggressively even with being blown in the face quite forcefully. The same principal applies to leash aggression/reactivity. I would rather have my dog look forward to the appearance of a new dog rather than dread it.

Flash forward several months . . .

I occasionally see the woman with her dog and thankfully she is not yelling at him anymore. However, now she carries a little spray bottle attached to her belt loop. The dog is not lunging but his head is held a little low and he does not have the look of a confident dog. His body language also tells me that he is not relaxed. The behavior is being suppressed through punishment but I am not so sure that this dog enjoys seeing other dogs on walks.  As noted in one of my earlier blogs, using aversive or dominance-based methods to suppress aggression does not address the underlying causes of such behavior

My dog is not perfect but she does not have the loud, scary outbursts that she originally had as an adolescent. If we are at a corner and there are multiple dogs walking around, I may ask her to sit and click and treat watching other leashed dogs while she is sitting. Sometimes, she does not pay attention at all and we simply keep moving. But the main difference is that my dog is not walking on eggshells when she sees another dog. Her carriage is more relaxed and confident.  She does not associate other dogs with physical punishment, coercion or pain. When we pass by houses where she knows there is a barking dog, she will often excitedly sit in front of the fence facing me waiting for a click while ignoring the dog. There is one house we pass by quite often and the dog behind the fence will bark once and then lie down and watch our strange little routine every time we pass by. 

So while the end result is that both of these dogs may have outwardly curbed their tendencies to lunge and bark on the leash, the final product is, in my opinion, not equivalent.

The other day I ran into my neighbor from another block with her two goldens on their Gentle Leaders. This owner has worked hard on her dogs’ lunging and aggressive behavior on the leash. Because her dogs are now relatively calm, I have my dog sit at the curb and watch them walk by. As my neighbor sees me working with my dog she waves and pulls her clicker out of her pocket.

1    This technique is a version of one of the techniques addressed by Leslie McDevitt in Control Unleashed and Emma Parsons in Click to Calm.