Myths About Dog Aggression: Part VI

Last week we began discussing myths about dog aggression on the Dogster Guide to Behavior & Training. While I had originally planned on spending just...


Last week we began discussing myths about dog aggression on the Dogster Guide to Behavior & Training. While I had originally planned on spending just one week on this topic, there are so many myths on aggression I decided to carry the topic over into this week’s posts as well.


Our relationship with dogs today is very different from the historical relationships of dog and man and indeed, from the relationship between dogs and the surrounding human communities in many areas of the world today. Many of us consider dogs our best friends, as part of the family. In many areas of the world today and throughout much of history, dogs are and have been viewed as pests or varmint. In these places and times, there is a simple cure for dog aggression, one Karen Pryor referred to in her first training book – shooting the dog. Humans (generally) have and do actively cull aggression from the dogs that we allow in our homes and community.

Luckily, both our feelings about and understanding of dogs are evolving. Every day, science is proving new things about how dogs and animals learn. We continue to learn more about the nature of dogs, the language they use to communicate, the limits of their cognition and problem-solving abilities. We now know that there are a variety of very effective training techniques which can be used to modify dog behavior. We know that you actually can teach an old dog new tricks – the brain and behavior are largely plastic and malleable. Training is becoming a more popular option than “shooting the dog.”

In traditional dog training, aggression and reactivity were addressed through the use of “corrections” and “aversives.” Frequently, the tools of the rehabilitation trade included choke chains, prong collars, and shock collars. Another common technique, which seemed less aversive but often dramatically increases the dog’s stress in the presence of a trigger is flooding, where a dog is forced into a superthreshold situation until he visibly stops reacting.

Continuing behavioral research indicates that these techniques can easily backfire and exacerbate existing aggression problems or create additional problems. For more information, check out this study from the University of Pennsylvania: If you’re aggressive, your dog will be too.

Using positive punishment correctly is not easy and a skill which takes time to develop. Unfortunately, while people are developing those skills, they’ll make a lot of mistakes. While I’m not a fan of positive punishment generally, I’m really not a fan of poorly timed and implemented positive punishment. Steve White lists 8 rules for the use of punishment which illustrate the challenges associated with using it correctly. Further, even appropriately used punishment can have potentially disastrous fallout and side effects. Pat Miller lists 12 “Pitfalls of Positive Punishment.”

12 Pitfalls of Positive Punishment

1. You can cause physical pain/damage to your dog.
2. It is difficult to gauge the appropriate intensity.
3. The dog can develop a “punishment callous”.
4. The behavior may return when punishment stops.
5. It is difficult to have perfect timing.
6. It is difficult to be perfectly consistent.
7. It can suppress desired behaviors; inhibit offered behaviors.
8. It doesn’t teach the dog what to do.
9. The suppressive effect of the punisher is limited to the presence of the discriminative stimuli.
10. It is rewarding to the punisher.
11. It can damage the dog’s confidence, trust in the trainer, relationship between dog and human.
12. Violence begets violence.

Pat Miller, CPDT and author of “The Power of Positive Dog Training”

The techniques which are commonly used today by modern professionals include desensitization, counter conditioning, and Behavior Adjustment Training, paired with meticulous management. There are a variety of great resources on modern training techniques for dog aggression, including Click to Calm by Emma Parsons, virtually everything written by Jean Donaldson or Patricia McConnell, How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong, a Roadmap for Rehabilitating Aggressive Dogs and Civilizing the City Dog, a Guide to Rehabilitating Aggressive Dogs in an Urban Environment by Pamela Dennison, James O’Heare’s books on aggression, and almost any book on the topic sold by Dogwise.

I urge anyone working with an aggression or reactivity problem to seek the assistance and support of a qualified behavior professional for assistance. Not only will an experienced and educated professional be able to give you feedback on your dog’s body language, your mechanical, observational, and management skills, he or she will be able to give you confidence and support throughout the rehabilitation process.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s aggression myth. Until then, happy training, dogsters!

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