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I just found this footage from an old puppy class. It shows the Buhund from the Christmas video playing with a slightly younger (if memory serves) bulldog puppy. It also features an adult Brussels Griffon playing the role of regulator.
Since proposing Leash Aggression as a chat topic to IAABC, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I think about it. And I’ve been doing my best to organize my thoughts into easy-to-type bits.
As an urban trainer, I assess and address leash reactivity on a regular basis, and over the years my opinions and strategies have evolved with experience, including many successes, a few notable failures, and all the cases that will forever live somewhere in between.
First order of business is the assessment, which varies from case to case depending on time and logistics, but should always include some determination of what contexts tend to trigger aggression/reactivity, as well as some evaluation of the relative influence of various factors.
Context includes location, identity of handler, relationship to handler, identity of trigger, proximity and behavior of trigger, handling methods and equipment, and stimulation level prior to reaction.
Depending on one’s history taking procedure, one may be able to determine all or most of the above without actually meeting the dog, and may focus one’s face-to-face time more exclusively on the nuances and relative significance of each individual element.
In the interview, the trainer should stay alert to home brewed analysis offered as fact. Statements like, “My dog hates men,” or “He’s just fearful/protective/dominant,” may or may not bear some relation to reality. When I interview clients, I try to steer them toward the objective delivery of useful data. I offer prompts like, “Tell me what you saw,” and “Describe what that looked like,” and ask follow-up questions such as “Does your dog react this way to [fill in the blank] consistently or randomly?”
After collecting background information, it’s time to look at each factor and identify the most important. Suppose a dog presents with a history of aggression toward men when handled by his female owner on walks in their neighborhood. Possible factors might include
- The dog’s “baseline” attitude toward men (absent other factors)
- The owner’s attitude toward men
- Proximity and behavior of trigger (men) in relation to dog or owner
- The dog’s relationship to owner
- The owner’s handling habits/methods (including tools used)
- Location (dog’s perceived territory?)
- Dog’s arousal level/lack of self-control
- Dog’s temperament
The business of determining which factors are most relevant is fairly straightforward, but require some amount of flexibility and resources. I mainly conduct evaluations at my training facility, which allows me to assess the dog on neutral territory, potentially away from the owner, thereby isolating the presumed trigger and providing total control over its proximity and behavior.
One thing I’m normally adamant about, is not deliberately generating the reactive behavior, either in the context of my initial consultation or maybe ever. This has to do both with my role as a behavior consultant and trainer, as well as my experience dealing with reactive dogs. It’s been my experience that most dogs may be adequately assessed sub-threshold, and that it’s most productive, particularly in the beginning, to keep them that way. Mainly, I think one needs to be clear going in, as to whether the goal is to see “how bad” versus “how trainable” is the dog. Because the two are sometimes incompatible.
NOTE: I happened to choose aggression toward men as my example, although I expect the upcoming chat to focus mainly on dog-dog reactivity. The same principles of assessment apply either way.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.
Arson, male (neutered) Rottweiler mix (?)
Was found sniffing around our back gates early one Saturday morning last February. Has been socialized and trained. His canine social skills and natural attention to people are hard to beat. Gets along with all sizes and breeds. Probably between 18 and 24 months old. Handsome and healthy. We will miss him terribly, but want him to enjoy a real home of his own.
Phoebe, female (spayed) Dogue de Bordeaux
Is very reluctantly being offered for adoption by a family who loves her dearly, but recognizes she is not well-suited to life in downtown Chicago. She has had obedience training, is affectionate with children, enjoys walking on a treadmill, and is friendly with people and other large dogs, providing a proper introduction. She has lovely leash manners and is capable of walking past nearly any distraction, but will likely never be reliable off-leash with very small dogs. She is approximately 16 months old.
Arson and Phoebe are available for adoption to good homes. The above video was shot yesterday. Please contact us for more details.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2011.
While my new dog Atlas was in transit to Chicago from North Carolina, I was coincidentally attending a weekend Sue Sternberg seminar.
Sue Sternberg heads an upstate NY animal shelter, and has authored books including Successful Dog Adoption and Out and About with Your Dog: Dog to Dog Interactions. She is a controversial figure within the shelter community due to both her Assess-A-Pet system for shelter dog evaluation, and her unapologetic prioritization of ensuring successful adoptions over maximizing adoptions (i.e. minimizing euthanasias), a model that stands in stark contrast with the No-Kill ethic.
People that know me know I am nothing if not a tough audience. And I’m definitely not a seminar junky (if I were capable of sitting in a chair for hours on end, I could hold down a real job). So, I was duly prepared to be underwhelmed by Sue Sternberg’s three-day seminar and workshop on canine group dynamics and aggression.
The seminar led with an introduction to the Assess-A-Pet system, designed to enable standardized evaluation of shelter dogs for sociability and adoptability. It has its critics, and its weaknesses in my opinion. But I appreciate its seriousness of purpose and support its underlying focus on ensuring successful adoptions. The effort to develop a robust method for practically delegating the limited resources available to shelter dogs is an important one.
Sternberg is also a very skilled and entertaining presenter, and all three days were packed with truly compelling material, including maybe a hundred video clips shot at shelters and dog parks all across the country and even overseas.
Of course, as a trainer, it is difficult for me to watch a dog that could likely be trained or socialized successfully with some amount of work, be set up for failure, no matter the obvious practicality of such a system. But the fact is a shelter assessment serves a very different purpose from a client behavior evaluation.
In Atlas’ case, I had enough information to believe he had good potential for being successfully socialized, despite his lack of canine interaction while at the North Carolina shelter where he’d lived most of his life.
Every trainer has a different method, ideally multiple, for assessing canine sociability. The trick in my opinion is to be clear as to the scope and purpose of whatever method one uses.
The following footage, which features Atlas interacting with an adolescent female bully mix during his first week at my kennel, illustrates one way to assess baseline sociability in a dog whose attitude is not well known. I welcome any comments.
© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2010.