Aggression: A Label to Get Angry About

Learning to differentiate aggression from learned behaviors

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Looking for a good label to slap on your dogs poor behavior? Go with ‘aggressive’. It is by far one of the most popular choices in modern society. As with most things, it is easier to call a problem something which very few people have the knowledge or time to address than it is to recognize the underlying problems. It’s used to describe those unwanted behaviors most often associated with some sort of violent action or reaction. By the standards of all those who define their dog as ‘aggressive’, a high percentage of the dog population has more than likely be afflicted with this terrible behavior trait. But what if I was to tell you that, in all my years of training, I have yet to meet a truly aggressive dog?

Aggression is, unfortunately, a commonly used behavior excuse. Does your dog pull madly on the leash when passing another dog? They must be aggressive. Do they growl when another dog comes near them when they have their favorite toy? Aggression. Do they bark wildly at the mailman as he passes by the front window? Yup, you guessed it: they’re aggressive.

Except, more than likely, they’re not. True aggression is the act of violence for the sake of violence. The very definition of aggression is ‘an unprovoked offensive attack’, leading us to question if a dog reacting to certain stimulation is aggression or actually a learned behavior. For example, lets say your dog growls every time another animal approaches its food. You, on the other hand, can walk right up and take the food away or put your hand in the bowl if you wanted with little to no opposition. The growl at another dog might be an indicator of many things including that they weren’t socialized with other animals around to know how to react, or that they had a negative experience with another animal at one point. If they were exhibiting truly aggressive behavior, they wouldn’t care who came near their food- owner, human, or animal. Unfortunately, it’s easier to label perceived violent behavior as ‘aggression’ than it is to sleuth out the real cause of the problem.

dog-pet-fur-brown.jpgThe stigma surrounding aggression is that it’s essentially an incurable condition. It has been used far too frequently (and wrongly) with a variety of dog breeds, such as pit bulls. We are so conditioned by everything as a society that we associate bad behavior with aggression since that is how we’ve been taught to view it.

The fault for this lies nowhere and with no one. It is merely the result of years of poor education and misinformation. Unfortunately, people walk around none-the-wiser while pets suffer the consequences of this misdiagnosis.

picjumbo.com_HNCK5259.jpgLet’s go back and look at my three examples of behavior that could easily be classified as aggressive. To start, the dog pulling on the leash. As a trainer, my first thought is that the dog lacked in adequate socialization as a puppy. Essentially, they never learned how to interact with other dogs, but that doesn’t change the fact they are interested in them. Imagine for a moment you’d like to get to know a really interesting looking person at a party- but you’ve never been taught how to speak, or any traditional social gestures. Would you know society dictates you politely introduce yourself? Do you even know what an introduction means?

golden-retriever-750565_1920The dog that growls ever time another dog gets near his toy? That sounds more like possessive behavior than aggressive behavior. While they sound similar (and the ultimate action is similar too), they stem from distinctly different cognitive thought. Possessive behavior could arise through a variety of factors- lack of socialization (think about not being taught how to share in kindergarten), a natural instinct to be in an alpha role in the pack, or even a survival trait if they came from a bad background.

trains-1603108_1280.jpgBy now I’m sure you’re seeing a recurring trend. It continues with the classic scenario of the dog barking at the mailman. This is actually a learned behavior. It starts as the dog trying to protect its territory (your house) from strangers. The mailman does as all mailmen do- drop off the mail and head on their way. The problem is, your dog thinks the mailman left because they were barking, not understanding the mailman completed their task and are just moving on with their route. This is positive reinforcement training at its finest, something which your dog is actually teaching to themselves. (I’ll be posting more in the future about how positive reinforcement training works, so check back.)

The problem with this incorrect label is that the root of the problem is ignored, and often perpetuated by taking the wrong course of action. This is just as catastrophic as a doctor haphazardly diagnosing a patient and prescribing medication that makes their real condition worse.

dog-715545_1920Instead of working on introducing the leash-puller to other dogs and helping them learn those social skills they are lacking, all social interaction is avoided since the assumption is that the dog will attack. (Which, as with any animal, is always a possibility, which is why it’s important to work with a trainer on developing a safe training method.) The possessive dog is simply placed in a room by themselves with their prized toy. Instead of learning how to share, the fact that they don’t have to is now being reinforced. The mailman starts to try and leave quicker and quicker every day to avoid the ferocious barks of the dog at the window.

Instead of labeling your own dog or those you see in passing as being aggressive, consider the fact that they are nearly a product of their environment. It is easier to wash our hands of the ability to correct some of these understandably more complex behaviors. However, our pets deserve to learn and be taught just as we do.

The only way we can combat this misnomer is by educating society that the behavior we’ve been conditioned to label as a hopeless case is in fact just a silent cry for help from your furry friend for a little guidance.

If you suspect your dog may be aggressive, I urge you to speak with a certified trainer or behavioral expert. Most are happy to offer free consultations, or they will work with you one-on-one until your dog is ready to be with a group and test their new skills. However, if your suspicions are correct and your dog is exhibiting true aggressive behavior, you need professional assistance. While true aggression isn’t as common as some might thing, it does exist, and can be very dangerous.

What is a Reward?

Reward based training isn’t always treat training.

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It’s common knowledge that most dogs are highly motivated by a variety of tasty morsels. I can’t say I blame them: if someone offered me a chocolate croissant in exchange for a simple task, I’d take them up on it without a moments hesitation. Treats are undoubtedly one of the leading choices in reward-based training since they’re simple, easy, and often quite effective. Treats, however, are also an easy way to lose sight of the plethora of other effective rewards trainers have at their disposal.

The most common misconception about reward-based training is that it is synonymous with treat training. Many people fear it due to seemingly legitimate concerns such as their pet gaining excess weight due to the influx of treats they’re now receiving. While these are certainly areas for every attentive pet owner to consider, they simply become irrelevant when the pre-conceived notion of reward=treat is challenged.

According to the dictionary, a reward is something given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement. In this framework, there are as many reward options to choose from as things your dog finds rewarding. Note the key part of that phrase is things that YOUR dog finds rewarding. While there are often many cross-overs between different pets, each dog has their own personality and thus their own set of things they find rewarding.

Here are a few ideas of rewards that are outside of the treat box:

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Toys.
There is a reason that your dog likes to play with their toys: they find doing so rewarding and pleasurable. Instead of offering a treat for a requested behavior, offer a toy or play time instead. This reward can actually be reverse engineered too; does your dog hop in anticipation for you to toss their ball? Make them sit before you throw it. My Great Dane mix absolutely adores trying to ‘catch’ the squeegee on the other side of the shower door. While at first this seemed frustrating, we realized it was an opportunity to reinforce some of his basic commands. Now, before we squeegee across, we make him sit or lay down. In exchange, he gets the reward of chasing the ever-elusive squeegee.

106H.jpgWalks.
Rarely have I met a dog whose heart doesn’t soar at the prospect of going for a walk. I’ve even had many people ask me how to manage their normal Dr. Jekyll of a dog who transforms into Mr. Hyde as soon as the leash is even touched. Running around the house, barking excitedly, jumping, and more, are natural reactions to such an exciting prospect. (I admittedly confuse the dogs every time I do this, though.) Once again, this excitement is directed towards the rewarding experience of going out for a walk. Find ways to use that to impact your training routine.

287H.jpgAttention.
Okay, this one seems silly, I’ll admit. But dogs love their people. By nature they are pack animals, and modern domesticated dogs have been bred with loving, snuggly traits. Does your dog just love to be pet? Is there that perfect spot just behind their ears they always want scratched? Teach them manners while also indulging their need for attention.

Does that spark your imagination? I encourage you to start looking for the little things that just make your pooch happy. Find a way to provide them while also strengthening your training. I mean, what could be a more fun then looking for things that make your dog happy?

Competent vs Cordial

Are well-trained and well-behaved the same thing?

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Many years ago I sat at Sea World and watched a show featuring a variety of animals trained to perform fantastic tricks. They’d dart down aisles filled with people onto the stage, release ropes that would drop banners, jump through hoops and more. After the show, the handlers brought out many of the pets that starred in the act. I watched, intrigued, as many of the handlers struggled to hold leashes which were being tugged and pulled this way and that. The same pets that had just accomplished some truly incredible feats now stood, pulling their leashes, jumping wildly up and down, barking, and more, as carefree park guests wandered by the stage and out of the theater.

When considering the amount of training that had to take place in order for those animals to not only perform, but perform on cue, it’s reasonable to assume that they are also incredibly well behaved. They are the ones that every pet owner daydreams about: Lying calmly at the feet of their owner who slowly sips that $8 latte out front of Starbucks; The ones who sit quietly as the doorbell rings and the door opens, admitting guests into their home. These dogs obviously attended all the right training classes as their attentive owners did all the right things to guide them on their path to success. But is that really the truth of it?

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With very little open and honest communication available regarding pet training, such misconceptions about well trained being the same as well behaved thrive in our modern society. Training facilities everywhere would have you believe that you need to sign up for that next training class in order to have a well behaved dog. While continuing education is indeed a practice I strongly support, there is something wrong with the assumed cause and effect model of pet training.

So if good behavior isn’t born from training, where does it come from?

Half of that answer is simply genetics. Certain breeds have dispositions that make it easier for them to sit quietly in greatly distracting environments. Similarly, certain people make it easier for pets to be calm and tranquil. That is one of the reasons why researching breed traits before bringing home your newest family member is so important. While I in no way mean to imply that certain breeds simply cannot be well behaved, they are less likely to be so if their owner doesn’t understand that they may need special energy outlets in order to focus better.

The other half comes from regular interaction with your pet, and your pet’s interaction with others. This is one of the reasons why training can seem to result in good behavior. But really, what you’re striving to achieve is to earn the respect of your furry friend, and you can gain that by giving it yourself. This includes talking to, petting, rewarding, and socializing them.

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Think about it in terms of children, parents, and babysitters. When a parent instructs a child to sit calmly at the dinner table, often the child complies since they respect the parent and their authority. When the parents leave and the babysitter steps in, that respect may not be there yet. When the babysitter instructs the same child to sit calmly at the table, it is almost a joke. Only after a threat to tell the parents of their disobedience does the child comply- and even then, often half-heartedly.

This respect didn’t come from regular drills at the dining room table where the parent instructs the child to sit, then lets them stand once again. The child learned to obey requests though regular interactions with their parents. It is in this same way that our pets learn to respect us. When we ask them to sit, they are more likely to do so if they respect you and your authority. You’re also more likely to respect them and their desire to say hello to guests, and let them do so.

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The ultimate goal is to have both a well-trained AND well-behaved pet. Your companion should listen when you ask them for a behavior. They should also be able to greet another person while maintaining a calm attitude. But don’t become mislead in thinking that if your pet knows dozens of commands they should also have good manners. As a child learns to walk and talk, the parent must also teach them the importance of saying please and thank you. These are two different learned behaviors intrinsically connected to one another through their similarities.

The next time you see your pet, give them some love. Take them with you when you go to the pet store. Don’t take them out just to practice heel. Take them out to show them the world and give them experiences that will hone the blade of their manners and personality. It’s not just our pets that benefit from this- more times than not, it’s us too!

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What Makes a Great Treat Pouch?

It’s Just a Treat Pouch. (Or is It?)

It wasn’t long after I first started working as a pet trainer years ago that I immediately noticed the lack of diversity in training pouch options. Virtually every pouch sold commercially was nearly identical- floppy bags with a chunky draw-string strap. Besides from the obvious issues of usability, they all looked the same- boring and bland.

Unwilling to settle for a mediocre pouch that would hinder rather than help my training routine, I created the beta version of what would ultimately become the featured item on my Etsy shop. While it was a crude model, it served me well for over a year. It was only at the point my students started commenting on it that I realized I wasn’t the only one wanting something different, something better.

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There are just about as many options out there for training accessories as there are training techniques. Sometimes it can be confusing to understand what sets one apart from another (and sometimes the answer is nothing at all). In order to help my clients understand why it is that the treat pouches from Ellie’s Nook are so effective, I created this short video. It outlines the core principals that make our pouches functional.

Check out this video for a little insight into what sets us apart from other options out there, and why you should consider making the switch to a pouch from Ellie’s Nook today.

Starting the Journey

There’s nothing quite like an inaugural blog post.

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It marks the beginning of a journey. It is simultaneously exhilarating and intimidating. Forward lies a blank canvas, waiting for that first brush stroke of color to bring it to life. But forward also brings the possibility of failure, of expectations not met, of a quest abandoned. It is with many of these same feelings that the commitment of owning and training a pet are frequently tangled.

At first, when you look into your dogs eyes, you see a brilliant future of all that could be. You see an opportunity to develop not just your companions behavior, but also your own. Then, eventually the honeymoon phase wears off. Your perseverance dwindles. You catch your furry friend chewing on the leg of the couch for the fifth time that day. You’ve fetched your third roll of paper towels to sop up the mess that once again didn’t quite make it out the door. As your thoughts drift while you gather threads of carpet unwoven at the mouth of your pup, you find yourself asking, ‘Maybe I wasn’t quite ready for this journey just yet.’

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As with all new beginnings, there is never a short supply of trials to endure once you have brought a dog into your life. The adjustment period can be swift or linger on for what feels like forever. But, as time passes, you slowly begin to build a foundation with your pet, learning every delightful aspect of their personality, just as they begin to learn yours.

It is those moments for which we press on- the knowledge that the reward is much greater than the shenanigans our animals sometimes never cease to conjure up. It is with this same confidence in the reward of the future which this blog begins. And it wouldn’t be complete without my lovable English Mastiff laying at my feet while I type. As she softly snores and chases after the rabbits in her dreams (in the lazy way that Mastiffs participate in all physical activity, dream or not), I dwell on the person I have become because of her presence in my life. She has taught me more than any mentor or teacher could.

Had she not entered my life, I never would have signed up for that pet training class so many years ago- a class that sparked a passion and aptitude in me I had never been aware of before. I would not have become a pet trainer, and in consequence, would not have created the treat pouches I now make and sell. It seemed only right to label my shop after the one that started it all. Without Ellie, Ellie’s Nook would never have been created.

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I create this blog as a medium through which to share some of the invaluable knowledge that Ellie has been kind enough to impart upon me. It was not without great dedication that she and I forged a bond that cannot now be broken. It is this bond which I desire more than anything for other pet owners to achieve. The moment you realize that you’ve not been training your dog but it has, in fact, been training you, marks a paradigm shift for your world.

I hope to share some of the lessons that Ellie has taught me over the years. The beginning of every journey always starts with the first step. And, as I prepare the leave the footprint in the ground as I close this first post, I smile as I realize that all I’m doing is following in the pawprints of one much wiser than I.

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