When a dog is born, he is generally born with at least 1 or two other litter mates to grow up with. The first 3 weeks are there just for them to exist really. To feed off mom, and what not. They haven’t even opened their eyes just yet. The fourth week is when their world starts to open up as their eyes and ears start to really perk up to the world around them. They knew they had siblings, but they didn’t know what they looked like or anything like that. As they move to the 5th week, depending on the dog, this is usually when the starts of what’s called the “Imprinting” stage starts.
An “Imprinting Stage” as its called, is when the puppy’s mind is most open to learning and can absorb everything that it can into it’s life. This is a very crucial time of it’s life to learn how to play with their siblings, what the mother dog will be teaching them, if the owner of the mother is going to start any sort of training, etc. They learn crucial social skills during this early of developement as to what proper play is, what are limits, how to react to how other dogs react, etc.
Now, This stage, depending on the breed again, can last anywhere from 5-10 weeks, or 5-16 weeks. Then they go into what’s called a “Brave Stage”, where they take everything that they just learned and apply it to life with vigor and is usually when they are bold in trying new things. After this stage is over, most dogs go back into the “Fear Stage” or “Imprinting Stage”. Everything becomes like new again, and depending on the dog, can revert to thinking something that they were just around is now the scariest thing in the world, or everything just new to them is scary and need help getting through.
Dogs will go through these stages between 2-4 times before they hit adult hood. During the “Imprinting stages”, this is the crucial time that during these times, that they receive socialization to help bring them into adulthood smoothly. Now Socialization doesn’t just mean meeting people and other dogs, it’s places, things, smells, touch, sight, experiences, boundaries, limits, etc. Everything. If a dog has not received any structure during these times, this can all attribute to any behaviors that occur during the dog’s adult stage of life. Once these stages close, it’s a little more difficult depending on the dog to help gain the skill and confidence they need in order to know how to cope through a situation.
During these stages, a dog should have learned what Avoidance Behavior is, how to read it and how to use it himself, along with self calming behaviors. Avoidance Behaviors (Or “Back Off Signals”) are how a dog communicates to other dogs or people that they are uncomfortable and would like it if you backed off. These range from slow eye blinks, lip licking, head turns, body turns or blocks, leg lift, stiffening of the body (or retreating), whale eye, lip lifting, hard stare, barking, low growl, loud growl to snarl, air snap, lunging, warning bite, to an actual bite/fight, depending on the situation the dog has to use to communicate with the other thing that they are uncomfortable. This is the usual “step up” behaviors you see from start to finish from a well socialized dog or a dog who understands how to use “Back Off Signals”. They will only “Step Up” the behavior to the next step if the other dog or person has not retreated from the previous warning that they gave out.
Calming Signals (aka. Appeasement Signals) are what dogs used to either calm themselves in a situation when they are stressed, or to help another dog or person calm down when they are angry/upset. These usually include the slow eye blinks, averting eye contact, lip licking, licking the dog or person to try to calm them down or to tell them they are uncomfortable, low body language, tail lowered, ears back, head turns, body turns, basically anything that would try to defuse the situation.
A dog who is well socialized should be able to perform these behaviors as a natural part of their language to get their point across or to communicate. This is dog language and how they speak to each other. If say, both dogs are well versed in their own language like this, fights can be easily avoided as dogs naturally would rather defuse the situation than fight each other. (Who would want to fight anyways?)
Say a dog who has not gone through the proper socialization skills, or maybe was born with a genetic downfall from either mom or dad that is causing him to be overly cautious, we now have an adult dog that reacts to stimuli. A stimulus is anything that the dog reacts to. Could be People (Adults, gender based, children, etc), items, dogs, noises, or surroundings, etc. In this case, let’s say the dog is dog aggressive.
Before I get into the scenario, I want to explain a little more of what Aggression really is. When a dog has not been socialized, or abused, or what have you, they learn how to cope in ways that are different with each dog. Some don’t learn how to cope, but I will explain that a little more on that in a bit.
There are dogs who when presented with a stimulus that frightens them, they run, they hide, make themselves as small as possible, don’t make a peep. Essentially, they are trying to convey that they are not here and they are not a threat. Now, most dogs and people who recognize this as a fearful reaction, tend to leave this dog alone (usually, however, there are exceptions to every situation). This is on the other end of the “Aggression Spectrum” as I call it. They are too scared to do anything about their situation for fear it will get worse.
However, there are people or dogs who will push these dogs into one of two categories. Either Learned Helplessness (Where a dog has learned that everything that he has tried as failed and has assumed his time is upon him), or outward reactions (as we know Aggression)(where the dog starts communicating to the stimuli a little bit “louder” than how they were previously.) Now, not all dogs start with the fearful run away reaction before they do the outward reactions, as this is different with all dogs. When a dog that had previously tried backing off so much to try to disappear and the other dog still continues to bug them, they will start going up the latter of avoidance signals until they get their point across.
Since dogs learn by association (things that happens to them in occurence of the situation), they learn what’s best for them in order to get the reaction that they are wanting. In this case, the dog wants the other dog to leave them alone. He steps up the ladder with a growl, didn’t work. A Snarl, kinda worked, but the dog is back in a short time. Try the Snarl again, this time didn’t work, Air Snap, he backed off, but is still interested, a warning quick release bite and the dog disappeared.
The dog telling the other dog off just made a mental note at where they had to reach in order to make the other dog leave him alone: a warning quick release bite. The next encounter, the same dog comes back an hour later to try to engage with the scared dog again, but this time, the scared dog skipped the growl and the snarl, as this had no effect, and started with an air snap. The dog didn’t back off as quickly as last time to this, so the dog goes to the warning quick release bite and it gets the dog to go away again for a while. A pattern starts to rise as the scared dog realizes the only way to get the dog to leave him be is to bite him. Now each and every time the other dog comes back, he’s going to skip all those other steps that didn’t work and go straight for the warning bite. At least until that doesn’t work anymore.
Dogs learn what works for them and each one is different. And each encounter can be different as well depending on the dog and the scenario. But if the dog realizes this is the quickest reaction to getting the scary things away (Other dogs) is just to go to the warning bite, most likely, that is what the dog is going to do with every encounter, just to make sure that they make themselves feel safe. A dog looks out for themselves and their survival, if the threat to their lives (Albiet, sometimes is confusing to us as to why that vacuum is life threatening) is present, they will do whatever it takes to up their chances of survival.
With almost every case, Outward Reactions (Aka. Aggression) is all fear based that a dog has started to display in order to convey that they are fearful and want something to stay away. There are some cases where it’s genetic (passed from parents), but luckily, those are far and few in-between. These outward or inward reactions that a dog will display (or lack of), I call them Symptoms. The reason is, all of these reactions/behaviors that are being displayed, are only being displayed because of an underlying condition: the emotion Fear. Take away the cancer, your symptoms disappear.
So how do we go about helping this dog overcome his fear? Well, the first step is to realize what he is feeling. Once we’ve done that, we can start taking notes at what he reacts to. Is it just big dogs? Small dogs? Black Dogs? Brindle dogs? or All Dogs? Now we take a look at the reactions they give us. Is his behaviors (aka symptoms) the same with every dog? Or is it different with each dog? The next step is management. Management is making sure that you don’t put him in the situation if you can help it to help keep him calm (or under threshold). Muzzle training is also a great management tool for in case you have to go into these situations and something might happen. It’s to keep you, your dog, and the other dog/person safe while you are working with the dog. Next is to realize that the reactions your dog is displaying are Normal. Yes, outward reactions (Aggression) is normal. Albiet, embarrassing and scary, but to the dog, this is normal for him to get across what he is saying.
Aversive training, Dominance Training, Corrective Training, Balance Training, etc can all be classified under “Aversive Training”. There are tools that are usually used under these types of training and are usually Shock Collars, Noise Collars, Spray Collars, Choke Chains, Prong Collars, etc. Anything can be an aversion to the dog. It can be anything from a stern look, to a noise, to a sight, to a leash jerk, anything. What we may not find avesive to ourselves, doesn’t mean the dog will feel the same way. Each dog is different.
With this type of training, the main focus is to make the dog comply to you and react the way they should, according to either the way you think the dog needs to be or your trainer. Instead of helping the dog overcome their fears on an emotional level, techniques that are used within this type of training are usually only used to stop the outlying behaviors (ex. Barking, mounting, biting, lunging, snarling, body stiffening, whatever the trainer or owner does not want to see the dog doing.
The problem with using aversives (again, it depends on how the dog responds to them, but generally the end result is all the same) is that like I said earlier, it doesn’t generally help the dog feel any better to the stimulus. Each correction that the handler does, makes the dog feel more and more out of control with itself and need to not do anything, which includes communicating exactly what is making the fearful. Let’s go back to the ladder of step up behaviors.
Say my dog was growling at another dog over a piece of food that fell onto the floor. If I were an Aversive Trainer, I would make a really loud and sharp EH, grab my dog, turn his face towards me to force eye contact with me and tell him “NO” really loudly, maybe a swat on the nose and then remove the object and the dog and put him in his crate. (This is just one example of what some owners and trainers advise to do)
What was is that I just did? I just stopped all communication between these two dogs over the food that was dropped. What would have happened if I let the situation continue? That would depend on the dog and the history and severity of the food aggression that would depend on what I would have normally done.
What did the dog learn in this situation? He either learned that displaying any sort of outward reaction communication around me is not safe or he’s learned that that level of communication is not the right one to get what he needs fast enough (Remember, dogs are opportunistic scavengers by nature) he might skip to a more severe outward reaction in order to ensure that he gets what he wants quicker before my reaction or the dog’s reaction time, thus making the situation worse, or both. If I repeat my reaction over and over again with my dog that I don’t want him reacting that way, he will start to resort to either doing these reactions in private (not around me) or he will learn what’s called Shut Down.
Shut Down is when the dog has learned that all communication is not “ok” to do at all and will learn that it’s better to let something happen to him or avoid the situation at all cost than it is to communicate to the other dog what is bothering him. This is typically what the trainer that teaches students want to work for, however, this isn’t how they explain this type of behavior. They will most likely explain the behavior that they were displaying before as “Acting Out” and that they need to be taught that that behavior is “Not acceptable” and that when they stop all behaviors that seem to be what’s called “Acting Out” disappears, they are deemed “better”, however, this does NOT help what’s actually happening behind the reactions. This is called Suppressing of behaviors.
Once the behaviors are “gone”, usually what’s left is a dog that feels helpless that can’t communicate in fear of being punished (remember, it depends on the dog on what is punishing to them), and some dogs within this group, once they’ve had enough feeling helpless, they start to react again, but harder this time. This is the reason most aversive trainers have a free or cheaper secondary class to followup after the initial class to take care of any problems that has risen since the last class. So, this means that they know that the dog has a high chance at a later reaction and is letting the owners know that they can come back for a “refresher course” to further train the dog.
Now, after this type of training, the way the dog behaves/looks differs from dog to dog. There are dogs that look perfectly fine. There are dogs that look stressed all the time, and there are dogs who look absolutely miserable. Even the dogs who look perfectly fine can still have anxiety lurking beneath the surface and equally can have the chance at reverting when the stimulus is strong enough to elicit the reaction from the dog and it’s usually much more intense.
This type of training has way too much fallout for the desired ending behavior that people look for. Too much riding on “if my dog reverts” and how intense it will be, which the training will have to be much more intense to counter act the new reactions.
There are very little dogs who actually have little to actual no problems after this, that the success rate of the behaviors NEVER returning is too little to call this type of training a reliable way of training. In the beginning, it seems like we are helping our dogs, they aren’t reacting, they seem like they are bettering themselves, but all we are doing with this type of training is suppressing behaviors into what could be a ticking time bomb of a dog. This type of training tells a dog that communicating that they are uncomfortable is not ok and they should never react.
Positive Reinforcement Training
Positive Reinforcement is used to help increase desired behavior, where as the Aversive Training is used to decrease undesirable behavior. Training tools are usually harnesses, clickers, treats, toys, environment, etc
This type of training does not focus on what the dog is displaying so much as to the underlying behavior.
When Positive Reinforcement trainers come across a dog who is displaying any sort of behaviors out of the ordinary, they look at the big picture: What’s happening in the immediate area, what step on the ladder of behaviors are they at, what type of body language are they displaying and what to, what type of management could we implement to help the dog keep safe and what tools can we use to keep the whole party safe, how do we keep the dog under threshold, etc. Is the dog feeling Fear, frustration, overstimulation, improper socialization skills, etc They look at the big picture.
Positive Reinforcement Trainers also understand that dogs can only be one of two things at one time. Either Thinking or Reacting. One part of the brain shuts off while the other remains active. A dog who is reacting will either have a very hard time thinking or cannot think at all. They are too worried about themselves and their safety to think through a situation. A dog who is focused on thinking and focusing on a task that their owner/trainer has implemented to help them through a situation will continue to think instead of react towards the stimulus.
Though to keep in mind, to keep a dog in the thinking state, you must be under threshold, and/or have a high enough reward that the dog wants to work for.
A dog that has been taught a serious of alternative behaviors (sit, down, look away, walk away, focus, etc, anything the owner likes), has a MUCH higher chance of keeping their focus on you or ignoring the stimulus than a dog who was trained with aversive methods, who has alternatively learned that reactions get punishment rather than guidance, has a much harder time either figuring out what to do in the situation, or they just shut down and take whatever might happen next.
A Positive Reinforcement trainer will look at a reaction as an indicator that they are going fast for the dog to handle and thus has to apply management skills to help bring the dog back down below threshold in order to continue to work. They will also know when it’s too much for the dog to continue to be around the stimulus. The trainer’s first and foremost objective is to make the dog feel confident in himself, learn how to cope, learn how to deal with his emotions correctly, and how to communicate correctly to convey what they need in a calm matter, and most of all, to make the dog feel like you are listening to them and that they are safe.
After the trainer starts to implement a course of action with the dog, it takes calculated times and situations to help the dog learn all of these skills at the pace the dog can handle over a course of time. depending on the dog, counter conditioning might take a while, however, the result is a much happier dog that has the coping skills to resolve a matter in the right way instead of reacting right away and have no left over anxiety about the stimulus.
Avoidance Behaviors (aka back off behaviors): These are behaviors that tell another dog/person that they are not comfortable and would like them to back off
Calming Signals: Signals that a dog uses to calm themselves down or to help calm the other dog or person down to defuse the situation
Threshold: This is the breaking point where a dog starts to react. Typically, we would like to see dogs that stay under threshold
Stimulus: Anything the dog reacts to
Aggression: Aka Outward Reactions. These are just louder, clearer messages to other dogs/people that they are uncomfortable
Inward Reactions: Where a dog tries to make themselves smaller and disappear from the presence of the stimulus
Suppression: To get rid of behaviors by adding punishment or aversive techniques to make the behaviors disappear
Counter Conditioning: A training protocol to help the dog understand it’s feelings, to help get over their underlying emotions by changing their emotional response to the stimuli
Imprinting Stage: Aka Fear Stage. A stage where the minds of a dog is like a sponge and takes in anything negative or positive and it sticks with them the rest of their lives. Happens between the ages 5 week-16 weeks, 7 months-11 months, 13 months-24 months typically. This differs dog to dog and how frequent they are. These stages are crucial developmental times.
Brave Stages: Stages where the dog takes what they’ve learned and acts like a normal and confident dog typically. Very bold in trying new things.
Association: Dogs learn by association. When something happens, this occurs. Dogs do not have the closure skills like we do to know -why- something has occurred and why they feel the way they do, they just know that a certain situation, thing, place, stimuli is what caused them discomfort, and that’s all they remember. They also don’t know the correlation between being punished for something in presence of the stimuli (ex. Dog is reacting, apply shock, while dog is looking at the stimuli thinks “Ouch! That think made me feel worse!”)