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Do You Need to Provoke Aggression to Change Behavior?

I know it looks really impressive on television, but provoking a dog into exhibiting aggressive behavior and then "correcting" it is not behavior modification. It's behavior suppression.

I once spoke to someone who had worked with another trainer for help with their small dog's stranger-directed aggression. The trainer entered the home, sat down, and began giving the dog treats. Not a bad way to make friends.

After a few minutes, the dog was no longer showing signs of anxiety and became much more relaxed, even friendly. Great, right? Um, not exactly.

Instead of taking that valuable information that the owner could use to improve introductions to visitors, the trainer then tried to provoke the dog into biting him. When he wasn't able to do so (more great information about the dog), he suggested to the owner that he take the dog for the day to see if he could get the aggressive behavior.

Can you guess what happened next?

Yep. He took the dog out and provoked it into biting someone (no injury, just a torn pant leg), then returned the dog to the owner with the helpful note that the dog bites without warning.

To summarize, this person charged money (and wanted a lot more) to provoke a dog into biting and the dog was put in a position that strengthens the association that strangers are bad. And there were countless missed opportunities to reinforce more desirable behaviors.

Contrary to what far too many people believe, the way to change behavior isn't to react after the dog growls, snaps, or bites.

Dogs bite for a variety of reasons, but the most common is because they perceive the person - or what the person is doing - as a threat.

When attempts to avoid or escape that threat aren't effective, instinct says, "Hey, you know what might work?" With each repetition, the dog's learning history proves that biting is more effective than avoidance, so why waste time?

"Correcting" aggressive behavior by using some sort of aversive (remember, it doesn't have to cause pain to be aversive) fails on two counts:

First, it's way too late. The dog has already practiced the aggression. Aggression is very effective at getting people to STOP...even if only temporarily. Just as the "corrections" we humans apply are effective at suppressing behavior...temporarily. In both cases, the person or dog applying the aversive - be it a leash correction or a bite - is reinforced. It feels like it works every time we do it.

But that brings us to the other problem: it doesn't make the dog feel better about similar situations in the future. Dogs don't say, "Wow, you're absolutely right. I didn't realize that strangers were so awesome. Thank you for pinning me to the ground so that I could see things more clearly. I realize now that I LOVE PEOPLE...maybe even as much as Oprah loves bread!"

So, what are you supposed to do?

1. Manage the environment to prevent aggression. 2. Decrease stress. 3. Increase tolerance. 4. Teach and reinforce the behaviors you want to see instead.

What that looks like depends on the dog, the environment, and the context in which the aggressive behavior occurs.


Serenity Canine Behavior Ⓒ2022 Lisa Mullinax. All rights reserved.

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