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Why didn't Buddy's School Lessons help him?

Updated: Feb 7

Part 3B - What did Buddy really learn from the lessons he was given in Part 3A - Buddy Goes to School?

thinking man

As I stated in Part 3A - my intention with these posts, and with this blog, is NOT to criticize, shame, or otherwise embarrass those who were involved in Buddy’s past. The methods they used are methods that most people think should help resolve aggression. However, unless a person has done extensive study and research into dog behavior, or unless they have gone to a Board Certified Animal Behaviorist, they may not be aware that the methods the average person might think would help, would actually cause the aggression to escalate. What most people don't think about is the fact that we are humans and dogs are canines - we are completely different species with completely different ways of communicating and thinking. We were not born knowing how to effectively communicate with other species, we have to take measures to learn. We can't apply methods that will work on us to canines and expect the same results.

My intention IS to bring awareness to the issue of dog aggression, some of its causes, and to educate on how to proceed if one finds themself in a situation where their dog becomes aggressive, using Buddy's story as an illustration.

Discussing the methods the people in Buddy's past used, and analyzing why those methods didn't work but instead caused the aggression to escalate, is an important part of explaining how the canine mind functions and why the proper methods do work, so it is an important part of the education process.

What I will do in this blog post is to copy the text from Part 3A - Buddy goes to School, which describes the methods that were used on Buddy by his previous owners, right into this post in RED type, and then in BLACK type, I will explain why these methods didn't work and what Buddy was actually being taught when these methods were used on him. I will then discuss methods that could be used instead, or that I actually did use, to deal with the behaviors Buddy was displaying, which would have better results; these will be in BLUE type.

It is important to note, there is no 'one size fits all' solution to aggression. It all depends on why the dog is being aggressive. In Buddy's case it is primarily fear and anxiety. If you are dealing with an aggressive dog, the root cause for your dog's aggression may be something different. This is why it is critical to go to a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist so they (the expert who is well trained in dog behavior) can evaluate your dog, determine why they are being aggressive, and prescribe the proper methods for you to use to ensure the best chance of success.

Item #1: Buddy's 4-week training class

I don’t know all the details of Buddy’s schooling, other than the few things I was told. I did ask the trainer involved repeatedly for his training records, but that information was never provided to me. What I was told is that Buddy was in a 4-week training class while he was with Owner #2; typically those classes are basic obedience so I can only guess this is the type of class Buddy was in. Whether or not he was in the class with other dogs, or was the only dog in the class, I do not know.

OK, in this situation, we don't know what the details of Buddy's 4-week training class were. So I will discuss a couple of possible scenarios, just to give you an idea. As I said above, my best guess is that this was a basic obedience class. Like I said in the last post, obedience training is a useful tool, and it often teaches the owner as much as it teaches the dog. Unfortunately, it is not the type of training Buddy needed to overcome his fears and the resulting aggression. Why? Because obedience does nothing to address the underlying cause of Buddy's aggression which is fear and anxiety.

For Scenario #1 - If Buddy was in a class with other dogs and their owners, this would actually cause him more anxiety since he is not used to being around people and most likely not used to interacting with other dogs. Forcing him into this situation where he has to be in a room full of people and other dogs would only cause him to be extremely fearful of anything around him, escalating his anxiety and the resulting aggression.

For Scenario #2 - If Buddy was the only dog in the class, the only thing the class would accomplish is to possibly teach him some basic obedience commands such as sit, down, stay, etc. That is, IF Buddy was comfortable with the place the class was being taught, the people teaching him, AND IF ONLY positive, reward based, training methods and positive training tools were used. If there were any negative methods or tools (such as yelling, hitting, leash popping, prong, choke, or shock collars, etc.), this would be a source of fear and anxiety and would have a detrimental effect on Buddy's ability to effectively learn these basic obedience skills, and would also result in escalating his fear, anxiety, and aggression.

While it can be used as a tool in the rehabilitation process, obedience training on its own will do nothing to help Buddy overcome his fear, anxiety, or aggression. What Buddy needed was to be desensitized to the things causing him to be fearful in a very gradual fashion taking cues from Buddy to determine the speed at which to progress. Only positive, reward based training should be used. He also needed to be taught alternate ways of coping with his fears. While obedience exercises could be incorporated into the desensitization exercises, obedience training will not resolve fear, anxiety or aggression.

Item #2: Toy Aggression (also called being Toy Possessive, Toy Guarding, Resource Guarding)

I asked both the trainer and Owner #2 how they handled Buddy’s toy aggression and what type of training they did to help him overcome it. I was told by both the trainer and Owner #2 they would take the toys away and “take ownership” of the toys to make Buddy understand that he owns nothing, and that they, as the dominant pack leader, owned and controlled everything. They also said when they would give Buddy a toy they would soon take it away to teach him he has to be ok with people taking his toys from him. There was no process, or trade, or reward offered for Buddy to relinquish the toy, they would just take it away and they thought he should be ok with that.

What the trainer and Owner #2 are describing here is fear based training based on dominance theory. Fear based because by taking all the toys away they are causing Buddy to fear the permanent loss of all his toys - they left him with nothing (he doesn't understand that it may be temporary, to him it seems permanent - dogs live in the moment). Dominance based because they are doing this to assert their dominance over Buddy, they outright said this. They told him this and all their body language and the odors they were putting off (yes, dogs can smell your "mood" - your body produces different pheromones based on what you are thinking and feeling [also called "your energy"] and dogs can smell it so they know your basic "mood"). In this case, the trainer and Owner #2 are intending to dominate and Buddy could smell it because they were putting out the energy and odors that told Buddy this. This had to have confused and terrified Buddy, escalating his fear and anxiety, and his aggression as a result.

While you may be able to "get away" with this with a dog who does not have behavioral issues (it still is a bad way of going about things and doesn't teach them what you really want to teach), all you will accomplish with a fearful dog is to cement in their mind that they are right to be fearful because you are doing exactly what they are afraid you will do. So if the dog is possessive of their toy it is because they are afraid of the toy being taken away, and you take the toy away, so you have proven to the dog that their fear was justified.

Lets think for a minute about Buddy's life before Owner #2. He lived for approximately the first 6 years of his life in a 4' x 8' kennel in a 30' x 40' outbuilding being exposed minimally to only one person and most likely never interacting with any other dogs for his entire life. He was isolated while waiting to be bought. 6 years of this! Did he have toys? I don't know, but I would tend to doubt it, and if he did there probably weren't many and those toys would have been ALL he had for company. If he didn't have any toys, he did now because Owner #2 said they showered him with toys, and according to Owner #2, those toys were a "great comfort" to Buddy. So he is now being 'told' that he can't have the possibly one thing that brought him any kind of comfort during his time of isolation, or the new thing he got to have after being freed of his isolation which was bringing him comfort. Either way, of course he wouldn't want to relinquish the toys, it was probably the only friend he ever had. Buddy has no way of understanding why his beloved toys, his source of comfort, are being taken away from him.

When Buddy wasn't ok with that, they thought continuing to take the toy away would cause him to get used to it and then to eventually be ok with it.

This is a technique called "flooding". Flooding is just what is sounds like - flooding the dog with something they are not comfortable with and expecting them to eventually become comfortable with it as a result of continued exposure. Again, while you may be able to "get away" with this with a dog that has no behavioral issues (again, you are not teaching what you are intending to teach, and while the dog will most likely comply, you are unintentionally damaging your relationship with the dog), it will not work with a fearful dog. Continuing to take the toys away without any trade or reward being offered to the dog will only continue to cement in their mind the need to be possessive of the toy, continue to increase their level of anxiety, and escalate their aggression.

Both explained that when they did these exercises Buddy would act possessive of the toy and snap or otherwise act aggressively toward them, and they also stated they knew that was how he was going to react.

This is a very critical mistake and it is very important to discuss. BOTH the trainer and Owner #2 said they KNEW Buddy was going to react aggressively, they knew he would snap at them when they took the toys away - BUT THEY DID IT ANYWAY! This is the definition of setting Buddy up for failure.

It is NEVER ok to do something you KNOW will cause the dog to act aggressively - NEVER!!! You absolutely, positively, without any exception want to AVOID anything that will cause the dog to become aggressive.

One thing that is important to understand is that EVERY TIME a dog reaches their threshold and acts aggressively, they LEARN to use aggression as a solution. This is because the aggression is usually successful - whoever they are aggressive to backs down to avoid being bitten, or retreats after being bitten, so it teaches them that aggression is the answer because it gets them the result they are after - the thing causing them fear backs off. (This is not to say that you shouldn't back away if a dog is being aggressive. Every situation is different, so the correct response to an aggressive dog will vary based on the reason for the aggression - this is why it is important to get the professionals involved). In addition, aggression as a solution starts to become "muscle memory", so when the dog is in a situation that makes them uncomfortable, aggression starts to become a reflex reaction to stressful situations. Please see my blog post "The Experience Bank" for a detailed discussion on this.

They both told me that because of this, the solution was to take all toys away from Buddy because he had to learn that they were the dominant pack member and they controlled Buddy’s toys. Buddy had to learn his place.

Again, more dominance theory; it just doesn't work. In fact, if you read the book I recommend below, you will learn that studies show dog packs in the wild do not behave this way.

Let me explain something else. This is a very basic thing, but it is something many people do not think about and possibly don't realize. The ability to effectively handle a dog has a great deal to do with the relationship you develop with the dog and trust. When a dog trusts you, he/she will be more willing to do what you are asking of them because they know they can rely on you to keep them safe and that no harm will come to them, and possibly some very good things will happen as a result of doing what you are telling them to do. When the dog has a wealth of good and happy experiences with you, a trusting relationship and close bond forms. When you do things that break that trust, the relationship can start to diminish. If you make mistakes once in a while, the relationship can weather the storm without you even knowing the dog was bothered by your errors. However, if you frequently or continually subject the dog to pain, suffering, or other negative training methods such as requiring a scared dog to submit to you, the dog is not going to trust you and will fear you; your relationship will suffer, you will not get good results, and the dog will not be happy. Taking all Buddy's toys away in no way solved his toy possessive issue, it only made it worse. And on top of that, it reduced any trust Buddy may have had in those who took his toys from him.

So how do you solve this issue with Toy Aggression (Toy Possessive, Resource Guarding, etc.)? I will tell you what I did and why it worked very well with Buddy.

First, because Buddy was now biting anytime a toy was in his possession (he actually lunged at me from across the room and attacked me when he had a plush toy; all I did was look at him, I had no intention of taking the toy or going near him for that matter), I had no choice but to start my exercises with him having no toys. I then divided the toys into different categories of "value". For example, for Buddy, a cardboard toilet paper roll is a low value toy, a rope tug toy is a medium value toy, a ball is a high value toy, and a plush toy as well as chews (such as pork chomps) are very high value toys/items. The plan was to start with low value toys and gradually work our way up to the very high value plush toys.

Starting with a simple cardboard toilet paper roll, I sat on the floor with Buddy's breakfast kibble allotment and taught him 2 commands - "take" and "release". I held out the toilet paper roll and said "take", once he put his mouth on it I said "good boy" so he would know he did what I wanted him to do and I continued to hold onto it (you can't let go or you won't be able to get it back; as long as your hand is still touching it, he won't see it as his yet), then I held up a piece of kibble (which he loves, you have to use something the dog loves or else this won't work, because the item you trade for the toy has to be of a higher value to the dog than the toy is; pieces of hot dog are a good alternative) and I said "release". When he released the toilet paper roll I gave him the kibble. When he took the kibble I said "good boy". After he finished the kibble, I held up the toilet paper roll and said "take", when he took it, I said "good boy" and held up the kibble and said "release". When he released the TP roll, I gave him the kibble. I did this over and over again until he understood the "game". I continued until we had done enough repetitions (probably about 20) and after he finished the last piece of kibble I held up the TP roll and said "take", after he took it I said "good boy" and let him keep the TP roll. He played with it for a while and then tore it up. When he wasn't in the room I cleaned up the pieces so he couldn't see me do it (so I wouldn't get attacked) and any remaining large pieces I placed in a basket I keep on top of his crate for later use. I repeated this exercise several times a day, every day, for weeks. Eventually he learned that when he gives up the TP roll, something good happens, he gets food, something even better than the TP roll! And THEN he gets the TP roll BACK! What could be better?!! When he gives up the toy something wonderful happens, he gets FOOD, and then he gets the toy back! He learned good things happen when he gives up this toy. That is why this technique works. The other side effect of this training method is that he learned that when he sees my hand go near him it is to GIVE him something, not take something away, so this also helps to desensitize him to the fear of losing his toy when he sees my hand going near him. It helps to reduce the chance he will feel the need to bite my hand when my hand is near him, which is a problem I needed to solve with him.

In addition, I was building trust with him, letting him know he can trust me when I take something from him. We spent several weeks on this exercise with just the toilet paper rolls. After about a month I was able to leave the partially chewed up TP rolls on the floor for him to play with at will without fear of him attacking me over them. I still couldn't take them from him without trading food for them, but it takes ALOT of time and practice to be able to get to that point.

The next step was to get him used to seeing me pick up the cardboard scraps. I didn't start doing this for several weeks just to be safe. When I would gather up the scraps I would put them in my open hand and then offer them to him. I let him pick out any pieces he wanted and when he was done, I threw out the remaining scraps. This way he knows he has a choice and I won't take his toy or toy piece away unless he is ok with it. Again, I was building trust with him.

Once we mastered the toilet paper roll, we moved up to the rope tug toy. Again repeating the exercise over, and over, and over. I always started with the TP roll for a few repetitions before introducing the rope toy just to get him started on the right track. After doing many repetitions and seeing him "get the game", I ended with giving him the rope toy and let him play with it for a while. When it was time for him to give it up, I would distract him with something in the other room and when he wasn't looking I'd pick it up and put it in the basket I keep on top of his crate.

We did the same thing with the ball, which he still really hasn't figured out how to play with as he was actually afraid of it at first. But we started in the same way as before, with a few repetitions with the TP roll, then the rope toy, before moving on to the ball.

At the writing of this blog post I have been working with Buddy for 11 months and now the TP rolls, rope toys, and ball are left in a basket on the floor for him to take at will. Surprisingly, he is most interested in the TP rolls. I still don't try to take the toys from him when they are in his mouth (I may be able to but I have never tried - I see no reason to at this point), but I can pick them up when they are near him without him reacting. At this point, I still haven't moved up to the plush toys due to all the other, more urgent, things I am working on with him. Eventually I will get to desensitizing him to the plush toys, but since he does have toys to play with that he enjoys, it is not urgent. As for the chews, I do give him chews to enjoy, I simply have him sit or do another simple command, hand him the chew, and let him go into his crate or wherever he wants to go to enjoy it, and I leave him alone until he has finished it. If he does not finish it I simply pick it up when he can't see me doing it and put it away until the next time it is appropriate to give it to him. As with the plush toys, I will eventually get to working on desensitizing him to the chews once I get all the other priorities accomplished with him.

December 2022 Update: Buddy now has been desensitized to all toys, including plush toys. He no longer is guarding these toys and can now have his basket of toys on the floor where he can take them whenever he wants. He plays with me with the toys and does not fear that they will be taken from him because he has learned that good things happen when we play together. This is the result of lots of time and patience in using reward based methods to ensure Buddy learned that he does not need to guard these items and fear they will be taken from him. Does this mean he will never have a guarding reaction again, no it does not. As with everything else, I will need to continue to reinforce this with Buddy throughout his life to ensure he continues to know that he does not need to fear having his toys taken from him.

Item #3: Aggression toward People

I asked how they handled situations where Buddy showed aggression to people. I was told they would make him “submit”. They explained this was an important thing Buddy needed to do as he needed to understand that he was not the alpha of the pack, they were, and Buddy had to learn to submit to them. A situation was described to me where Buddy had gotten aggressive toward someone. Buddy was in a room with one person and all was calm. A second person entered the room. I am told the second person either startled or somehow scared Buddy and Buddy reacted aggressively and attacked the second person. Both people involved told me that Buddy was clearly acting out of fear. They got the trainer who took Buddy’s leash and, as the trainer described it, had a 10 minute “standoff” with Buddy. He said “it took that long to get him to submit". Buddy had stopped attacking (the attack was very short lived), but the trainer required Buddy to submit to him as well. By submit, the trainer is wanting Buddy to fully relax (be fully comfortable with the situation) and take a submissive stance (a roll over is one such stance and there are others), submitting to the trainers dominant position recognizing the trainer as the alpha in the situation.

This is a classic example of people watching a TV show and mimicking what they see being done on it, but not really having an understanding of what they are doing. This is a very dangerous thing to do. I think it is important for people to be realistic about their limitations. If you have not done extensive research in, or have not been professionally trained in, dog behavior (not dog training, dog behavior - they are two different things), you are not going to fully understand what is actually going on in those TV shows. There is alot that is not explained, and there are alot of subtle things going on that you will not be able to pick up on. A TV show is primarily for entertainment, and also, I hate to say this, to sell ad space. A TV show is presented in a limited amount of time, so there is no way they can fully explain all the details of why the dog is behaving as they are, how they know this, and when the methods they are using are actually appropriate to use. I also have to state that there are TV shows, and "celebrity dog trainers", that display methods that are never appropriate to use, such as aversive methods and aversive tools, but that is a subject discussed in a different blog post (Please see "Rehab 6 - The Experience Bank"). This is why they display a warning at the beginning of each show stating that the actions in the show are being performed by professionally trained individuals and that you should not use these methods without the guidance of a trained and qualified professional.

So why did this "stand off" not work with Buddy? The answer is pretty simple. As those who were in the room when Buddy lashed out said, Buddy was acting purely out of fear. In order to stop Buddy from reacting the trainer stood over him and had a "stand off" with him. Lets think about this. Imagine you are deathly afraid of someone, do you think that if they stood over you, stared you in the eyes, and demanded you submit to them that this would help you to stop feeling that fear? Heck no, it would only make you more afraid of them. So how could we expect Buddy to calm down when this was being done to him? Of course he wouldn't calm down and this action would only increase his fear and do nothing to resolve the root cause of the aggression, which is his fear. Buddy would eventually stop reacting, but the problem would not be solved. Buddy would still be fearful of all the people involved with the only difference being that now he will be even more fearful so the next time he will react sooner and more intensely. This "stand off" only served to intensify the problem. And this explains why Buddy's aggression had continued to increase from the time he was bought from the breeder until the time I started working with him. Each time he was mishandled the level of damage was increased.

So what would be an appropriate action to take with Buddy when he is acting aggressively? The first thing to remember is that we have to know why Buddy is acting aggressively. In Buddy's case I have seen him act aggressively for two reasons. One reason is fear. The other reason is called "conflict induced aggression", which means I am doing something he disagrees with - in the case I will describe below, I believe fear was at the root of why there was a conflict. So if Buddy is acting aggressively out of fear, the first thing I need to do is to respond in a way that will not reinforce or add to his fear, but instead will help to reduce or eliminate his fear so that I can get him to stop reacting. If Buddy is acting aggressively as the result of a conflict, I have to eliminate the conflict to stop the attack. In both cases, after the attack is over and Buddy has calmed down, I have to devise a method of desensitizing Buddy to whatever has caused him to react aggressively so that he can learn to be comfortable with whatever caused him to react. [If you are dealing with an aggressive dog their aggression may be for a different reason so you will need to have a Veterinary Behaviorist advise you on what to do for your situation.]

The worst incidence of aggression I have witnessed with Buddy was conflict induced, but as I said above, I believe fear was the reason for the conflict. This happened early on in Buddy's rehabilitation. Buddy and I were in the back yard and Buddy thought he should have something I was trying to pick up (so this was a possessive issue and just like with the toys, I believe he feared something was being taken away that he felt he needed but would never get back). He attacked and bit me (this bite required medical attention). Unfortunately, I did not have Buddy on leash at the time so I had no way of physically controlling him so the safest thing I could do was to calmly back off and away from the thing he was attacking me over and tell him "no" and work to calm him down. It took a minute, but he eventually stopped attacking and calmed down. I then calmly walked to the house and went inside, he followed. I calmly put him in his crate and latched the door. I did not scold him or yell at him or react at all as that would serve no purpose but to introduce fear which is something that also causes Buddy to react. I remained calm, and this is very important because if I were to react in any way, Buddy would follow suit. I left him in the crate while I went to another room and cleaned myself up, and I called the behaviorist. The behaviorist told me my response to the situation was the best thing I could have done for the situation. I was advised to keep Buddy on leash at all times to allow me to have a way of controlling him if he became aggressive in the future.

Buddy stayed in the crate for the night. I left him in the crate for several reasons. First, the crate is one of his safe places, he feels safe and secure in the crate and it was important to let him calm down there. Secondly, it allowed me to be safe.

In the months that followed, I continued to work with him on desensitizing him to the objects that he was possessive of. I kept the leash on him at all times for 6 months after this and I still leash him whenever I do any type of training or desensitization exercises with him to ensure safety (depending on what I am desensitizing him to I sometimes put the muzzle on him). Any time Buddy seems agitated I put the leash on him and just let him drag it around with him just in case he gets to the point that I need to use it to control him. He has become accustomed to dragging it around and it has proven to be very helpful as I continue to desensitize him to the many things that cause him to react.

I am happy to report that now, 11 months into his rehabilitation, he and I can be in the yard and we can be side-by-side handling the same thing, such as strawberries or blueberries from the berry patch (he loves to pick and eat them, and they are good for him), without him reacting at all. In fact, because he now has a wealth of positive experiences when my hand is involved, he now understands that when he sees my hand, he GETS wonderful things. So the very few times I need to take something away, it is not an issue because he knows something good will follow.

In Summary

To summarize, and answer the question posed at the beginning of this blog post, "What did Buddy really learn from the lessons he was given in Part 3A - Buddy Goes to School?". What Buddy learned was that he needed to fear the trainer and Owner #2 for several reasons.

First, he learned he needed to fear losing his toys forever and being left without this very valuable source of comfort. The trainer and Owner #2 proved this to him time and time again by continuing to take all his toys from him shortly after giving them to him and then leaving him with nothing.

The second thing he learned was that he needed to fear the trainer and Owner #2 in general because whenever he was communicating that he was not comfortable with something and communicating in a way that he thought they wanted (by attacking since somewhere along the way he had been corrected when he gave warning signs), they would have a standoff with him and expect him to submit and this terrified Buddy.

So in a nutshell, what Buddy learned was that he couldn't trust the trainer and Owner #2 and that he had to fear them and was not safe, so he felt the need to attack to save his life. Not at all what the trainer or Owner #2 intended, but that was the result of the training methods they used. Buddy was in this situation for 7 months. It is no wonder that after 11 months of me working intensively with him that we are just scratching the surface of his recovery. It will take several years before I will be able to comfortably walk him in public, or be able to leave him with someone else or board him if I need to be away (he is absolutely terrified of people), that is IF we can EVER get to that point.

Dominance and Fear based training methods do not yield the desired results. Positive, reward based training is the only reliable way to rehabilitate (or "reprogram") a fearful aggressive dog (or any dog for that matter).

Read Part 4 – Buddy Becomes and Orphan

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A Valuable Resource

If you are interested in learning more about dog behavior, here is a link to an excellent book written by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. I highly recommend everyone who has a dog, or is thinking about getting a dog, read this book. You will be glad you did.

picture of book "Decoding Your Dog"

Note and disclaimer: All information in the blog posts on this site is my opinion based on my own experience rehabilitating an aggressive dog. I am not a professional behaviorist or otherwise involved in the Veterinary profession. If you are dealing with an aggressive dog, I recommend you seek the advice of a Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorist.