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dorisq

Aggressive Behavior

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Hello,

I'm brand new to the border collie boards. My name is Doris and I have a 1 1/2 year old male border collie. With the immediate family he is a wonderful and affectionate dog. With anyone other than the family, he's very aggressive and he's bitten three people. Not a vicious bite, but kind of a bite that let's them know he's the dog in charge. Is there any way I can train him to stop biting people? We have very few visitors unless we know ahead of time and we can restrict CJ to one room. He was crated as a puppy but if we lock him in the crate when we have company, he just barks and goes crazy. Any suggestions would be welcome. Thank you.

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My suggestion is to contact a trainer or behaviorist who is experienced in dealing with aggression using non-confrontational, non-coercive means. Look for practitioners who use methods like "desensitization" and "counterconditioning"; avoid those who emphasize "dominance" and advocate physical punishment or corrections.

 

My preference would be for an accredited behaviorist. There are a great many excellent trainers out there who are nevertheless not very skilled with aggression problems. Be wary of some trainers who set themselves up as "specialists" in aggression problems. Their methods are often ineffective at best, and downright dangerous at worst.

 

Do not allow your dog access to strangers. Do not allow him to mix with visitors to your home. Put him in a back room and lock the door if you have to so no one bungles in there. Do not crate him in the same room as the visitors, who obviously distress him. You must protect people from your dog, and you must protect your dog from himself. If he has already bitten three people, there are many areas in the country where he would already have been declared a dangerous dog and possibly destroyed. Most of the places I know of have "two strikes" rules. I am guessing you have been lucky so far and the people your dog has gotten have not been in the mind to prosecute.

 

No one can give you advice to solve this problem over the Internet. You need one-on-one help. You need to determine what motivates your dog if you are to have any hope of fixing him, because different kinds of aggression require different methods of treatment. I would not be so sure your dog is trying to show anyone who is "boss." Fear-based aggression is far more common than dominance-based aggression; what is more, dominance aggression is most often directed at family members, while the strangers-only pattern is more common if a dog is acting out because he is afraid.

 

One of my dogs is fear-aggressive, but he has come a very, very long way with the help of an excellent behaviorist, fantastic trainers, and opportunities for outlets such as herding and agility. When I first got him, numerous people told me I should put him down. A couple of weekends ago, he achieved a qualifying score in his first run in his first agility trial ever. He'll probably never be "cured" completely, but he is entirely manageable, can be introduced to most strangers safely in familiar, relaxed surroundings, has excellent quality of life, and is my soulmate dog. It took a long time to get him to where he is, though.

 

There is an excellent behaviorist in Philadelphia who may be able to help you. If that is too far for you, you can consult the Animal Behavior Society website for a list of behaviorists, or email me and I'll try to get a recommendation for you. In the meantime, you may be interested in reading materials by Jean Donaldson and Patricia McConnell.

 

And please, shelter your dog in the meantime and protect the people around you. Good luck.

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Melanie

I have been meaning to suggest to Eileen and Heather that we use a sticky system for some important recurring threads. Your reply is an excellent example of my reason for thinking that this is a good idea. Really, your reply is so thorough and thoughtful that I don't think you should have to type it again and again but at the same time it should always be available to people who visit the board with this topic in mind.

 

That's not to say that there aren't some additional points to be made: for example I think that for folks who cannot afford a good behaviorist or who do not have one in their area that more conventional help is worth exploring. Also, there are behaviorists and then there are "pretend behaviorists" who are no more capable of dealing with this dog than you or I.

 

But, that's the beauty of a thread. It's an outstanding way to get all the points of view out there. Pet dog aggression is such a serious problem that I think the more information the better.

 

I'm wondereing if other board folks would be interested in using this topic to take a shot at builing a "sticky thread." Also, I would really appreciate knowing if this is a possiblity from the board admins' perspective.

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I have been meaning to suggest to Eileen and Heather that we use a sticky system for some important recurring threads. Your reply is an excellent example of my reason for thinking that this is a good idea. Really, your reply is so thorough and thoughtful that I don't think you should have to type it again and again but at the same time it should always be available to people who visit the board with this topic in mind.

 

Well, thank you! -- that's why I try to reply to all the aggression threads. I'm not an expert on aggression at all -- not even close, not in a million years, but I do have a dog with aggression problems and I have chosen to work with him and had some success.

 

That's not to say that there aren't some additional points to be made: for example I think that for folks who cannot afford a good behaviorist or who do not have one in their area that more conventional help is worth exploring. Also, there are behaviorists and then there are "pretend behaviorists" who are no more capable of dealing with this dog than you or I.

 

Absolutely, which is why I think it is very important to seek a behaviorist with credentials, credentials that will stand up to a background check, rather than just going to anyone who hung up a shingle and painted "behaviorist" on it.

 

I'm not sure what you mean by "conventional" help, unless you're referring to trainers. In my experience, there are very few trainers out there who are qualified to deal with aggression, and this is why: most of the excellent dog trainers are involved in training dogs for competition in one venue or another. Many excellent dog trainers spend most of their time working with individual dogs who have the potential to excel in competition venues. This population of dogs rarely overlaps with that population of dogs possessing serious behavior problems. In addition, most of the really great competition trainers I know would wash aggressive dogs out of the training program if they did come across them. For these reasons, many of the best trainers out there are really not qualified to handle aggression problems. They don't encounter them, and when they do, they choose not to work with them. (This is not an indictment; they are well within their rights not to work with aggressive dogs. There are only so many hours in a day.)

 

This is not to say there aren't some great trainers out there who handle aggression cases, but that they are relatively rare and that an owner has to be very careful when seeking them. Some of the trainers I've heard of who "specialize" in aggression use extremely outmoded and frankly hazardous methods. A lot of them run a kind of factory-training system where dogs go through a set "program" and are supposed to come out at the other end not aggressive anymore. Because dogs are individuals, I don't think this is appropriate. I also think it's unrealistic to believe that a dog with serious problems can be "cured" of them, which is what many of these sorts of trainers advertise. Solo is charming, happy, and manageable, but he'll probably never enjoy cocktail parties. He can learn to be more normal, but there are always going to be certain situations he can handle and certain situations he can't.

 

The reason that I think dealing with aggression is primarily the province of behaviorists and a select few trainers is that these professionals work with dogs who in years past would either have been handled purely by management only, or who would have been put down. Everyone here probably knows of a dog who showed teeth at one point or another but outgrew or was easily disabused of that "foolishness" -- I'm not talking about those dogs -- I'm talking about dogs with real problems. For better or for worse, more owners these days choose to work with these kinds of dogs rather than killing them. Since this is a relatively new area, in that there weren't enough of such owners in the past for these dogs to really be part of the training landscape, I don't think that many "conventional" methods of dealing with dog behavior really address these dogs.

 

To the original poster, if I can be of any more help, please feel free to email me directly or to post here. I can get recommendations for good behaviorists or trainers who are skilled in dealing with aggression in your area if you give me a few days.

 

-- Melanie, Solo the Red, and Flygirl

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Unfortunately in many areas of the country (not southern PA, northern MD which is God's country as far as I'm concerned)the options are very limited if you rule out trainers. And as my recent experience has reminded me, the stakes for the dog (and of course the humans involved with the dog) are very high indeed.

 

This dog might just need some good management and training. I have been amazed at the aggressiveness of smart, strong (notice I am not saying "working" Inci)dogs who are unintentionally but strongly reinforced for aggression arising out of protectiveness, curiosity, dominance, territoriality etc. Once the dog is reinforced properly its aggression can disappear so completely that you find yourself wondering if it was ever there. Melanie, I do think that fear aggression is truly the province of behaviorists.

 

My primary reason for bringing this up is that people are increasingly being encouraged to euthanize dogs that behave aggressively. While I don't disagree that dangerous dogs should be euthanized, I also hope that people who cannot get help from a behaviorist will seek a trainers help before they decide to put the dog down.

 

You may recall that I stopped breeding Jack Russells in part because I was overwhelmed by the task of supporting my puppy buyers needs with regards to preventing aggression in their terriers. Right now, one of my puppies (she's three now) is in quarantine. She was left tied in a home office while the adult humans in the household were gone. A group of children came in and started to "play" with her and one child ended up being bitten by my pup... Now,it is not unlikely that the owner will have her destroyed in order to protect himself from liability. It's a long sad story and one that is far from ending. I hope it will end the way I want it to, but I am not particularly optimistic.

 

At any rate, I'm thinking that my pup is a good example of a dog that could have been helped by some common sense advice from a regular dog trainer or even by me if the dadgum owner had thought to pick up a phone now and then. :mad:

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My primary reason for bringing this up is that people are increasingly being encouraged to euthanize dogs that behave aggressively. While I don't disagree that dangerous dogs should be euthanized, I also hope that people who cannot get help from a behaviorist will seek a trainers help before they decide to put the dog down.

 

I agree, with a caveat. This is why it's impossible to give a blanket recommendation and why a dog really needs to be evaluated in person. I don't know how to tell the "unintentionally taught to be aggressive but aren't really" dogs from the "have real aggression problems" dogs from an Internet description. I think that sometimes it is more dangerous to take a dog to a trainer to get help than to put the dog down. It may be that the trainer who is convenient will be totally overfaced. It may be that the trainer is either unwilling to admit this or cannot see it. It may be that the trainer treats a dog with real problems like a normal dog who is "just misbehaving" and insitutes a training program that does nothing at all to get to the root of the problem with the dog but happens to cover it up a little. Then you end up with one of those stories like, "We got him obedience training and everything, but then one day withoutanywarningnoprovocationatall he bit my kid, so we took him to the shelter."

 

I think that bad help is worse than no help at all. If an owner is truly unable or unwilling to get qualified help for a dog -- particularly a dog that has already bitten, particularly if they were bad bites -- then it is best both for the dog and for everyone around them that the dog be put down. A dog who has bitten has the potential to be dangerous and must be treated as such. If he cannot be rehabilitated, often he is relegated to a life of isolation and that is simply not fair to a social animal. There are quality of life issues for the dog as well as safety issues for the humans around him.

 

The best case scenario is that if an owner seeks help for aggression from a regular trainer, and the trainer is outmatched, s/he is willing to admit this and refer the dog to someone else. That is a scenario I am comfortable with. I think it's the scenario you're thinking of.

 

If you hang out on any agility lists you'll read description upon description of stupid training techniques that posters have seen -- techniques that are both ineffective and counterproductive. Not all trainers are created equal. Since there are so many trainers who cannot even teach a dog to walk across a teeter, I can also imagine that there are many trainers who are of less than no help in dealing with aggression. So, I cannot agree that any trainer is better than nothing.

 

In Solo's case (and I do keep bringing him up because obviously this is the case with which I am most familiar), I think it would actually be inhumane to have subjected him to conventional training techniques rather than going the route that we have. He has a pathology, not a training problem (he's actually extraordinarily obedient and well-behaved). When he is reactive, it is because he is truly distressed. What we have done is lessened his distress, which increases his quality of life and makes everyone a lot happier to be around him. We happen to have excellent trainers as well as a fantastic behaviorist, so he's had the best of all worlds. We are very lucky that way.

 

I think behaviorists are expensive, but so are many dog trainers. It's much more economical to pay money for a therapy that works than for one that doesn't. Many behaviorists are willing to work remotely with a local trainer if the distance is a problem. This is a good option for someone who has a good trainer who is game to try and help the dog but who does not have experience with aggressive dogs. I think most people have access to a behaviorist if they are willing to take a long drive. It sounds like a lot, but it really isn't. I've driven farther than most people would have to drive to go to a sheepdog trial. I happen to be lucky because I have very local access to a good behaviorist, but she has patients who have come from Canada to see her, and they are not sorry either.

 

The way I look at it, if an owner really wants to work on a problem like this, s/he has to really, really commit to it. That might require spending a little more money or driving a little farther than s/he might ideally want to. It is possible and a happy occurrence when it turns out that a problem really isn't that serious and can be fixed easily with the help of a regular trainer, but I think most aggression problems, especially if people are actually getting bitten, are not like that.

 

-- Melanie, Solo the Red, and Superfly

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Again, I agree with you in principle, but have been quite surprised at my own difficulty when such situations arise in the real world.

 

First, it seems that no one really agrees on terms. How would you define aggression of the kind and degree that calls for a behaviorist? This isn't a rhetorical question. What do you think of this very common happenstance: a dog who snaps at a child when the child approaches him while he is chewing a bone?

 

To me that is aggressive behavior, but not behaviorist worthy. Breeders (and not just terrier breeders, I think) are often presented with this issue.

 

BTW I do understand your reluctance to advise folks on a message board. Consevative responses like yours are good here for the most part although I do think this board is resource for some folks who live in fairly out of the way places.

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What do you think of this very common happenstance: a dog who snaps at a child when the child approaches him while he is chewing a bone?

 

To me that is aggressive behavior, but not behaviorist worthy. Breeders (and not just terrier breeders, I think) are often presented with this issue.

 

I agree.

 

I am not sure where to draw the line, and I imagine it will also vary according to breed or other factors. To me there is "normal" aggression, and there is "abnormal" aggression. Aggression, normally ritualized, is part of the normal canine behavioral repertoire. To use the resource guarding example, it is not at all weird for a dog to guard resources, and it is generally an easily fixable problem with consistent handling and training. However, it is weird if the resource guarding problem becomes severe. If the dog guards EVERYTHING he can come into possession of (objects, places, food), shows a high degree of aggression in his guarding behavior, etc. that is something I might consider abnormal aggression.

 

I am sure there is a more precise definition out there, but this is mine. Problem aggressions are both inappropriate and out of context. I think defensive aggression is a normal aggression for dogs (if a dog is being beaten, for example, I am not surprised or upset if he bites). However, fear aggression occurs when a dog reads threats that aren't there and feels cornered even if he really isn't. Such a dog is not playing by normal rules and can't be effectively trained by them.

 

Does that make any sense?

 

-- Melanie, Solo the Red, and The Fly

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It makes a lot of sense. Despite some of the qualifications I have argued for, I think your first reply was absolutely right on for the dog in question.

 

dorisq,

I am sorry to say that you and your dog could be in very serious trouble if you don't follow Melanie's sound advice. Honestly, I am surprised that you aren't already in serious trouble if he has bitten 3 times.

 

For a dog who has bitten a household visitor, crating when company comes is not optional. Get a strong crate that he cannot chew his way out of and put him as far away from the center of action as possible. Probably, he should be crated in these circumstances for the rest of his life regardless of the success you might have with a behaviorist.

 

This could be a matter of survival for your dog. If a complaint was filed against you, given his record of aggression it is highly likely that the authorities would insist that you euthanize him. And they would be right in doing so. Finally, the motivator that speaks to virtually everyone: you and your family could be ruined financially as a result of a suit brought against you by a biting victim.

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Melanie: If you are willing to do so, would you mind providing me with the name of your trainer and behaviorist? My brother's dog (seems to me) to be headed for trouble and I'd like to provide him with a referral. Thanks!

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Thank you so much to everyone for their input and advice. I have contacted several trainers but most of them, sadly, use corrections and negative punishment to train the dog. I have been working with CJ and he's very smart and obedient for me. I do think, however, that Melanie is correct and his biting is a result of fear rather than aggression. He can be very skittish sometimes. When he has to stay at the vet for any length of time, the vet will give him a mild tranquilizer and muzzle him if necessary and that seems to keep him calmer. Does anyone have any advice on muzzling a dog? He doesn't seem to be in any discomfort when he has the muzzle on at the vet's office.

Once again, thank you so much for all your input. I certainly have a great deal of imformation to think about.

Doris

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If you decide to go the muzzle route (hopefully just as a protective measure while you work with your dog to resolve the problem), use a basket-type muzzle like you see racing greyhounds wearing. These muzzles will prevent the dog from biting, but will allow it to open its mouth to pant, drink water, etc. Your vet probably uses a type of muzzle that holds the dog's mouth completely closed--fine for the limied amount of time the dog must wear it in a climate-controlled environment, but potentially disastrous for a dog doing any activity.

 

Just be aware that there may be legal ramifications in that the law may see you as "admitting" you have a dangerous dog by the very act of your using a muzzle. I am not a lawyer--just making a reasonable assumption/observation.

 

That said, I do think a muzzle can be useful, as long as it's not used as the permanent solution to the problem.

 

J.

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Scooter (Alpha Male) is the only "agressive" one in our bunch and what works with him is to have him sit down and receive a proper introduction to strangers when they visit our house. This has always worked well for anyone who has not been smoking "something illegal" and then there's just no dealing with him, he goes crazy and I have to put him outside for the duration of the visit, maybe Scooter was a DEA dog in a previous life?

Perry, Scooter, Boomer & Bear

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Melanie's advice is excellent. If you have not found a trainer that you like, allow Melanie to give you the name of hers. Maybe that person can recommend someone.

 

My question would be, what were these folks doing when they were bit? And what were you doing?

 

I will tell you my example of a dog that I helped. Am I professional trainer NO. About 6 months ago, an acquaintance, who also has acds, was at her wits end. She took in an acd from its breeder. The breeder kept this dog because they thought the dog would be a show dog. When the dog was a couple months old, the breeder decided it was not show quality and left this dog in kennel, outside, with no companionship of dog or person. This dog only received human contact when being fed and given water.

 

My friend took this dog in not realizing it was VERY aggressive. It started biting folks in her home. One minute the dog was fine, the next bam, it would try and bite. It would go for the neck.

 

Well I finally went out there to meet this vicous dog to see if there was anything I could do. Before I went, I found out some things about the dog. The dog would window chase moving vehicles (ie: go ballistic at the window). They put this dog on a leash and tied it up in front of people, they allowed people to try and pet the dog.

 

I told her that before I arrived I wanted the dog in its crate. Window chasing got the dog wound up--DUH. So before I got to her house, I called her and said put the dog away. When I got to her house, she met me outside with her other dog. I had my acd with me. We all went inside and we talked for a few minutes. I went and got a handful of treats. I told her to go let the other dog out of the crate. I sat in a chair. I told her to say nothing to her dog. When the dog came out of the crate, he came up to me. I did not look at him and handed him a treat. Everytime he came near me, I gave him a treat and that was it. Did not look at him or talk to him. I slowly started looking at him and treating him. Then talking and treating. Finally slowly I was able to pet him from underneath (not over the top) and treated him. Within 2 hours, him and I were playing and having a great time. There was more involved but that would make this lengthy post even longer.

 

I would suggest NOT trying this without talking to a trainer first but I wanted to give you an idea that it can be worked on in a positive way. You and your visitors may be making things worse by what you are doing.

 

My friend has since, started this routine with anyone that comes to visit, and after 3 months strangers can come and go in that house. My friend still introduces the dog properly and there has not been a bit in 6 months.

 

Moral of my story--GET SOME HELP FROM A PROFESSIONAL...muzzlng your dog is not the answer. When people come in your house, your dog should be locked in a crate instead of let to roam around until you find someone to help figure out what type of aggression your dogs has and what to do to correct it.

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When he has to stay at the vet for any length of time, the vet will give him a mild tranquilizer and muzzle him if necessary and that seems to keep him calmer. Does anyone have any advice on muzzling a dog?

 

Well, of course he's calmer -- he's sedated!

 

There are medications that can be useful in behavior modification for fear aggressive dogs -- my fear aggressive dog is on medication. But they are not tranquilizers. There can be issues with using sedatives for fear-aggressive dogs. Benzodiazepines like Valium or Xanax have their uses in behavior modification (separation anxiety or storm phobia). They have an anti-anxiety effect but they also remove inhibition, including bite inhibition -- so one must be extremely careful giving these drugs. Some dogs become less likely to bite because they feel calm and relaxed, but others just lose their inhibitions and become more likely to bite.

 

Fear aggressive dogs may (note, I said may) benefit from anti-anxiety medications like and including amytriptyline (Elavil), fluoxetine (Prozac), or Clomicalm (I can't remember the generic name of this one). Yeah yeah, I know, everyone makes jokes about dogs on Prozac. But the fact of the matter is that although such medications may be overprescribed, some dogs, just like some people, benefit greatly from these drugs. Some behavioral problems have an organic cause. My dog, Solo, has all the classic symptoms of deficient serotonin levels in his brain, which the medications help correct (thus proving that his problems ARE rooted in his brain chemistry -- otherwise, they'd do nothing for him). By the way, deficiency in brain serotonin levels is hereditary. We all know that there are certain lines, families, or breeds of dogs who tend to have iffy temperaments. It's possible to breed strains of serotonin-deficient mice, who are both more anxious and more aggressive than normal mice. There was a recent report, I believe, in Scienceabout this. But I digress.

 

Some of these drugs are contraindicated for dominance aggression, so it's extremely important not to go the meds route until a dog has been evaluated by a competent veterinary behaviorist who will then prescribe a medication IF one is warranted.

 

Anyway, when I first started working with my dog, I also considered using a muzzle and decided not to, and this is why. I'm guessing that there are currently situations you can trust your dog in, and situations that you can't. For example, he is probably comfortable with family members and with maybe a very select few people outside the family. With everyone else, he is nervous and upset. When you are starting behavior modification, it is very important to work in "doses" that your dog can handle without getting upset. He should not be put into situations where he may panic and grab someone. So, he should not be in situations where he should have to be muzzled. As time goes on and your dog gets better at dealing with strangers, there may be some use for a muzzle mainly because the people around him may be more relaxed if he has one on. But, I have never found a use for the muzzle I bought. I prefer to work with my dog on a lead, wearing a head halter (Gentle Leader), which allows me to control his head if I have to. I also think Julie brings up a good point. Putting a muzzle on your dog is like putting a placard on him reading "I AM VICIOUS" and people will treat him like he is. And that can't help. Far better to just shelter him from situations he doesn't do well in, until he can.

 

Behavior modification is all about exposing a dog to a level of a problem stimulus that he can deal with without having the negative reaction you're trying to fix. You habituate him at this low level (desensitization) and try to change his negative association to something positive (counterconditioning). For my dog, who is afraid mostly of men, at the beginning this meant doing things like taking him for walks and just handing him a treat whenever we walked by a guy. No fuss, no muss, just handed him a treat, didn't make him stop and go up to the guy or anything. So, Solo stopped looking nervous every time we were about to walk by a guy. Eventually I started introducing him to some of my male friends, and treating him every time my friend appeared, got up, sat down, left the room, etc. (all times when Solo was likely to be nervous because the guy was changing position). And so on. It's best if you can find people who will be the way Kim described in her last post -- totally non-threatening.

 

Now Solo knows the "do you want to say hi?" cue, whereupon he walks up to the nearest guy, gives him a little tail wag, and looks to me for his treat with a look on his face like, "Look at me, how'd I do Mom?" Once he is able to look at a guy like the arm of a slot machine, it's a fairly short leap to actually getting him to like the guy. This is how I got Solo to love my brother, who used to scare the crap out of him. The first time Solo met Mike, he charged him and growled at him. Now, he snuggles on the couch with Mike and asks for belly rubs.

 

Mind you, I've been working with Solo for over two years, and he's still far from perfect. But he does progress every day. It is possible to work with dogs like this. A good behaviorist will be able to take you through a program like the one Solo and I are on. It's been worth every last minute I've put into it. Solo is an amazing dog, and teaches me more every day.

 

-- Melanie, Solo the Red, and Superfly

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