Dominance aggression in dogs:
Part 2

The rational treatment of canine dominance aggression can include the use of passive and active behavior modification and pharmacologic agents that help reduce underlying anxiety.

Last month, I focused on passive behavior modification; this month, I discuss active behavior modification techniques as well as pharmacologic intervention. Keep in mind that the earlier intervention occurs, the shorter the course of drug therapy if it is needed. Also, medication alone will not resolve canine aggression or most other behavior problems but instead facilitates behavior modification by making dogs less anxious and better able to learn new, appropriate behaviors.

The same behavior modification program that helps treat dominantly aggressive dogs can be used as a preventive. In this case, it acts as a humane rule structure that allows dogs to learn what we want them to do-a shift from programs based only on correction and telling them what we don't want. The result is a happier, calmer, more polite dog and an owner who is safe and in a rewarding relationship with his or her pet.

Dr. Karen Overall

Using active behavior modification to treat dominance aggression in dogs

Once a dominantly aggressive dog has learned to defer to its owners, it's ready for the next step-desensitization and counterconditioning.

KAREN L. OVERALL, MA, VMD, PhD, Dipl. ACVB {short description of image}
Department of Clinical Studies
School of Veterinary Medicine
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6010

DOMINANCE AGGRESSION is one of the most commonly diagnosed aggressions in dogs and a big reason owners relinquish their pets.',' Part 1 of this symposium discussed how to avoid provoking dogs in potentially dangerous situations and how to manage dominance aggression with passive behavior modification that teaches dogs to defer to their owners. Active behavior modification, which includes desensitization and counterconditioning, builds on the foundation of passive behavior modification. If owners can't establish deference behavior in their dogs, they'll probably be unsuccessful with desensitization and counterconditioning. If owners have difficulty getting their dogs to relax or perform the exercises described below, drug therapy may be a useful adjunct to behavior modification (see the next article).

The techniques listed in the client handout on page 1045 for treating dominance aggression with active behavior modification are used at the Behavior Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania's Veterinary Hospital. These techniques are based on several behavior modification plans designed to address a patient's problems with control.' Basically, owners break down the actions that make a dog aggressive into components and repeatedly expose the dog to these components in a nonthreatening manner (desensitization), rewarding the dog with food treats when it remains relaxed (counterconditioning). The goal is to get the dog to remain relaxed whatever the situation and to let owners pet or handle the dog without its becoming aggressive.

Considerations when getting started

Several things must be kept in mind when you begin working with owners of dominantly aggressive dogs.

Emphasize that behavior modification isn't obedience training

From the outset, owners must understand that behavior modification exercises are not fancy obedience exercises. Obedience training, while sharing many similarities with behavior modification, differs in its premise, interactive reward structure, goal, and outcome. Although sitting is part of obedience training, the goal of behavior modification programs isn't just to have the dog sit but to have it relax and be receptive to changing its behavior. For a dog to sit successfully in a class or show, it doesn't have to be relaxed. That isn't true of behavior modification. Dogs that are stressed or anxious can't successfully learn a more appropriate behavior, and they certainly can't associate that behavior with pleasant situations. Moreover, if owners perceive that all we are doing is trying to teach the dog what it has already learned in obedience class, they will not see a strong need to comply.

Teach owners how to reward and correct their pets

Appropriate timing of rewards and corrections may be the owners' biggest problem. Dogs read body language far better than most people do. It's easy for them to subvert the exercise and shape an owner's behavior; problem dogs have been doing this already. A veterinarian can spot problems with the timing of praise or rewards and can instruct owners when to change their posture or tone. This can be done in a quick 15-minute appointment, or an owner can send a videotape of the practice session. A critique can then follow by telephone or an in-office visit. If no improvement is seen, the owner may be pushing the dog too hard or too fast, giving confusing signals (vocal or nonvocal), or having a timing problem with the praise or reward.

Decide who should conduct the first session

Ideally, the practitioner should conduct the first training session. That way, you can simultaneously teach the dog the appropriate behaviors and demonstrate to the owner the desired result. Videotaping the session for later review can help. When the dog works well with you, have the owner try. The owner must be able to accomplish the suggested modification, so it's inappropriate to simply send an owner home with instructions. And if there is the potential for dangerous behavior, owners shouldn't discover this when no one is around to help. A run-through of the behavior modification techniques will minimize though not eliminate this chance.

In the case of a fearful or aggressive dog, the practitioner may be unable to safely demonstrate the exercises or fit a halter during the first visit. In such cases, after fully cautioning an owner about possible risks, ask if the owner feels comfortable attempting the first round of the behavior modification protocols (see the client handout) while you talk him or her through it. For liability reasons, it is important to explain that this is not the desired technique, but if the owner cannot eventually work with the dog or if the owner is perpetually afraid of the dog, the situation will be hopeless.

Avoid hand signals

Finally, make sure your clients don't use hand signals. These dogs should work in calm, quiet circumstances, without distraction, for vocal cues and consistent rewards. Hand signals at this stage will only distract their attention from the behavior modification process. And in worstcase scenarios, dogs can perceive hand signals as threats.


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