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— March 26, 2013 —

Icons, Triggers and Impulse Control —
Keys to understanding your dog’s problem behavior. Part 5.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

Over the past 4 weeks, we’ve discussed a few thoughts on dealing with problem behaviors, specifically leash aggression between dogs. Leash frustration is one of the most common things I get as a training issue.

We started off talking about Sidney, a dog that can socialize with groups of dogs and is considered dog-friendly. When she sees the neighbor’s dog Bella, however, she turns into a lunging, barking, seemingly aggressive dog. How do we reconcile these two seemingly different dogs and more importantly, what can we do about it.

First, obedience training is critical. Good solid obedience training can teach the dog to do what is it instructed to do, instead of what it wants to do. If you will recall, this is the definition of Impulse Control. A major reason for leash aggression is the simple fact that the dog is being restrained by the owner. If the dog is restraining himself by doing obedience, he is much less likely to become frustrated and react badly. Even in the absence of a problem behavior, training is important. With good training earlier in life, many problem behaviors might never surface as a positive side effect of the Impulse Control that the dog learns.

Second, problems need to be dealt with early on, not avoided. One major roadblock in helping Sidney is that Bella’s owner just keeps avoiding the situation. Whenever they see Sidney, they just drag Bella away and never take the time to work with their dog to reduce the reaction. This not only doesn’t help solve the problem, it actually reinforces the bad behavior.

Third, you must be consistent, not only in the immediate problem situation, but in related situations. If you need to work with your dog because he gets overstimulated at the sight of a dog, think about this in other situations where he gets amped up. You should work to reduce your dog’s stimulation level in EVERY situation where he becomes impulsive. For example, if your dog drags you out the door to go for a walk, he is probably overstimulated. For that entire walk the chances of a bad reaction will be higher. Training him to sit quietly before you walk out would be a way to teach him Impulse Control. For the entire walk he will be less likely to respond to the Icons that would normally Trigger bad behavior.

In Sidney’s case, I would approach this by getting both dogs out of their normal environment. That simple change in location would disrupt the normal pattern (Icon) and likely reduce the reaction the dogs have to each other. If they can tolerate being in the same room with each other at Bark Avenue, I would work towards having them interact in a large group of social dogs. (Assuming Bella is also dog friendly.) This may take one session or it may take a number of sessions. Next, I would remove the other dogs from the play group until only Sidney and Bella are left. I would let them interact and become familiar with each other until they were pretty much ambivalent to each other. Finally, after a number of positive meetings in a social group setting, I would work on re-introducing the dogs to each other in their home environment. Bear in mind, it Sidney and Bella have had years to practice this bad behavior. It may take more than a few lessons to get them to un-learn it.

All of this would obviously have a much better chance of success if Bella also goes through some formal training. I have never met her, so I don’t know exactly what level of training she has had. If she can hold a sit or down without being restrained, the entire situation would likely be less intense. I have encouraged Sidney’s owner to invite Bella’s people in for a free consultation. Hopefully they will take me up on it.

The bottom line in all of this is this. By recognizing the Icons that our dogs are reacting to, and changing or eliminating them, we can reduce the chances of a bad behavior being Triggered. With a little forethought and solid obedience training to help with Impulse Control, we can reduce and eventually eliminate certain problem behaviors in our dogs.