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Rewarding Aggression?

One of the most common questions I get from clients is their concern that if they feed their dog when the dog is showing an unwanted behavior, they are rewarding that behavior. So, if the dog is barking at another dog, for example. and they get a treat then the barking will increase. It’s an understandable question and the easy answer is no, you aren’t rewarding aggression or reactivity if you feed the dog during the behavior. It’s the difference between behavior and emotions. When you’re doing conditioning exercises you’re addressing the emotions. The behaviors you see (like barking) are just symptoms of the emotional state the dog is experiencing. So, as the emotions change, the behavior will change.

I decided to do a project on this topic. For one month, I am going to mark and feed teeth baring and growling in my dog, Kai. Every time I see him showing his teeth or growling, I will click and feed. And we’ll see what happens! I will post regularly to keep everyone up to date on the experiment.

Kai is a great test subject. He is an 8 year old border collie with a definite diva complex. He growls at my other dogs if they get too close, are having too much fun, are playing too rough.. or just because he hasn’t growled in a while. If he wants to play, it’s all good. But if they initiate anything with him, it’s all teeth and growls. But Kai never hurts them. He isn’t a fighter and he poses no danger to them. It’s just annoying and obnoxious.

After 8 years with Kai, I can completely predict when he will do these behaviors and I know what situations bring out the worst (or best) in him. So, for this experiment it will be pretty easy to manage the situation for control. Additionally, he is a very well clicker trained dog, very responsive to clicking. Yesterday, day one, after I would click and feed for showing his teeth he would immediately jump into offering behaviors and seeing if he could get me to click some more.

So, now that I mentioned yesterday, let me share some of my observations on Day One. First of all, despite the recommendation to all of my clients to log behavior, I am horrible at it. But I made my spreadsheet and committed to logging each behavior display. WHEW! Kai was showing his teeth or growling no less than every five seconds. Logging made me realize just how much he is doing it.

I also realized how tricky it is to mark and reward him as I have to make sure I can see his face (and of course he is sneaky… he is an expert at sly and fast teeth baring). And if I have him positioned to see him, then he can see me and he that much more likely to be in training mode versus just hanging out. But I don’t need to worry about that too much. As the game goes on, that should dissipate.

I also have the issue that the second I click, I have all of my other dogs clamoring around me with drool pooling on the floor. And when they hover near me, Kai seems to turn into a permanent grimace (changing his expression only when I try to take a picture of how crazy he looks).

So, this should be an adventure. Today is Day 2. Yesterday, I saw an interesting thing. After several repetitions of clicking and feeding the naughty face, he changed his vocalizations into a low whine. It’s the same whine I hear when there is a ball he can see but not reach. He will lay there, staring at it and expelling his breath in what sounds almost like a cat trilling. Yesterday he did it five times to the other dogs, every time was after he had a big moment of growling and teeth showing. I have never seen him do that before to another dog. Was he confused? Frustrated? I don’t know. It’s exciting though and I am curious as to what comes next!