ClickerSolutions Training Articles

Karen Pryor on Aggression

It is so nice to be talking to you all again, and I have so much I want to share. Emma Parsons is making that possible by reading the lists and forwarding stuff to me, so I can devote my time to answering what I can, and not to reading everything every night, much as I enjoy doing that. Emma's mentioned to me something about clicking "during aggression" as being purely Pavlovian, I suppose that refers to evoking thoughts of feeding? I have no clue. But here are some current experiences and thoughts that I hope might be helpful in this--to me -- non-issue.

Clicking calming signals

Having just spent nearly a month travelling in Norway, Sweden, and Finland with Turid Rugaas, watching her slides and videos, both of us, incidently, travelling with a grandchild alongside; and having her both teach during and sit in on my four two-day seminars, three in Norway and one in Finland -- I can be very comfortable about saying how I, at least, use the clicker with some of the behavioral events people lump under the topic of aggression.

Before a dog launches into overt displays of barking etc., it almost inevitably does those things Turid calls calming signals. Turning the head aside a little and licking the lips are the two I use most. In the first place, if you watch for those behaviors you will be able to gauge the distance at which your dog feels pressured, way before he or she starts acting up. This tells you at what distance to start reshaping with the clicker.

Second, if you click and treat the calming signals themselves they will increase; and since they are the first line of defense, and open threat/ attack is the last line of defense, increasing these signals tends to replace the more overt behavior. Plus the dog feels better, too.

You can then click to reduce the distance at which the calming signals appear; and you can negatively reward the dog for giving those signals by going away from the object he's fearful of (not backwards: sideways.) Once you get the tolerable distance down to fifty feet or less, you can use the click to reinforce passing by another dog in a big arc (another calming signal), something you will arrange by walking in a big arc yourself -- giving that nasty stranger a wide berth, as it were, but clicking your dog for doing that, with you. These are just a few very straightforward uses of the clicker in emotional conflict situations; there are dozens more.

Replacement repertoire

A lot of "aggression" has been created by accidentally reinforcing it, and by accidentally pushing the dog past the point he can tolerate, and then confirming his fears in various ways until he is really conditioned to feel fear and defend himself (by attacking.) Clicking alternate behavior is far more than Pavlovian. It gives the dog something else to do, even if it's just licking his lips fanatically!

Also when you build a clicked repertoire, in which the dog has many behaviors that are on cue, and that he knows he will be paid for, never 'corrected' for, he becomes much more interested in doing his job with you and those outside fears tend to dissipate by themselves while he gives his attention to this new way of making the world work for him.

A couple of years ago I taught at Terry Ryan's school in Japan for a week or so. I was amazed at how many dogs were dog aggressive, some (the Shiba Inus) not unexpectedly, but some surprised me, a Corgi, a lab, a BC, etc., just pups, most of them. I assumed that it had to do with their reinforcement history, i.e. the Japanese way of responding to the dog encouraged its fears to the point of preemptive strikes; and I still think so. But we worked on bringing the behaviors they knew under good cue control. By the end of the week most of the class had sit, heel, etc. with no latency and 100% reliability. Then for 'graduation' we showed off (without practice) a close-order drill of heel, sit, heel, with those dogs and people in very close quarters, practically stepping on each other. The dogs just did the exciting new work, heads up, and ignored the other dogs completely. No tension, all with happy faces and tails. The new repertoire, and particularly, I think, the well-built, totally positive cues governing the behaviors, replaced all that looking around, fearing trouble, and snapping, barking, rushing at other dogs etc. etc. It just vanished.

So, I think these fear behaviors -- because that's at the root of all the aggression -- rush in when there's a vacuum in the dog's life and understanding anyway. End of sermon.

Recent case histories

In Norway I had some timid and some aggressive dogs as demo animals in every seminar, and just clicked right through it every time, marking those calming signals if necessary. None of these dogs were selected for 'aggression,' I just picked them to demo whatever I needed at the time, targeting, switching a cue from voice to hand, whatever.

Clicker training and developing good cues for calming signals is a fine way to get rid of hysterical barking. Thinking back, I can remember a truly yappy snappy Schnauzer puppy that calmed down, in Trondheim. In Helsinki I used cue-training with an overly barky Lapp herding dog, an eight-year-old bitch; well trained really, the owners had the bark on cue but not the "shut up."

Here's how. You cue for barking, click the bark, then give a different, very obvious, brand-new hand signal in the dog's face. (You don't need to build the behavior of silence, the behavior already exists; what you need to build is a 'cue' for silence.) The dog is startled, licks or averts face; you click that, and in a few back and forths you have bark and no bark on cue and under control. To the dog, it's bark, duck and lick, bark, duck and lick, but do you care? Noooo. Especially since the 'no bark' cue can cause your dog to send calming signals to himself and, by the by, to the dog he's facing, who will see them.

We did have an 'aggression case' we worked on repeatedly, on this trip; but I didn't think of it in those terms! An 18 month old flat coated retriever was afraid of children (for reason, she'd been threatened by some children with sticks in her neighborhood.) She barked at any children, and being a big black scared dog, she looked pretty threatening herself. I worked with her at each seminar, since she belonged to my hosts, Morten and Cecelia, and was traveling with us (and the dog was 100% clicker trained.)

First, using my fist as a target Cecelia clicked her to my fist with me sitting and then standing. (On stage. It's all videotaped.) Then we repeated that using my 10 yr. old granddaughter Gwen's fist as the target. (Gwen was my companion and roommate on the whole trip, what joy! We had a great time.) Well, the first touch to Gwen's fist was VERY hard for the dog, she begged Cecelia not to send her, she pleaded with me to touch my fist instead (so I put my fist right next to Gwen's, poor dog, she was scared!) Then she got braver, and then after numerous clicked sendouts and touches confident enough to express her relief by giving Gwen a big kiss on the face. (Gwen, of course, is a good budding clicker trainer herself and has a giant bounding Lab and a non-stop Jack Russell at home, so she is dog-wise and loves them all.)

In the third seminar a few days later we had Gwen herself click the dog through repeated sits and downs. An hour or two after that we did the fist targeting again, with Turid's eight-year-old granddaughter Irina in the chair, a younger, wigglier, and thus more frightening child.

The dog stood up on its toes and barked at Irina when she walked on stage. Good! This child is a Scary Looking Kid, just what we need for this shaping session! Turid stood behind her darling child, watching like a hawk, of course. Cecelia, beaming and relaxed, sent her dog to the target, Irina's fist. I was clicking and treating the child, with candies, for holding her fist out to be touched, because she was scared of the dog, too, now.

When the dog had been sent out to the child's fist several times the dog then smooched that little girl too, a big lick right across the mouth, and the child laughed. Click and jackpot--extra treats--for dog and for child too. Great time to end the session.

Cecelia told me that afterwards, while I was still lecturing away, the child and the dog were on the floor together outside the auditorium, the dog belly up for child to scratch her chest, and the child scratching vigorously with both hands. ("Oh you're NOT a monster, you're just a nice little person/a nice big dog.") I would hate to try to do this kind of stuff--withOUT the clicker. Let's look at the logistics. It took me and Cecelia about a thirty-second exchange of plans before each clicker session, and four actual clicker sessions of about five to ten minutes each (on stage, on video, 200 people and many dogs present, about three days between sessions) to convey to the dog the information we needed to tell it: "Kids are great. You met some bad kids? Forget it, here's some fun things you can do with kids." How long would that take with gradual exposure, desensitization, and counter-conditioning (feed the dog in the presence of children)...oh, please.

On the website in the first "Letter from Karen" (Thanks, Emma! Emma is in charge of making this happen) I'll put the story of the one truly scary dog I clickertrained in Norway, a young husky mix whose behavior was totally unreadable to me. She slunk, she made no eye contact, but she was in charge, sort of. The way I saw it, she seemed to be saying "I don't like this place. That's cool. I'm okay. You are lunch."). I got a lot of behavior out of her, built cues galore, and even was obliged to use her in a photo session for the local newspapers, but I never touched her. We had a business arrangement, which worked, thank god. Clicker RULES, as my grandchildren put it. Only when I got back to the US did I learn where my confusion and nerves had their source. She was a mix, alright. 50% husky and 50% pure wolf. Yech.

So this whole thing about aggression is beside the point, to me. It's just behavior! And a very loose term. Stop reinforcing it, stop punishing it, and replace it with other behavior.

Karen Pryor
copyright 2000 Karen Pryor


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