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Forget about labels, especially (types of) aggression

"We are over swamped by labels because labels sell, but they only sell if you buy them. Should

you be a positive, ultra-positive, R+, R++, R+P-, balanced, naturalistic, moralistic, conservative,

realistic, progressive, clickerian or authoritarian dog owner? Stop caring about what label you

should bear. When you enjoy a great moment with your dog, the label you bear is irrelevant. A label

is a burden; it restricts you and takes away your freedom. Labels are for insecure people that need

to hide behind an image. Believe in yourself, be the type of dog owner you want to be and you

won’t need labels." - Roger Abrantes

By Gordon Gill

20th Aug 2016

Sounds reasonable doesn't it, but you also hear about all the different ways in which we must alter

our modification technique based on which label we have given the aggression. That's right, you'll

hear trainers who for example won't specifically deny using P+ in an aggresion scenario but they

will say they don't support the use of P+ if the aggression is deemed to be motivated by 'Fear.'

Interesting isn't it? This should have the 'alarm bells' ringing in my opinion.

My first mentor Mr Claude Bertoni recently wrote about this very issue and I will include a link to his blog

below. Let's go back to those basics again; Food-Sex-Survival. Isn't it true that we are all just trying to

survive the best way we know how? Should any organism including domesticated dogs be excluded or

any different? What do you think? In fact, as Mr Bertoni suggests, all aggression has the purpose of

survival and stems from the same place....FEAR of the loss of something. Yes it's true that over the

course of a dog trainers life one might encounter that dog, that one special case in which something far

more sinister is at play, but these are rare, and most trainers are not "lucky" enough to ever encounter

that....thank goodness...(physiological examinations may also be of interest for those cases!)

Lets take predatory behaviour for example. Animals don't enter into such things willy nilly as there

can be a great amount of risk associated with it at times. Sure, they have instincts which to an extent can

influence by way on involuntary initiation, however animals have demonstrated the conscious decision to

back out of a hunt, plenty have also suffered a terrible fate as a result of not doing so, but what's the

alternative? Fear of starvation and a loss of control is a motivator. Aggression is clearly about the fear of

the loss of something. Again, dominant aggression is motivated by the fear of the loss of status and in

turn control, reproductive access etc.. Just as it is exploited with general obedience, animals desire to be

active participants in their own care, this is empowerment, it's controlling ones environment to be

beneficial to their own survival. It's no coincidence that many dogs with behavioural problems are

symptomatic of a 'bigger picture' problem and are usually suffering from a lack of empowerment,

confidence and control. You see, effective dog training is about using our superior intelligence to

make the dog believe that it really is training us! Good training should be a win win kind of




The above quote from Roger Abrantes is brilliant and certainly offers some liberating advice that I

think we all need to remind ourselves of every now and then. I also want to highlight the point that

the quote from Mr Abrantes applies to how we view ourselves as trainers/handlers which was it's

intention. However, I believe we can also apply these same principles to how we look at animal

behaviour and in particular behavioural modification of aggressive tendencies.

We like to define behaviours and label them, resulting in unsubstantiated generalisations. How

many times do we hear 'dominant' thrown around like it's always responsible for the generalised

aggressive behaviour of a particular dog. No other word tends to infuriate dog trainers more....and

we hear it all the time! Yes, dominance can be a contributing impulse to aggression, however

behaviour is a fluid thing. I think It's time to forget about labels, the reality is actually pretty simple

and although evolution is constant and our technology advanced, the basic foundation

remains, life on earth, all organisms = Food-Sex-Survival.  












So then, what are we saying when we label all the different types of aggression?  

So, is it high time that dog trainers started to obtain some more clarity in relation to dealing with

issues of aggression? Are some trainers over complicating things or misguided in their approach?

I'm certain that most have the best intentions, and that many will still have lots of success from

varied approaches. I'm also certain that good trainers will allow the individual dog to dictate which

methods they apply. Problem is, I'm just not certain that the pathways some 'Purely Positive / Force Free'

trainers take are necessarily more in line with the principles of L.I.M.A or Least Intrusive, Minimally

Aversive?  For instance, the methodologies employed by these trainers use no P+ whatsoever, rely on

Counter Conditioning and Systematic Desentisation only and can take a very long time to obtain

manageable lifestyle outcome...and yet still they can never guarantee no further problems and must

assume all dogs as potentially dangerous. Whereas another trainer might employ the same techniques but

also introduce minimal compulsion, helping the dog to understand where the advantage lies, resulting in a

manageable result far sooner and allowing for more constructive lifestyle compatible rehabilitation to

occur sooner....and yet, we end up at the same place where we can't guarantee no problems in the future

and must assume all dogs as potentially dangerous.

So, we have established that in the end we end up at the same location, one of the treatment plans

added some P+ in conjunction with some foundation learning whilst the counter conditioning and

systematic desensitisation took place, the other method used no compulsion. However, the method which

did employ minimal compulsion (P+) implemented some options for new learning, a new coping

mechanism, empowering the dog with a new tool allowing the true and lifestyle compatible rehabilitation

process to occur far sooner than the alternative. I have witnessed now examples where I would argue that

the former example was far more inline with the principles of L.I.M.A than the method which did not use

any compulsion. Why? Because time itself is a variable worthy of consideration and the total overall value

of stress incurred by the animal and handler.

There is an unsubstantiated belief that the implementation of the P+ will create further aggression

problems and a false sense of security from inhibiting behaviour. In other words, the belief that the dog

won't display warnings signs due to the possibility of a correction (P+) and is therefor likely to bite with no

warning. It is my belief that YES, this is without a doubt a possibility, However I would suggest many of

the problems are not a direct result of using P+ alone but more so the result of not empowering the

animal through prior learning first and not paying enough attention to the environment, distance

thresholds and reward. In other words, a failure to provide the right stage for new learning, which

has nothing to do with the use of compulsion alone. Of course there is potential to create further

frustration and potentially dangerous inhibition if the trainer does not have a proper understanding

of the forces at play, including the intesities of any element.

The rehabilitation process takes time, commitment and followup. Sometimes I believe that critics of the

former method fail to appreciate that although it appears to create faster results, the reality is that it's just

speeding up the time before the more lifestyle compatible and constructive rehabilitation can begin.

Regardless, all dogs need to be assumed as 'dangerous' on a continous basis no matter what. Any trainer

that GUARANTEES to 'FIX" behaviour outright is kidding themselves. How can you make a guarantee like

that when we are talking about a living, breathing animal with fluid behaviour?

Claude Bertoni sums up some of his aggressive related behaviour modification beautifully in his

blog by saying "In my training sessions I have found great success when training for abstinence,

for example to make the dog realise that exhibiting aggressive behavioural traits will not be a way

to retain control in that environment, but rather will make the dog lose control. The more the old

behaviour is displayed the less control the dog has in changing the environmental impact. The

more the dog relinquishes the old behaviour, the faster the dog retains control. Minimal compulsion

is used in this scenario."

To finish up, I'm going to clarify that I am not saying that when it comes to aggression related

behavioural modification there is one right way or one wrong way. Most of the time the application of

aversives have far more potential for fallout and so should be considered by professionals only. I believe

that what makes a good trainer is the ability to select the right method for the right particular dog in

question. What I will say though is that I do firmly believe that your behaviour modification techniques

need to address the initial impulse constructively and unfortunately I've seen some examples of trainers

seeking to avoid it completely as part of their modification, 100% avoidance will never help anyone.

"The dog will tell you what to do." - Boyd Hooper.

See Mr Claude Bertoni's (k9iQ) "Let's talk about aggression shall we" blog HERE





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Forget About Labels



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Gordon Gill

Dog Behaviour Specialist

Nationally Accredited Dog Trainer





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