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Defensive aggression: the learned part of this behavior can be regulated by training.

PROBLEM

MY 4-YEAR-OLD GRIFFON, of my breeding, is in good health and has not been bred. She is an AKC bench champion and has a max score Natural Ability Prize 1. While leaving a hunting area, we were accosted by three Labs. After the dust settled all seemed well, but her mother had freaked out on the Labs and I was not very composed either. On a subsequent outing the 4-year-old made what I considered a preemptive strike toward a hunter with his dog a great distance away.

This has happened several times since then. I've become very wary, though I usually can stop the behavior with the e-collar. There are no signs of this aggression at dog shows. She gets plenty of exercise while she and my four other griffons and a friend or two are training for utility. When a new dog is introduced at training sessions, she will accept them after a short while but they're met with aggression initially. At chapter training days I must be very careful, as she's unpredictable. She can't be around dogs without going for them whether on lead or on the chain gang.

Lately, people have also become targeted in certain instances. While at the water's edge for the duck search test, after the retrieve to hand she left the heel position and went after a woman who was behind me. Additionally, at the retrieve of drag site, she went after someone else. Thankfully, I was able to get her back by voice before she bit. But once I threw a bumper for her and she spied a person about 150 yards away. She made a beeline toward her and tried to bite, jumping into the air. These same aggressive behaviors occur at home in our fenced-in yard when people pass by.

She is from a litter of five puppies, all of which left by 10 weeks. Her mother displays aggression toward other dogs but not people. No aggression from sire or sibs of which we're aware. No aggression displayed prior to the "three Lab incident."The preemptive attack happened a week or two later.

She usually gets along with all dogs she is familiar with, male or female. There are no issues around eating except early on when she set the ground rules for her mother getting too close. Water is freely available. Weather permitting, I'm out almost every day with them doing some manner of training. I strive for better obedience in the house because when folks come over both typically "accost" visitors.

The four main rooms on the first floor are separated by gates, isolating the dining room and living room from the family room and kitchen. When we have visitors and have the dogs on the other side of the gates, she will growl and bark when people walk by. In addition, on those occasions when she and her mother have access to the foyer and can look out toward the road, she anticipates movement of people, dogs, bicyclists, etc., and barks and growls furiously.

SOLUTION

I THINK WHAT is going on with your dog is an unfortunate series of things that precipitated the aggressiveness. It is defensive aggression, protecting her space. Behavior, including temperament, is inherited. However, behavior is not inherited full-blown, but rather the potential for a certain behavior. It may never show up but is always there waiting.

The wrong circumstance will trigger the behavior, which has been lying dormant. Your dog inherited the potential for aggressiveness from her mother. Being accosted by the three Labs released the latent aggressiveness. Having mother there and you, both going a little ballistic, reinforced the aggressiveness, so she, emulating both mother and you, learned quickly aggression is the way to go.

The next time out she ran into a similar situation and attacked first, asking questions later. This reinforced the aggressive behavior. Every time she does it, she is both self-reinforced and, by getting your attention, is further reinforced. It is a combination of inherited behavior being reinforced by learning, just as many behaviors are.

The learned part of aggressive behavior can be corrected, but the inherited potential cannot. It can't be eliminated, only masked by training. The chances of her reverting to aggressiveness will always be there given the right circumstances, which you can't fully control. Thus, you will always have to remain extra-alert to the possibility.

To train her to self-regulate aggressiveness, you will need to go through a time-consuming and labor-intensive process called desensitization and counter-conditioning. Desensitizing is exposing her to the thing that releases the aggressiveness, first at an intensity so low she barely takes notice, then very gradually increasing the intensity.

A planned exposure would go like this: you walk her on-leash and have a person with a dog stand at a distance so great she sees them but doesn't react. As soon as she acknowledges seeing them, you stop, have her sit, give her a reward (treat or praise) for not reacting aggressively toward the suddenly appearing dog and person. Then turn at right angles and walk off in a large circle.

After a few minutes, return to where you were previously and have the person and dog appear again but a few feet closer. If she doesn't react, reward her again and walk away. The very gradual increase in intensity (getting closer) to the dog and person is the desensitizing part. The reward for not reacting aggressively is the counter-conditioning part.

Getting closer must be so gradual that she doesn't realize the increasing intensity and is more interested in getting the reinforcement for not reacting than getting the reinforcement for charging in and fighting. This is going to require a lot of time and you must not rush things. You will have to keep doing it until you can walk her right past the dog and person and she looks for the treat for not noticing them. Then you will need to stop and chat with the person and have both dogs sitting obediently waiting for a treat for not noticing the other dog.

You will need to use different people with various dogs so she gets used to all of them, not just certain ones. If she ever does react aggressively, even if it is just hair up or ears forward, simply stop, ignore her totally and walk her off in a different direction. Don't reward her or say anything, not even a no. And remember, you are not curing the problem completely, only masking it. Stay alert!

For solutions to your dog's behavior or training problems, contact Ed Bailey at edbailey@uoguelph.ca
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Title Annotation:Training & Behavior Problems
Author:Bailey, Ed
Publication:Gun Dog
Date:Aug 1, 2014
Words:1105
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