In her new book Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog, Emma Parsons presents several groundbreaking concepts in treating canine aggression through clickertraining. One of her remarkable new ideas recognizes the impact of the handler's body language on a dog's aggressive responses. She describes the moment in which she realized her own signs of stress were cueing her Golden Retriever Ben's aggressive display:
"I suspected while working with Ben that he was responding to my body language as much as he was to the sight of another dog. So I conducted a little experiment. I took him out into the yard where there were no other dogs around. We walked, on-leash, as we normally would. Suddenly, as if I had seen another dog approach, I sucked in my breath and tightened the leash. Ben immediately became aggressive; he also moved his head back and forth scanning the perimeters of the yard. He was convinced that there was another dog in the immediate area. My body language and tight leash were his cue to be aggressive, as much or more so than the sight of another dog." Click to Calm, pp 82-83
Emma translated that realization into a practical application for training Ben and the reactive dogs of her clients. She identified four common behaviors that handlers exhibit when faced with an aggressive display: tightening the leash, grabbing the collar, holding the dog's mouth shut, and moving quickly in the opposite direction. Working with the assumption that a handler under stress may not be able to control his or her own body language, she developed a training plan that would turn those inevitable stress signals into cues for calm, alternate behaviors, rather than for aggressive displays. Emma notes "Each may cause a dog to react aggressively. If you have identified other behaviors of your own that may have become signals for your dog to show aggression, the principals remain the same."
Here is Emma Parson's step-by-step recipe for changing one stress cue, a tight leash, to a cue for calm, as excerpted from pages of Click to Calm:
Tightening the Leash:
Once you've worked this recipe with your dog, he will read your leash-tightening reaction as a cue to look at you calmly and await further instructions, rather than a cue to prepare for an aggressive encounter with another dog.
Especially helpful when:
- Your dog meets other dogs. As your dog begins to sniff the other dog, you tense up and the leash goes tight. Follow the steps in this recipe, and instead of exploding, your dog will turn away from the other dog, give you eye contact, and loosen the leash himself. You can now ask for another behavior or simply move on.
How to make it happen:
- Let your dog go to the end of the leash.
- Take a step back.
- Click and feed your dog the moment the leash goes taut.
- Allow the dog to come to you to get the treat.
- Repeat several times.
- Once you've mastered Steps 1 to 5, stay in one spot and pull up on the leash.
- Click and feed your dog for loosening the leash by coming toward you.
- Gradually increase the amount of pressure with which you pull the leash tight.
- Alternate between standing still and taking a step back.
- As you continue to work this behavior, also reinforce any eye contact that occurs. At the sensation of his leash tightening, your dog, anticipating the click and treat, will move closer to you to loosen the leash; looking at you should become a natural part of this process.
- When your dog consistently turns toward you when you pull up tightly on the leash, take your training sessions into a variety of distracting environments. Doing so will build up your confidence as well as your dog's.
Secrets of success:
- Tighten the leash very gradually so that the pressure on your dog's collar is very slight at first; looking at you in response to this slight pressure should earn him a click and a treat. Increase the pressure in tiny increments.
- If at any time your dog seems nervous, stop the exercise and go back to the previous level of success.