I’ve been reluctant to write about this, as problems with the dog invariably reflect on the owner. However, there’s nothing quite like watching a pit bull snap up a yorkie terrier and shake it like a dead rabbit to put things in perspective.* More on this later.
Zu developed some serious behavior issues when he turned six months old. Before then, he was docile, sweet, and undersized. Well, some genes must have flipped on, because he nearly tripled in size and turned into a snarling menace nearly overnight. You’ve seen the tiny dogs with the Napoleon complexes in the park, the ones lunging and straining at the end of the leash? Just like that, only he was nearly a hundred pounds. We don’t know what caused his aggression, or why it triggered when it did, but for a couple of months he was a very dangerous dog.
Brown and I tried to break him out of this using positive reinforcement training, which had absolutely no effect. Briefly, positive reinforcement for aggressive dogs is not designed to reinforce aggression but reinforces behaviors that are separate from aggression. You’ve seen clicker training, I assume? It’s a form of operant conditioning where the trainer holds a “clicker” or some other device that makes a loud, sudden noise, and after the dog performs a desired behavior it hears this noise and receives a reward. The dog becomes conditioned to associate that noise with desired behavior, which makes it easier to communicate with your dog when new behaviors are introduced. Another form of positive reinforcement is to shift the dog’s attention from an undesirable target (e.g.: another dog) to its owner, who then holds the dog’s attention until the dog has calmed. Treats and praise are given freely to help the dog internalize these outcomes.
Zu was having none of that crap. No form of positive reinforcement had a lasting effect. After sitting through the initiation meeting for the Carolina Dog Training Club and realizing that Zu might do some real damage in a class session, I got the names of some names of trainers who have a more hard-line approach to larger aggressive dogs. I ended up calling Julie Atchison at Everyday Dogs, who does competition training with Belgian Malinois. I’m not entirely sure what a Belgian Malinois is, but I think it’s the canine equivalent of those 40-foot sharks in Deep Blue Sea which only ate smaller 16-foot sharks, as her dogs look capable of eating German Shepards for snacks.
Julie diagnosed – and basically fixed – Zu in the first meeting. We sat down in her living room and she watched Zu pace in front of the window, watching the street. He would growl and bark when her dogs made noise from the kitchen. He farted, a lot. These, she said, were signs of a dog with serious fear anxiety. She said the best way to make progress was to break through the fear, then help him develop sufficient self-confidence to overcome his anxiety.
So she added some negative reinforcement to the training. Negative reinforcement is itself not a form of training: negative reinforcement breaks the dog out of the unwanted behavior, much like clicker training, but instead of associating the clicker with desired behavior and working towards a reward, the dog associates correction with unwanted outcomes and works to avoid these. Simply, corrections reduce unwanted behaviors so the dog can learn desired behaviors.
Enter the prong collar. You’ve seen them. You’ve made your assumptions about the type of dogs that wear them. But I’ll be damned if they don’t work. When the dog begins an unwanted behavior — oh, say, lunging and barking at some poor dude minding his own business — you snap the leash in a fast pop! and then correct the dog while he’s wondering what the heck happened to his neck.
By the end of that first class, Zu was able to spend time in the same room as another dog without acting like a furry psychopath, and we’ve been making progress ever since. At first, I felt like a sadist every time I put the prong collar on Zu until I saw that he was happier with the collar on; it’s his security blanket. He sees the collar come out and he snuggles right up to me, butt wagging. The collar means out and happytime and it tells him (sometimes with firm hugs) that he shouldn’t be afraid. I’m not going to pretend that corrections don’t cause him pain, though, so let’s each of us deal with that in our own way: I’m dealing with it by enjoying the company of a dog who now loves to go for walks and is much less likely to scare my neighbors.
I do feel like a complete jerk whenever I have to correct him. There’s this place near our house called Lucky’s Pet Resort, and sometimes when I’ve got a hard deadline I’ll drop Zu off over there in the mornings. When Zu’s behavior problems were bad, they were very bad… he would snarl and back and generally act like something out of a horror film while I dragged him off to a corner and apologized again and again to anyone who would listen. Now he’s generally calm, although he does give the occasional growl, which then earns him a correction. Last week, he decided he didn’t like one particular lady, and growled at her once (moderate correction, *yipe!*), twice! (hard correction, *yipe!*), three times! (another hard correction, *yipe!!!*), then finally lay down beside me, quiet. There’s nothing like knowing that people who work with or love dogs are judging you for abusing yours; I felt like I needed to bring in a letter from my trainer.
Which takes us back to the poor yorkie terrier in the park. Zu is currently enrolled in an advanced dog training class with five other dogs; six if you count Julie’s enormous unneutered Belgian Malinois, and most people would probably count that dog first and then notice the others after their peripheral vision had returned. We are at the point in the class where the dogs are doing more off-leash work. So far Zu has been great in the classes, but Julie has threatened to “shake things up” next week to push the dogs out of their comfort zone. I’ve been taking Zu over to the park and making him follow commands in different stressful environments (surrounded by ducks, surrounded by dogs, surrounded by joggers, etc.). The park has two dog-friendly areas: there’s the one where all of the dogs go to socialize, and there’s the one where the dogs go to run around and chase thrown objects. The socialization park is always full, while the thrown object park is usually empty. I was doing some off-leash work with Zu in the empty park when I heard a dog fight in the other section, and turned to see the pit bull maul the bejesus out of the yorkie.
Zu was a hundred feet away when this happened, and he ran back and snuggled up to my leg. He looked up at me and said in Dog, “That was some f***ed up s**t right there.”
And I agreed, and I petted him until he forgot about it, and we found a ball and threw it around for a while, and then we went home.
* The owners rushed it off to the vet’s, so I have no idea what happened to the yorkie. Nothing good, I’m assuming. It couldn’t stand up.