I am working with Gus, a German Shepherd who presents with serious aggression problems. The worst problem I think Gus displays is his behavior on the walk. Gus will lash out and try to bite anyone or anything, even if they are quite a distance away.
Gus especially loses control when he sees a person with a dog.
Three weeks into training we are making slow progress in many areas. Gus will tolerate company while he lies quietly on his “spot”. He no longer tries to attack the resident dogs here and even on walks I am able to keep Gus’s attention on me much of the time while we pass mild stressors nearby. Our walks, however, still consist of at least one or two serious meltdowns from Gus.
This is a hard situation since my program relies heavily on the structured walks we do twice daily. I am also aware that each time Gus aggresses we take 10 steps back in our training. My strategy has always been to teach the dogs a new behavior to do when faced with stressors rather than act out. I do this by only exposing them to stressors in a controlled situation and striving to keep them below the threshold of tolerance. Each time Gus focuses on me and receives a treat instead of aggressing he is learning a new behavior. It is crucial for me to try to always keep Gus below his threshold. I do this using treats and if necessary I grab and hold onto his head collar for maximum control and turn his head away from the situation.
The environment doesn’t always cooperate so I won’t be able to prevent every outburst. The key is to be always scanning the environment so you can see a potential stressor before he does and quickly come up with a plan of action. I often take him back the way I came or take another detour to avoid the situation that will cause him enough stress to act out.
In other cases I will push the dog for the sake of his training by exposing him to stressors purposely to help him become accustomed to strangers, bikes, other dogs or whatever the trigger is. In this case, Gus is not ready for me to push him. Rather we must try to control his environment by avoiding the things that cause him a great deal of stress. Don’t get me wrong, it is great to come across a mild stressor where you are able to keep his attention on you or on the treat. This is where progress is going to be made. When he hits his threshold and lashes out, training is obviously no longer therapeutic.
The idea is to keep these dogs under their threshold of tolerance where they and we lose all control. Any training where the dog is tolerating the stressor without acting out is making huge progress. It is important not to undo all this progress by pushing the dog too hard. I must “cushion” Gus’s environment until he is able to tolerate mild stressors without acting out.