Confessions of a Cross-Over Trainer – Part Two

Continuing on with Part Two… (click here to read Part One)

What we saw in the following two years was a severe escalation of Odin’s behaviour.  We returned to R.H. for further instruction during that time and also kept in email contact.  R.H. was less than enthusiastic about us persisting in contacting him. He eventually told us that his insurance didn’t cover aggressive dogs and that we should buy William Koehler’s “The Koehler Method of Dog Training” and to follow it step-by-step, and to buy Cesar Milan’s DVD on aggressive dogs. In case you don’t know who Koehler is, he was a trainer in the middle part of last century advocating ‘training methods’ such as holding a dog’s head underwater, taping a dogs mouth shut, throwing a heavy length of chain to hit the dog, hanging a dog from a choke chain until it stops struggling, and hitting a dog across the face with a wooden stick.

Each of my dogs reacted very differently to the use of such an aversive tool.  Odin escalated the reactive behaviours. He was on edge all the time, unable to relax if there was a hint of activity anywhere in the neighbourhood. His reaction to seeing or hearing people and dogs escalated exponentially.  Jen walked him at 5:30 in the morning and never during peak hours of activity in the streets.  I believe that there is one reason that he never bit anyone in the time that we had him: he was muzzled before he ever set foot out the door, kept on leash at all times, and we practiced vigilant avoidance of anything alive. R.H.’s solution to Odin’s escalating barking/lunging: increase the level of shock and press the button to deliver continuous shocks until he stopped barking and/or returned to us. Through this, Odin became explosively reactive – he was big, about 90lbs. No mean feat to keep hold of him.

Arlo’s reaction to the collar was very different. As I mentioned in the last post, the shock caused him to express all sorts of stress and appeasement behaviours.  His wide eyes, taut lips, pulled back ears, low body posture and stiff movements was described to me as submission or subordinance. Whereas Odin’s arousal increased and he became more agitated, Arlo dealt with it by shutting down.  Unfortunately, this also made the collar look like it worked.  What is a “well-behaved” dog? Most frequently, the definition whittles down to a dog that doesn’t do anything. Doesn’t bark, doesn’t bite, doesn’t whine, doesn’t pee in the house, doesn’t chew, doesn’t dig, doesn’t run away, doesn’t doesn’t doesn’t.  Arlo didn’t do anything and thus he looked like a well-behaved dog.  And if he did run off? I had an easy-peasy way to get him back. Just press the button.

So what was the end result of all this?

Bluntly put, the result was the destruction of our dogs.  Despite our drastically overhauled ideas and training methods that evolved since meeting R.H., we were unable to fix what we had broken in Odin and he was eventually euthanized. We had stopped the use of the shock collar, consulted with a Veterinary Behaviourist at the University of Guelph as well as a local behaviour consultant, he was on Clomipramine (Clomicalm), changed his food, gave our best to counter-conditioning, continued our vigilant management, and did our best to give him quality of life in other ways (i.e. off leash time in secure tennis courts, time in the country, etc.).  I cannot even begin to explain the levels of stress that we all experienced in this situation, and I know that this was a huge barrier to making further progress.  Our rationale for euthanasia: Odin had poor quality of life, everything and everybody was ‘out to get him’ and we saw very little progress in changing this emotional response.  His history lent a very poor prognosis – possible brain damage, early trauma (from which he retained a plate and exposed screw in his jaw, which may have contributed chronic pain), bites directed towards the face (he only caught arms/hands, I will reflect more on this later) and perhaps most notably his far-beyond-inadequate socialization and the use of shock in the presence of a stimulus he already found arousing and scary. This further entrenched and aggravated his existing emotional response, which in turn intensified his reaction.  Finally, we were only human, and every human makes mistakes.  If Odin pulled the leash from our hands, knocked his muzzle off, got out the door… the results could be disastrous. Management makes room for training and behaviour modification; it does nothing to replace it.

Arlo is an apparently “normal” dog… but on further assessment I have to ask: Would he be a more confident dog if not for the shock? Would he be so sound sensitive if not for the shock? (Fireworks caused such fear that he would not go outside after dusk through the summer months). Would he be easier to train today if not for the shock?  The biggest hurdle in training with Arlo is finding something that he finds reinforcing, something that he finds motivating.  If, when I first plucked this dog from the shelter, I had signed on for a series of classes with a qualified clicker trainer, I have no doubt that Arlo would be far more engaged today.  One very clear and frequently overlooked result was the poisoning of specifically two cues, “heel” and “come”.  Once I “crossed over,” I found that his response to those two words was the fear response I saw when I was using the collar, however it lacked the speedy response that existed when followed by a shock.  These words meant to Arlo “you are going to get hurt.”  A part of the process in changing my training was to abandon these words and rename the behaviours as well as retraining them. Additionally, I had had Arlo heeling on my right side, a carry-over from walking a horse on the right, and found that retraining a “heel” on the left side was far more fruitful than attempting the same retraining on my right side.  Similar to the utterance of “heel” or “come,” my right side was deeply associated with the shock. To this day, I do not use either as a cue word, however he thankfully has not retained the visually visceral reaction to them as he once had.  I am not sure of the reason that “down,” “sit,” and “stand” were not equally as poisoned – perhaps I did not use the shock as frequently to provoke those behaviours? Perhaps the shock was set to a lower intensity?

Next post: where do I go from here…?

Confessions of a Cross-Over Trainer – Part Three