I’ve been ruminating over a video I saw posted online for a few days now. The video involved a TV personality trying to address food aggression with a yellow lab. In the video the person was trying to “claim” the bowl and the space around the bowl to make the aggressive dog back off. During this altercation, the dog gives plenty of defensive displays (from calming signals like squinty eyes and head turns to more aggressive displays like tooth displays and snarling) and ultimately bites the person (a solid bite and hold with multiple re-grips). I wanted to blog about it but I needed time to really think it over and find a a way to write about it that would be helpful and not just inflammatory (as someone who has dealt with quite a few food aggressive dogs, this method really bothers me). The video is very disturbing to me on quite a few levels and I think it is incredibly important that we discuss this video in the canine community because there is a lot to learn from it.
Nicole Wilde (dog trainer, behavior expert, canine expert, and author) wrote a really great blog that I highly encourage you to read. She both describes the video using descriptive language but also links to the video. Her main idea is all about why people feel the need to push dogs to their breaking points, just to “see what they would do.” You should definitely check it out here: Pushed Too Far.
During the video, the audience can hear the person who got bitten say something to the effect of “I didn’t see that coming.” Now on the surface, I’d say–given ALL the warnings the dog gave, how could he NOT see that coming (I asked a non dog-savvy friend to watch and even SHE said she expected the bite). The background, from what I have been able to discern, is that this is not the first time the person has worked with this dog. In whatever capacity the person worked with this dog previously, the dog was likely pushed to the extreme in a similar manner but in that/those instance(s), did not come up at the person and bite.
Since the person had pushed the dog so hard before without incident, he felt that experience would predict future reactions to the same stimulus. Unfortunately, that is a very dangerous assumption and this person found out the hard way.
Dogs see the world in terms of what works and what doesn’t work (safe or unsafe) and base their future decisions off of what has happened in the past (what has been rewarded, what has been punished, what got them what they wanted, and what did not, etc). The dog in this video was pushed to the edge before the video was shot and the result was that no matter how ferocious she looked/acted, the person still took her item and intimidated her. She learned that LOOKING ferocious was not enough to protect her resource. She learned from those experiences. It was likely not pleasant to be challenged by this person repeatedly in such a threatening manner and still lose the resource she’s afraid to lose, so she chose to escalate her behavior.
If something didn’t work before, it would be silly to think that the dog would keep trying that same method (trying the same thing and failing repeatedly is not keen for survival). In this particular situation, I would EXPECT the dog to continue to escalate (or shut down in learned helplessness)–if the dog had alternative behaviors heavily reinforced, I would expect the dog to try those behaviors but there were no alternatives shown to the dog.
This type of behavior is so extremely dangerous and irresponsible to display on a TV show. Owners already ignore their dogs’ signals and take tolerance for granted (particularly with children); having an ‘expert’ on TV demonstrate pushing dogs to their breaking points as part “rehabilitation” is giving people justification for their actions. So people continue to test their dogs tolerance and push dogs to their breaking points in the name of rehabilitation and in return many people get bitten.
We absolutely cannot take a dog’s history as evidence for the future. Just because the dog has not yet bitten doesn’t mean that it will not eventually bite when pushed and pushed and pushed. It is my firm belief that when we have behavior problems, that a big piece of resolving that problem is preventing it from happening as much as possible. Like with ALL behaviors, the more it is practiced/rehearsed the stronger and more effective the behavior becomes. So the more the dog practices reactive behavior the better they get at it. The more the dog practices food aggressive behavior, the better they get at it. The more the dog practices proper greeting behaviors, the better they get. Stopping this pattern and not allowing them to refine their technique is important to preventing an escalation like shown in the video.
The other issue I have with pushing a dog over and over is that we ritualize behavior. It becomes habit to show increasingly aggressive displays even when the triggers are less intense. With food aggression in particular, if we push a dog to repeat this aggressive display during meal times when the trigger is RIGHT in front of their bowl, what happens is they start showing the display before the person even gets to the bowl. Initially, the behavior may show itself only when a person is within 1ft of the dog eating the food but as the behavior is elicited by the person repeatedly it becomes habit and the dog no longer waits for the person to be within 1ft of the bowl but when the person is 3ft away, or 8ft away, or simply in the same room as the dog. The problems increase and often the intensity/aggression of the PERSON will go up as they get frustrated/scared with their dogs increased level of aggression. Little do tehy know that their behavior is the cause of the increased aggression in their dog.
We have got to stop taking our dogs’ tolerance for granted. While they may not have yet bitten the person trying to threaten/intimidate them away from a resource, doesn’t mean they will not escalate if the person continues to ignore the dog’s communication while also continuing to elicit the aggressive display.