Punishing the Warning Signs of Aggression:

dog-displaying-food-aggressionI work with a lot of aggression and have for about 35 years. I spent 8 years in shelters and saw it daily and handled it when I saw it. That is the proving ground for a lot of the things I know. Here is a concept that is often promoted that needs to be debunked. Animal behaviorists say that if you punish aggression you will simply submerge the warning signs. If they say that, then they did it wrong. They didn’t go back “upstream” and apply the punishment before the animal was aroused. When aroused, the dog’s brain focuses on resistance and aggression to get them through the fight. The best place to see this is a vet clinic. The dog learns the “warning signs” of a painful procedure and ironically goes “upstream” to initiate the violence earlier in the sequence. The logic is this – if there is a sequence and you keep applying what should cause a suppression of the behavior and all you suppress are the “warning signs”, you don’t really understand how to make a specific behavior connected to a specific consequence.

The other brain-fart is that they have no marker signal for contingent punishment. Their application of punishment is as sophisticated as throwing treats at a dog and expecting it to learn to sit. The word “NO”, or equivalent, has to be paired with tangible punishment prior to its use. You are creating a functional association before you try to use it in the real world. For instance, if you yell “duck” to a bunch of Italians, they have to know what a duck is and why it means bob your head. So, you associate the word “NO” to a tangible punishment BEFORE you need to use it. Say, Duck! And whack the Italians on the head with a broom. Done. I recommend you wear protective gear if you do this. The process of pre-pairing is best done when the animal is not aroused. Arousal deadens the brains sensitivity to pain. That’s why you can see a pointer with thorns in its feet still trying to find a pheasant.

And now the payoff. The word “NO” is the anti-clicker. The dog’s behavior will change based on the timing of the word “NO”, NOT the timing of the actual punishment. The latency isn’t important if you have paired the two together in advance. Think of how you feel after hearing “wait ’til your father gets home!” Even if dad gets home several hours later, you do not lose the connection. So, when someone makes an issue of timing being critical and then tells you they can only submerge the warning signs of aggression, they are the poster child of incompetence. (I know that word is pejorative, but I mean it literally – without competence.) So, if you are trying to stop a behavior using anything – bonker, e-collar, leash correction – and you want to improve your results, either have a tone-first on the collar or say the word “NO” diligently with good timing to mark the behavior you are trying to suppress.

3 thoughts on “Punishing the Warning Signs of Aggression:

  1. Gary, we’ve all heard “if I have told you once I have told you a thousand times.” If there was an expectation that the word carried consequences it might help.

    • Larry, exactly. There is a conundrum, here, however. Behavior analysts live and breathe the concept that consequences control behavior – but they drop the ball on finding out how to do it if it’s aversive control. Then they follows the old rhyme, “When in danger or on doubt, run in circles, scream and shout.” What the don’t know is that not all behaviors can be changed by external consequences. You’d think after 100 years they’d have a list of what works and what doesn’t. Sadly, no. As you said, there are no consequences in place that makes behaviorists stick to reality other than positive consequences for ignoring it in favor of their fantasies. They regularly propose that they know how to change the world for the better. Excuse me while I spit up my Dr. Pepper.

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