Need Help -- Aggression in Two-Year-Old Working Cocker Spaniel

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Need Help -- Aggression in Two-Year-Old Working Cocker Spaniel

This is a discussion on Need Help -- Aggression in Two-Year-Old Working Cocker Spaniel within the Introductions forums, part of the DogForum Community Welcome category; I am having aggression issues with my two-year-old Working Cocker Spaniel, Henry. Henry has been brought up using the Alpha Role theory. My husband learned ...

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Old 05-14-2014, 11:51 AM
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Need Help -- Aggression in Two-Year-Old Working Cocker Spaniel

I am having aggression issues with my two-year-old Working Cocker Spaniel, Henry. Henry has been brought up using the Alpha Role theory. My husband learned this method when he attended training classes with his family dog. We got Henry when he was six weeks old (not ideal, but it was something we couldn't get around), and started training him immediately. He is incredibly bright, and training came very easily. Henry definitely sees my husband as the Alpha in the family, especially as they spend all of their time together with my husband working from home. Henry, however, therefore sees me as a threat for the number two spot. This has been manageable, but we now have a three-month-old daughter, and I don't want Henry to see her as a new threat to his ranking and become aggressive towards her someday.

We have always used positive reinforcements with Henry, giving him treats when he is good and for all training purposes. However, something we cannot seem to get him out of is becoming possessive of his bed at night time and being aggressive towards me when I bend down to stroke him, approach him when he is with my husband, or when I try to take him to his bed when he is barking at a random sound he has heard. Our response to his aggression is growling back at him and pinning him to the ground. I'm really not sure I see this as helpful, as I feel like I'm only teaching him to be more aggressive and feel more threatened.

As I don't have any experience with any other way of training, I am interested in learning other ways of getting Henry out of this aggressive behavior. I'm very worried that we're going to have to make a tough decision eventually. Henry is part of the family, and I don't want to have to give him away because I can't trust him to be safe around my daughter.

Any help is much appreciated. Thank you!
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Old 05-14-2014, 12:44 PM
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Hi Lindsey, welcome to the forum!

It sounds like Henry is giving you a "sampler course" of the risks of using dominance theory (aka alpha theory, being the pack leader). Contrary to what you may hear on National Geographic, the science in the past three decades has been overwhelmingly clear that using dominance theory (a) doesn't prevent or even resolve aggression, and (b) it actually correlates with an increased likelihood of aggression issues developing or intensifying. I don't say this to blame you in any way -- I started off alpha-rolling my dogs too, as did many of the members on this forum, and we certainly have no room to point fingers. Please take comfort in the fact that it's not you that has the problem; it's the training method.

While dominance theory was the recommended method of training from the 1940's to the 1980's, it has been widely and firmly disproven by science. Not only are dogs behaviorally very different from wolves, even wolves don't follow dominance theory -- the entire training method was based on a study done on a total of six (6) wolves, in captivity, from different family units, and even the original researchers who proposed dominance theory among wolves have rejected it. Ironically, the wolf research community has been able to give up on dominance theory much more easily than the dog training community has, even though the dog training community is basing the entire training method on what they think wolf researchers are saying.

It can be hard to make the paradigm shift away from looking at dogs as hierarchical animals, but it really makes behavioral treatments much simpler. Instead of living with constant anxiety that your dog is out to get the number one or number two spot in the family, you can look at his actual behaviors objectively and treat them as individual issues instead of symptoms of some huge scheme to take over.

You're absolutely right that growling and pinning a dog is a fantastic way to teach him that you are a threat and to increase preemptive strikes on your part -- your intuition is on exactly the right path with this. (Does anyone have the link to the study that showed that mirroring aggression back at the dog actually increases the instances of aggression? I don't have it bookmarked on this computer.)

The issue with the bed is called resource guarding, and it's pretty straight-forward to solve. Right now, you approaching him when he's on his bed makes him anxious for some reason -- likely negative associations from the pinning and growling, but it's possible that there's another explanation as well. Possessiveness is usually best understood as a "preemptive strike." Instead of fixing the behavior itself by punishing the act of guarding his bed (and thereby confirming that yes, you are threatening to him when you come close to his bed "even" when he tries to defend himself), look at the emotion that is causing the guarding. Right now, mom approaching the bed = pretty high likelihood that something unpleasant is going to happen. You want to turn it in the opposite direction: mom approaching the bed (from a safe distance, at a level that he NEVER reacts to in the slightest) should predict fantastic things are going to happen.

For example, if he normally gets possessive around 5 feet from his bed, walk toward his bed, stop 10 feet away, throw a fantastic treat to him (I don't mean milkbones or snausages, I mean meat or cheese) and then walk away. Do this repeatedly until every time you get ~10 feet from his bed, he looks up at you with an expectant "Oh BOY, I LOVE it when this happens!" face. At that point, start working down to 9 feet. Alternate between 10 and 9 feet until he is consistently looking cheerful and expectant at 9 feet, then progress down to 8, etc. The most important thing with this training is that you never EVER want to give him any justification for believing that you are "bad" when you approach his bed -- that means management so that you don't have to get too close during non-training times, and being careful not to proceed to the next level until the dog is consistently showing happy anticipation at the previous level.

The book "Mine!" by Jean Donaldson would be a wonderful resource to check out. It's a whole book about resource guarding and resource-related aggression, and it explains the training protocol in great detail.

For learning more about force-free training in general, this forum is worth its weight in gold. Check out the "sticky" threads in the Training and Behavior sub-forum! The YouTube user Kikopup is also a great place to start -- she has free videos for working with pretty much any type of dog training issue you could possibly imagine.
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Old 05-14-2014, 02:36 PM
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I was a firm believer in pack theory (in fact my whole family was despite evidence to he contrary in our dog's behaviour) until I took up the job of supervising dogs while they're out in the world with someone they have only just met, interacting with people and dogs, friends and strangers alike. Now its very easy to see how stuff like pinning a dog down or staring them down intently really set them on edge. Wouldn't it make you a little wary?

I've come to understand that dogs are to wolves as humans are to apes. You don't obey your boss at work because he is the alpha-ape and you are attempting to show submission by responding punctually to his emails. You do it because you get paid. He has a resource that you would like, and you have a resource that he would like. All you're doing is entering a mutually beneficial relationship where you both cooperate to get what you want. No intimidation, no real status quo, no arbitrary 'house rules', like the boss must walk through the door first. You are really just doing what works for you: exhibiting the behaviour that keeps your pay check coming!

Animals are no different; they avoid conflict and tension because its just not worth it. Physical scrapping is evolutionarily 'expensive': it requires a huge amount of energy and vigilance and no matter how strong the contender there is always a chance that he will come away wounded, injured, infected with something... It's so much easier to simply cooperate and make it clear that good intentions are high-- hence the reliance of dogs on 'calming signals' to show that they are peaceful and approachable, and heavy employment of warnings like growling and snapping before anything physical goes down.

Especially now that a kid is in the picture, its a good time to reconsider your take on go behaviour. The last thing you want at this point is for him to be constantly reminded of the fact that you guys are bigger than him, stronger than him and can overpower him or take anything away fro him at any time.
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Old 05-14-2014, 02:48 PM
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I'm sure you'll get plenty of great training advice here, so I'd just like to mention that Cockers are known to have aggression issues, I had to rehome my purebred Cocker with my mom after he began growling and snapping at my son. I wasn't as educated on dog behavior and body language at the time (2003) as I am now, so I didn't know how to address the issue. Also I HAD the "pack leader" mentality that you speak of, let me assure you that your dog is not looking for hierarchy in your home, the dominance theory is mainly based on false Info that dogs behave/live as wild wolves, and that is false. If your husband is alpha rolling your dog, it's likely the he doesn't see him as "alpha male" but is actually afraid of him and trying to avoid confrontation and conflict, which most dominance trainers mistake for "respect". I switched over to positive training about a month or so ago, and it has been dogs and I have bonded so much and their behavior is much more reliable.
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Old 05-14-2014, 06:38 PM
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Hi Lindsay, I got your message on my profile to stop by here. You are getting excellent advice from all these folks and I don't have much to add except to repeat some key points.

Dominance approach to handling resource guarding will only make things infinitely worse, as you are noticing. One thing you need to understand is the RG instinct is such that for the dog it feels like his very life depends on retaining possession of "his stuff" (toys, resting place, his human, his food bowl... what ever he is guarding). If you understand that, you can see why battling him or intimidating him will just make him more anxious and aggressive. Instead you need to change tactics so he learns that having your near his stuff is always a good thing.

Here is our sticky note on RG. Read it for a good summary, then buy the book "Mine" as recommended by Inkii. If needed, get some help from a certified trainer or behaviorist.

Overall, you and your hubby will need to totally change your approach to this dog. It will may be easier to retrain the dog than to retrain yourselves, but the latter must come before the former, if you know what I mean.

Another key thing to understand is that every time you or hubby do something to intimidate the dog, (even a simple scolding, but worse yet an alpha roll), you raise the stress hormones in your dog's system. This makes him more anxious and fearful and WILL make his RG behaviors much worse. So you need to quit with all the negatives with him. Its making him an emotional mess.

Hang out here for a while and soak up the antidote to the dreaded poison of dominance theory training.

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Old 05-15-2014, 09:12 AM
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Thank you so much, everyone. I started your suggestion, inkii, last night with Henry, giving him a treat when I got close to him on his bed, and it worked like a charm! I've been constantly giving him treats for all things good since then, and I've stopped our alpha-role training tactics (making him wait for me to walk through a door first, not letting him up on the sofa when he's been bad, etc). I think it's going to take a bit of time, but it definitely seems to be working very well. The only downside is that his waistline might get a little bigger with all of these treats.

I will definitely check out Mine, the sub-forums, and the YouTube videos. Every little bit helps!

While we're at it, does anyone have any suggestions on how to get Henry to stop barking when the doorbell rings/someone knocks on the door/he thinks he hears something like a ring or a knock? It's hard to get him to stop barking long enough to give him a treat for his quietness. Is there a secret to this?

Thank you again. It's so nice to have such lovely support.
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Old 05-15-2014, 09:30 AM
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Welcome to DF!

You've gotten some wonderful advice and I'm glad that it's working for you

For Henry to keep his figure in shape, you can reduce some of he regular meals and even use some of his kibble as his training treats. I'd still use the really good stuff for his RG, but for simple things he already knows, lower value kibble is a good option. You can also stop using a food bowl...we haven't used one in so long, I had to finally wash it because so much dust had built up in it. Start feeding him his meals through training, playing games, using food toys, etc.

Kikopup video on door barking:

Also, a lot of dogs will be fine once you acknowledge whatever they're barking at (get up, look, say thank you/it's fine, etc.). Since you want to limit triggers to when you're training and control things, I've seen people put up a sign to have the visitor call their phone instead of ringing the bell or knocking.

General barking: This has multiple episodes. The link is just to the first one.
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Old 05-15-2014, 09:41 AM
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You've gotten excellent advice already. I've nothing to add other than I hope your husband is on board with the new training philosophy.
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