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RETRIEVER JOURNAL article by Butch Goodwin

       . . . . . . . .Aggression


The sign on the side of Pete Eromenok’s truck reads: We Can Train Any Dog – Canine Behavioral Rehabilitation Center. I had noticed this truck around town for about six months or so, but each time I saw the truck parked someplace, there was no one around. One day as I climbed out of my truck to head into a store, someone said, “Butch, you probably don’t remember me. We judged an AKC Master Hunt Test together almost twenty years ago.” As soon as I saw Pete, I immediately remembered him, but I couldn’t recall his name; he was driving the truck with the sign on the side. I recalled that years earlier Pete had been a pretty darn good retriever trainer, so I questioned the sign and another on the tailgate that read: Gundogs – Detection – Obedience – Aggression. As we leaned on my truck, we filled each other in on the missing years, culminating with Pete recently returning to Idaho from Pennsylvania and building a kennel about three miles from my place. While in Pennsylvania, he continued training retriever gun dogs and ran some field trials and hunt tests with his personal dogs and with his clients’, dogs. It was during this time that Pete also got involved with working with aggressive dogs of all breeds.

I pressed him a little about how and why he got started in that area, because it is something that I occasionally get asked about but had never really been involved with. Pete responded, “I developed a passion for how the dog’s mind worked after working with a bird-possessive dog that was aggressive toward both his owner and me or another dog or anyone who tried to get a bird away from him. I was a total failure with that dog; he won hands down. But I started reading and learning everything I could about aggression and also other aspects of training besides just training hunting dogs.

“I thought that understanding behavioral problems, and particularly aggression,” Pete continued; “would be an ultimate learning experience for me and, if successful, I could find a niche in the behavior modification arena that would allow me to raise my family and do some things with dogs that there appeared to be a genuine need for. And, from what I was hearing and seeing, I thought maybe I could help people continue to live with their dogs rather than feeling that the only alternative was euthanizing them.

“When I first started learning behavior modification, most of it came from the school of hard knocks. To gain a working understanding of what I was learning, in the beginning, I worked with aggressive dogs and dogs with other behavior problems, and I didn’t charge the owners. As time went on, I was getting more and more calls to work with vastly different breeds of dogs with many different types of behavior problems. I have to tell you, many behavioral problems are easy to cure but some are not. I have worked with everything from the possessive bird aggression that got me started, to dogs that were chasing and biting joggers, all the way to some genetic behavioral problems that were nearly impossible to unravel. And, as any professional trainer will tell you, training a dog or modifying his behavior is only half of the battle; you must also train or in many cases ‘de-program and re-program’ the owners if you have any hopes of being successful.”

What Pete told me aroused my interest, and I wanted to see how he worked with a bird-possessive dog to modify the behavior. But before I could arrange to come to his kennel and learn more, his phone rang – another call from an owner whose dog had some form of behavioral problems. As we walked away, he agreed to let me come over for a visit and demonstration.

When I finally was able to spend some time at his kennel, it turned into quite an education. So much so, that the best thing for me to do is to just let Pete tell you himself. Remember, Pete deals with problem dogs, and as such, some of his training methods might seem a little unusual.

“An entire encyclopedia could be written about curing dog behavioral problems. No two dogs are exactly the same, and techniques have to be customized to each individual dog. Trying to change a dog’s behavior isn’t for someone who lacks experience, and you can’t follow a ‘cookie cutter’ type program – you have to have to spend a lot of time dealing with a lot of different dog personalities to be consistently successful. You can’t just buy a book or a DVD and learn it; those may be good places to start, but it just takes working with many dogs.

“Most of the dogs that exhibit aggressive tendencies, unless they are genetically predisposed to it, are lacking structure. In other words, the owner demonstrates signs of weakness, so the dog assumes the position of leadership. First, the owner must be taught to develop some type of structure for his dog. Here are some examples: the dog can no longer sleep on the bed; no more going through the door first; if he is lying down and he is in your way like in a hallway, do not walk around him – he must get up and move. Quit ogling over the dog – don’t pet him so much. Quit talking to the dog all the time. All of these things transmit signals of weakness to a dog. Contrary to much of what you often hear nowadays, these things greatly affect a dog’s mind one way or another.

“If bird-possessiveness seems to be the only aggressive behavior problem, negative reinforcement [force] can be used to modify the dog’s behavior. I start by forcing the dog into his crate. I run a rope through the back of a plastic or metal crate and pull the dog into the crate with the rope while commanding him to ‘kennel’. At the same time, a continuous low level of stimulation is applied with the e-collar. The button is released when the dog is inside of the crate – then I praise and touch him.

“I also force the ‘here’ command. Do this by giving the ‘here’ or ‘come’ command and a low level of stimulation along with a snap of the leash. When he takes a couple of steps toward you, release the button to discontinue the stimulation.

“The ‘down’ command can be taught with food and then forced and reinforced with constant tugging on the leash and constant low stimulation. The button is released and the stimulation removed when the dog is in the ‘down’ position. Remember to teach these commands, enforce the commands, and then proof or reinforce the commands until they are solid.

“Since we are talking about a dog that is possessive, at this point, I start working on the remote drop. I use an object that the dog places low value on, such as a bumper or a ball – not a bird. We do not want the dog acting aggressively during any part of this. Start teaching the remote drop by giving the ‘drop’ command and then applying a low level of stimulation and also pressing the nick button intermittently (nick, nick, nick) so the feeling is almost indiscernible to the dog. As soon as he spits the bumper out, praise him mildly. With a dog that has structure problems, never go over the top with praise.

“Once he drops the bumper, never move toward him. Take a few steps away and call the dog to you. Then give him the ‘down’ command, and when he is in the ‘down’ position, go pick up the bumper yourself. Repeat this exercise a few times per session. And keep working on this until the dog drops the bumper on command from a distance without the stimulation and then comes to you.

“When the dog is solid on this exercise, I start the force-fetch process. Remember – this is for a dog with bird-possession aggressiveness only. If the dog has previously exhibited handler aggression problems, we take a different approach at this point.

“Remember, it is always best to be extra careful doing force-fetch on a dog that has shown any aggressive tendencies. Rather than an ear pinch, I prefer to back tie the dog and then add pressure using a six-foot leash and a prong collar or choke collar and stretch the dog by pulling him forward so pressure is around his neck. Then I roll the bumper into his mouth and release the pressure. This way I am applying the same principles as with the ear pinch. I do this because the potential is always there for unforeseen handler aggression, and this way I can try to keep everything safe and lessen the chance of getting bit.

“Something to keep in mind: Do not over-force the dog or he may not remotely drop anymore. Always try to maintain the exercises you have done prior to force-fetch and keep everything balanced. And remember what I said before: It is important to keep the dog’s attitude up but not give over-the-top praise.

 “After force-fetch, he should pick up a bumper off the ground on command; you should take a few steps away and command, ‘Drop.’ He should drop the bumper and come to you when you call him, and then put him in a ‘down’ position while you walk over and pick up the bumper.

“When the dog can do all this reliably, you can move on. One thing to note: Because he has been forced to fetch with pressure and the remote drop has been taught with a relatively indiscernible amount of pressure, he might not let go of the bumper when commanded to drop. If this happens, you should up the e-collar stimulation level slightly on ‘drop,’ but only after you have been away from the force-fetch for a few weeks so that he doesn’t get confused. You are forcing two contrary commands, both dealing with the mouth, in a relatively short period of time, so he could be a little confused at first.

“Up to this point, birds have not been used. Only after the previous drills are quite solid, start with a bird that the dog doesn’t value, such as a large frozen bird that he cannot hold easily. You never want to start with a smaller, soft bird that he can grab or hold real firmly. Save those for later. As you did with bumpers, start by practicing remote drops. Don’t hesitate to use the stimulation immediately for non-compliance. You have already taught the dog how to escape the stimulation, so he should understand what is expected of him. And don’t mix a forced drop with a forced fetch for now; work mostly on drop – after all, his bird-possession aggressive behavior is because he doesn’t want to give up the bird. Remember also, distance diminishes aggression Hovering in close or stepping toward a dog promotes aggression. Do not take the bird from his mouth yet; continue to stay a few steps back and work on the remote drop and call the dog away from the bird. When he is doing well with a frozen bird, switch to one just a little more thawed out – but not much .. We are taking baby steps here. You can progress through a succession of birds until you ultimately end up doing the remote drop with a shackled bird.

“Once you feel comfortable having done all this remotely, you can begin having him come to heel, and you can work on the remote drop at your side. You should continue this until you feel comfortable reaching down and taking the bird from his mouth – starting over again with a frozen bird and working toward smaller, softer birds.”

Pete says that if a dog is only bird-possessive around other dogs, it is actually much easier to correct than being possessive around people.

He did want me not to forget to mention that some degree of this training will likely have to be maintained for the duration of the dog’s life. He probably became this way because he was genetically predisposed to guard what he sees as valuable. “Like I said previously, almost all dog problems are brought on due to a lack of structure. The remote drop and force-fetch drills give him some structure and are a starting point toward instilling a respectful attitude between dog and his owner/trainer. Dogs do not become aggressive overnight. People unknowingly nurture these problems in a dog that may be genetically predisposed to behave this way. Symptoms are often noticed when the dog is just a pup, but owners either don’t recognize the signals or simply overlook them, figuring that the dog will outgrow it. Dealing with it early on is best.”