How did Kevin Behan reform my dog, Cholula? Basically, he bugged her into attacking him, and instantaneously softened, praised, and offered her food when she did so. Over and over again, interspersed, at carefully chosen moments, with introductions to other dogs, most of whom were staying with Kevin because they too were in various stages of working through aggression problems.
Specifically, the steps he took included the following:
In the “schoolhouse,” as he discussed his theory and how it related to Cholula’s problems, every now and then he would look at Cholula, raise his hands up chest high and slightly move them towards her, and stamp, and she would bark, once even charging him as she did so, which he immediately responded to with a complete softening of his body and posture, effusive praise in a gentle, soft, high sing song voice, and the offering of more food. Sometimes he would “bite” her with his hand on her neck or body, or tug at her paws. After he had gone through this several times, he had me stroke her on her head and down her back and praise her as well after she barked or charged. He brought out a large stuffed bunny and teased her with it, but although he had elicited the bark so easily, he wasn’t able to elicit much of a bite. Once, she bit the toy but immediately dropped it. He put long pauses between his “attacks”, and I noticed (especially later in comparison to other dogs he was working with) that he did not push her too hard. What he said about this was that Cholula’s energy is so blocked that even when she does bark, it doesn’t produce a smooth momentum rhythmic wavelike motion that builds on itself and would let him work with her extensively immediately. Instead, the bark collapses her energy, and from a long association of “bad” or “negative” with barking at people, she collapses into herself again and he has to give her time to be able to bark at him again. I don’t know how he discerned this in her, or how this exercise would play out in a dog that is less inhibited.
Then he left us in the school house and came back with a dog. A dog who had been left with him for several weeks for him to train her out of attacking other dogs. When the dog came in, Cholula barked! A good bark, a normal dog bark, not the aggressive, unhinged lunging and barking she sometimes does. Kevin offered her food, which she may or may not have eaten.
Then Kevin and I walked her over to what I think of as the zip lines. There are two long lines running parallel to each other, and a leash hangs down from each, so that a dog can run up and down the zip line while still being secured, watching another dog, if there is one on the other line, without being able to reach it. He also has another clip set up by the tree that holds one end of the zip line, so the dog can be secured in one spot.
Dogs on the Zip Lines
We went there with Cholula and the other dog. Kevin had noticed that Cholula has “balance issues”—i.e. she gets nervous about her balance, which he sees as somehow part of her problem with other dogs–and so he tethered her to the line that was on a slight rise, where she would have to work harder at balancing than if she were on the other line, which was on flatter ground. He mostly worked with the each dog one at a time and let the other one wait. His main prop was a big flat rope doubled over and knotted at various places. He swung the rope toward Cholula and around her legs gently (he never did anything with the rope that would hurt her), trying to bug her into “attacking” him back with a bark or a bite.
At first, Cholula went through a tremendous effort not to attack back. She shrank away from the rope and Kevin, pulled back one way and then the other to avoid him and then, panicking, jumped up on her hind legs, swinging and lunging and jerking her head in avoidance until she briefly hung herself, after which she managed to pull her head out of her choke collar. (Kevin said he’d never seen a dog get out of that collar before). So Kevin put her in a double collar and let her wind herself around and around the rope the next time she panicked, unable to twist free.
As we watched this, Kevin said he could tell that she had learned that panicking works for her, and we had to move her through an understanding that panicking didn’t work anymore and that what worked was standing her ground and letting her energy out in a bark. I asked him, she’s learned that panicking works for what? He said it works for her to release her pent up energy. When she’s afraid, she panics, the energy is released, and the moment passes. In other words, when she’s afraid of a little white dog across the street, she panics and lunges in blind fear and fury at the dog, the energy is released, and the moment passes. Kevin said that from her perspective, this sequence has taught her that the panic has successfully resolved the situation.
So Kevin would swing the rope at her legs, she would panic, Kevin would ignore the panic and bug her with the rope again. Cholula, after repeated unsuccessful attempts to flee from the rope, followed by new rope “attacks”, finally stood her ground and barked. Immediately, Kevin softened and praised her effusively, and rubbed her fur, and threw down food, which I was interested to see she did not eat (still holding back). From that moment on, Cholula stood her ground more and more certainly, and her bark became fiercer and fiercer.
Cholula stands her ground
Eventually, Kevin brought over a new dog, another of the problem dogs he is working with—and Cholula barked!—her tail wagging. And the dog looked at her calmly, and then they stood there wagging their tails. Looking back, I think this was the bulk of the progression that occurred—that the rope sequence, followed by the successful introduction of the other dog, which he repeated the next day, transformed the way she views the world when we walk down the street in Washington, D.C. Kevin said that he was trying to make the rope her worst nightmare, a more intense threat than another dog. Then, when he brings a dog over, the threat of the dog is lesser in comparison to what the dog has just faced down with the rope. And somehow, having faced down that rope, Cholula just doesn’t react to dogs in D.C. with the intensity that she used to.
Cholula did not fully bite the rope as Kevin would have liked her to do. I watched him with another dog, who had come along further along in Kevin’s program than Cholula, and this dog was joyfully grabbing the rope with her mouth, leaping and writhing in the air as she tugged the rope from him, giving her completely uninhibited energy to the rope and him—that is much closer to the ideal than where Cholula got. However, the journey he took her on not only enabled us to walk by other dogs without crossing the street, but it has given me the chance to work with her newly unlocked intensity and drive, an intensity and drive I could not get her to direct towards me before Kevin helped her gain the confidence to do so. Maybe, eventually, she will play tug of war with all her heart, like the other dog did, and maybe, eventually, her confidence will grow until we don’t have to approach each dog gingerly, until she is willing to do more than stand her ground calmly, but also to show her soft side to an excited dog, to play, to yield. We’re not there yet, but we’ve gotten closer.
The Boxer Bites