Canine aggression: Getting to a good walk - Firstline
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Canine aggression: Getting to a good walk
When the nightly walk becomes a nightmare for pet owners and their dogs, it's time for veterinary technicians to intervene.


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Preparing for exposure to stimuli: foundation exercises

During the preventive part of the program, the owner should teach the pet the foundation behaviors that will be needed for future exposure to stimuli. The pet and owner will need to become familiar with any new control or restraint devices used such as head halters and muzzles. The veterinarian will need to decide if the pet and the problem might require medication (and determine the medications given) to reduce anxiety, arousal, and impulsivity so that the pet might better focus and learn. And if therapeutics are prescribed to reduce the pet's anxiety or reactivity to the stimulus, they sometimes need to be administered for several weeks before stimuli exposure begins to determine if they have the desired effect. In addition, even if significant improvement can be achieved, there are still likely to be situations in which management will be required. So for most cases, the ongoing use of a head halter is usually the best option for ensuring control and safety during walks. Taking time to properly fit and adapt the pet to the head halter with positive associations, such as treats, walks, play, and toys, can help ensure long-term success.

It's important to discuss the principles of training with pet owners. Develop a reward list and gradient, and discuss predictability and consistency of all rewards both to reduce anxiety and conflict and to train the behaviors that we want to the dog to learn. Remind owners that a few training sessions a day with favored rewards, such as toys and treats, can be incorporated into a pet's walks, play, and exercise times. In addition, each time the pet wants anything of value—whether it's a walk, food, going outdoors, attention, a toy, or a chew—these should be viewed as rewards and should only be given for desirable behaviors. Highest-level rewards should be saved for each new increment of training, and intermittent rewards or lesser rewards should be used for those behaviors that have been learned. With fear and anxiety, the goal is to gradually shape more relaxed behaviors by focusing on body postures and breathing.

Desired behaviors can be achieved through observation and reward as long as timing is immediate and consistent. Clicker training can be an excellent way to explain reward timing and shaping. Lure reward training or the use of a leash and head halter can be used to prompt desirable behavior as long as rewards are given only when the desired behavior is observed. With the head halter, the immediate release of pressure is used to mark what is desirable. Owners must be cognizant of reinforcing desirable behaviors whenever they are observed or offered by their pets. However, eliciting behaviors on cue is also essential so that desirable behaviors can be taught as a substitute for the undesirable behaviors. For aggression on walks, the focus of foundation exercises should be on relaxed, loose-leash walks with short slack; a relaxed sit; a focus on the owners; and the ability to back up or turn and walk away from a stimulus that the pet perceives as a threat. Working with a behavioral technician or appropriate trainer can help with owner understanding, implementation, and compliance.


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