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.


FIRSTLINE


Treatment of fear aggression

Once loose-leash walks, sit focus, or back up or turn are reliably trained, drugs or other therapeutics have been appropriately administered, and any recommended control devices are being effectively used, the owner can begin to focus on ensuring relaxed and calm outcomes in situations with greater distractions. A good pre-exposure goal would be for the owner to be able to successfully achieve the foundation behaviors in situations where the dog is meeting and greeting people and dogs that are familiar, building up to those the dog would be most excited to greet. Initially, these situations can be set up so that the owner is prepared with favored rewards in hand and the leash and head halter attached, if one is being used. Training could begin with greeting people at the door with a calm sit, walking up to familiar people or dogs in the yard or on the street, and sitting, walking by, or turning in the other direction. In other words, ensure that response substitution and calming can be effectively achieved in situations that might cause arousal or excitement but not fear or aggression.

When these steps can be predictably achieved, a follow-up visit with the specialist should be scheduled to assess the level of success and determine whether appropriate outcomes have been achieved with any prescribed medications. At this point, the ability of the owner and dog to proceed to exposure exercises can be reevaluated, and further suggestions, adjustments, or other alternatives, such as drugs, products, training, and methods, can be discussed.

To achieve effective response substitution, the focus is on getting a desirable behavior during stimulus exposure—a relaxed sit or calmly walking past the stimulus rather than showing aggression. The type of stimulus for initial training and the threshold at which success can be ensured will need to be individually determined. Generally, success will best be achieved by setting up exposures in order to control all parameters—the stimulus, the dog, and the environment. Repeatedly exposing the dog to a formerly fear-evoking stimuli at low enough levels and pairing with highly valued rewards each time the dog looks at the target to make a positive association is known as desensitization and counter-conditioning. Remaining below the threshold to ensure that each exposure ends with a positive pairing is the goal. The ability to control and calm the dog with commands and the use of a head halter can help ensure that the owner also remains calm and that the dog can be settled or turned away and removed from the situation. Each situation should always conclude with a relaxed, safe outcome. Developing a stimulus gradient and finding a way to expose the dog in a controlled and measured manner can be difficult to implement for many owners.

It's important to establish realistic and practical short- and long-term goals. Continue to monitor progress with follow-up appointments to adjust goals and expectations. A behavioral technician or trainer is often the best option to help owners with hands-on guidance and to provide ongoing feedback.

If the final goal is for direct contact between the dog and stimulus (e.g., stranger giving a treat or petting, dogs playing), remember that fear-evoking stimuli can be visual, auditory, olfactory, and, in some cases, tactile. Stimuli can be muted in a variety of manners, including distance, location of exposure, stimulus characteristics (e.g., uniform, height, age), and intensity (e.g., motion, volume) as well as by exposing the dog to individual components of the fear-evoking situation one at a time. The stimulus should be approached slowly and calmly, and progress should cease if the pet is no longer interested in food or treats or shows any signs of fear, anxiety, or aggression. In the case of aggression toward other dogs, initial greetings could take place with the stimulus dog standing still and the dog walking past, the stimulus dog walking in one direction with the dog walking in the opposite direction, or the dog sitting and the stimulus dog walking past, in front of the dog and back again (always at sufficient distance from the stimulus to ensure success). A DVD can also be used to begin exposure if it incites a reaction from the pet. If any signs of anxiety begin to emerge, and the dog cannot be quickly and safely calmed, the dog should be backed up or turned away to a sufficient distance that it calms, perhaps with the aid of a command, food lure, or gentle pull on the head halter. At this point, positive reinforcement should be immediately given, thus ending the exposure with a positive outcome. This type of exposure should be repeated until each exposure results in a positive (no aggression, no fear) outcome.


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