Movement Markers™ The Puzzle of Aggression: Part 1


The Puzzle of Aggression

Part 1 — Article

Copyright Ozuna 2022

            On the many training groups I monitor, I keep reading questions posed or descriptions of dogs with “aggression” as if aggression were an on/off switch, as if somehow if we just find the right technique, attend the right clinic, watch the right video then we will figure out how to turn “it” off. Yet, aggression, and/or reactivity or behavioral imbalance is always a many splendored thing composed of multiple moving parts. I don’t even think of it like layers because there are so many pieces interacting simultaneously to create instability or a negative response to stimuli.  

            I thought it might be useful to parse the components of a dog I worked with who presented on my first introduction to her in the dog yard with snarling, charging, serious intent to bite. A 4 yo, spayed (at around 1 yoa) Weimaraner, she had bitten the male owner, and had been so reactive at her last vet visit that no one could get near her, and they had excused her.  She pulled out of her flat buckle collar before we could get a martingale on her for safety, and we had to lasso her to get a buckle on martingale on her.  

            Over the course of time working with her, she calmed down day by day as we put a complete holistic program in place.  Continuing evaluation of her in the process and detailed further questioning of the owners revealed the following rough profile of the components of this dog’s presenting instability.  This list is by no means exhaustive but gave me a working framework that I could use to shift behavior.  

Working Profile:

            1.  Genetic high defense drive.  Turned out that the parents of this litter had also exhibited a high level of reactivity to “stranger danger” and over the top defense drive response to visitors.  This is a breed that should have super low defense drive, so already we know the internal components are not lined up the way they should be.

            2.  Genetic low biddability.  Accompanying that was super low pack drive and its working component biddability — the desire to work with a handler. I had to build biddability one piece of food at a time.  Fortunately, in this particular case, I was able to build a decent food drive fairly rapidly. It is what saved us.  

            3.  Genetic low prey drive, especially hunt drive aspect.  This is supposed to be a bird dog breed which should have a high prey drive and within that hunt drive, but it was rock bottom when we started. Normally, with scrambled drives, we want to extinguish or diminish the inappropriate drive (here defense drive) and strengthen the core genetics that would bring out the best linked genetics in this dog — which would be hunt drive, but she had virtually none for me to strengthen. We had to build that artificially through food drive and then ball work.  Building correct drives rebalances the dog from the inside out. There are many linked behaviors that come with this drives that we can harness to use for creating overall balance in the brain and the body.

            4.  One trial learner/marinator.  Another not terribly useful component with this dog was that she was a one trial learner for adrenaline-based behaviors and a slow marinator (have to put away and let them think about it) for cognitive based behaviors.  I had to be really careful how much to present, at what rate of learning or sequencing, with lots of down time in between sessions to absorb the slower cognitive pieces I wanted her to acquire.  She was really fast to snatch adrenaline-based behaviors (a result of the high defense drive) and super slow to capture cognitive concepts. A common, but difficult little quirk in her learning capacity.

            5.  Practiced aggression.  Along with the genetic high defense drive she had hard wired practiced aggression. She had been allowed to charge the fence at the pool guy, and the lawn guy, and other visitors with increasingly ferocious attitude until she started doing the same behaviors with the male owner when he came home from business trips.  Practiced aggression is in many ways like an endocrine reinforced ocd behavior. There is also a patterned endocrine response that kicks in when dogs send themselves into arousal. She was 100% not allowed to practice any aggression behaviors of any kind whatsoever, we built and rebuilt opposing go to behaviors, and I used an herbal tincture Tranquility Blend by Animals Apawthecary, just one dropperful in her food at night for a week to help mute the overworked arousal response, and allow her a deeper sleep. 

            6.  Arousal levels too high.  When we started her adrenaline/arousal flash point was very very high. She was that person at a party who was wired just a little too tight.  The slightest thing would set her off into: reaction, confusion, panic, shutdown — it ran the gamut of responses but all were arousal-based behaviors.  Bumping into her was like a major calamity. Moving too quickly caused her eyes to dilate almost out of her head.  She was locked and loaded all the time in the beginning.  Work, food (a minor detail in her case, see below, but still significant), herbs, and a lot of getting out and moving over terrain to build proprioception and  hunt/prey drive helped shift that down so she could relax and be just a dog.  About every 5 days we could see a major downshift in the arousal/adrenaline load. It was fascinating to watch the transition occurring.

            7.  Touch diva.  When we started, she could not be touched anywhere.  She totally and completely dictated what, where, when, and how she could be touched — or not. Part of that was genetic, part of that was practiced arousal which makes all creatures, 2 legged or 4 hypersensitive to touch, and part of that was a lack of foundational training in touch tolerance.  The problem with touch defensiveness is it so rapidly becomes a self-fulfilling negative feedback loop. The more resistant she is to basic touch and handling, the more people are going to react to her, and the more she is going to react to them. In her case, it had escalated to levels where she could no longer even be allowed in her veterinary practice and my clients had great relationships with their vets, but her behavior and resistance to touch by anyone other than the one owner was just putting her beyond the pale. I only wish that I could tell you that my brilliant touch techniques brought her around. Hah. I have to laugh ‘cus yeah, I bring a lot of touch techniques to the equation, but it was really Dr. Cheese Whiz that did the work. This girl was a fool for cheese whiz. After a while she would just about stand on her head for a hit of cheese whiz. Another lucky turn of the dice.

8.  Low proprioceptive quotient.  Like nearly all reactive dogs, in her case part of her being a touch diva, not being handled enough, and not having an off-leash recall so she could move over terrain, she had a super low proprioceptive awareness of where her body was in space at any time. This greatly diminished her learning capacity in the beginning and accentuated the whole profile. As proprioception came up, reactivity came down, and learning capacity came up.

9.  Nutrition.  Last, in her particular case, nutrition was not that big of a kicker, but was surprisingly more than I expected. The food she was on was a really good food, but it did have a higher carbohydrate load than I would prefer to feed, and she was ever so slightly plump when we started. Really just slightly — like a low to mid 6 on the weight scale where I wanted to see her at a fit mid 5, right at that perfect balance point.  Where food has been a huge component of endocrine imbalance, unstable behaviors, I typically see a very rapid shift in behavior within 72 hours of a food switch, that then also typically resets even more every 3 days or so until it rapidly hits a whole different plateau and levels out at about day 10.  In her case, the change was much slower, a very small incremental reset about every five days, but over the course of weeks, it became patently apparent. Obviously, her whole body reset was the product of many factors, but the impact of the food and the steady increase in food drive and hunt drive and biddability were apparent and made the food shift significant.

            Hopefully parsing out this kind of analysis will allow trainers to reach a little deeper for the component pieces of unstable/reactive/ or aggressive behavior.

30 -30-30


Maryna Ozuna