Behaviorism vs “Train the dog”

I received a nice email  today from a student/friend who has *seen the light* regarding the difference in behavior modification and obedience training.  There are a good many of us old timey dawg trainers who look at all kinds of behavior issues (from timidity to aggression) on a daily basis and say “train the dog.”  Here is real time, real life proof o’ dat. . .  

The Maus That Roared

This is the story about an out of control dog, an overwhelmed owner, an obedience school and its trainer, and how the methods and discipline of obedience training corrected behavioral problems and saved a dog’s life.


In the summer of 2010, DogTrain owner Diane Gallagher suggested that I take in a young female smooth red miniature dachshund who had begun biting her owner’s four-year-old daughter. The dog had attended at least one obedience course at DogTrain and come to some small dog play groups, where I had seen her once or twice, noticing only that she stayed close to her owner and seemed nervous, but not overtly aggressive. The owner reported nothing more than some snapping at the daughter; although not acceptable, it sounded fixable.  I agreed to take the dog and work on her behavior.

The extent and severity of the dog’s problems became rapidly evident, probably fear-based, and stemming from poor socialization and inconsistent handling. It also appeared that the dog had spent more time in a crate than was healthy. Her behaviors included:

•   nonexistent housebreaking

•   ignorance of the world, both indoor and outdoor

•   food aggression

•   aggression to other dogs

•   challenging the resident dog

•   excessive, aggressive barking

•   nervousness and excitability

•   situational aggression to humans, including children

•   destructive chewing

•   challenging of handler

•   barrier frustration

•   obsessiveness (ie, remembering that the mailman had made a delivery several hours prior to being let out of her crate, attacking the mail slot and mail as soon as she was let out)

•   being touched by me or another dog

•   mouthiness with me during play and on other occasions

The list is organized by the order in which the behaviors presented themselves, albeit a very short time. And once started, they cascaded.

Aggression to other dogs

Within the first few days, Maus (her new name) attacked my other dachshund (Stella – female black and tan smooth standard, 10 years old at the time, who has attended DogTrain since the age of 12 weeks). The attacks were unprovoked, severe and increasing in frequency, finally averaging three attacks a day over a period of approximately six months. Stella’s initial response was bafflement, but as the attacks increased and intensified, she began to fight back. The dogs were never left alone and I interrupted the fights, but when I couldn’t respond quickly enough, Stella chest-bumped and trash-talked Maus into retreat – fast, yipping, puppy-like retreat. The moment Maus yielded, Stella calmly walked away. When I did interrupt, I settled Maus (and sometimes Stella) until Maus calmed down, the longest settle lasting 45 minutes. Aggression frightens me and I knew I was going to have to do better.

As it turned out, Stella put an end to Maus’s aggression toward her. One day, after interrupting another attack, Stella did not walk away. She looked at me very calmly, turned back to Maus – again, very calmly – and chest-bumped and trash-talked Maus into a more serious retreat. No wounds, no marks. The next episode, a few days later, was the last. Again, no wounds, no marks. This is, of course, not an ideal or recommended solution. I was lucky that Stella’s years at DogTrain have given her the experience and sense to handle Maus.

Maus’s drive to dominate manifested itself on numerous occasions. I use that word gingerly, as it is often overused or misused; Maus is not a genuinely dominant dog. My feeling was that it was fear-motivated. Patterns included, but were not limited to:

•   me picking up either of the dogs. If I picked up Maus and put her down, she would attack Stella. If I picked up Stella and put her down, Maus would attack Stella.

•   if I paid attention to Stella, Maus would attack her.

•   exiting or entering the deck, house, or room would set Maus off, as she had to be first.

•   feeding time had to be strictly supervised, as did distribution of treats or handling of toys.

•   getting in and out of the car (which meant picking them up)

•   Maus needing to sit closest to the storm door when the front door was open.

Needless to say, there was a lot of work done on picking up dogs, walking in and out of rooms, examining paws, etc. For about a year, I focused on “behavioral” issues, as opposed to “obedience” issues. Note: the distinction was entirely mine. I felt if I could correct her “behavioral” problems, I could then move on to “obedience.”

Over that year, I talked to Diane, took Maus to DogTrain’s small dog play time, worked on aggression, exposure to the world, housebreaking, play, etc. and although her behavior did improve, it didn’t improve enough. She was a dangerous and exhausting animal, and by the late summer of 2011, I was at the end of my rope. I talked to a very fine person who does dachshund rescue and broached the idea to Diane. After a long talk, Diane was not encouraging. She did not feel that Maus was a good candidate for rescue (or re-homing to almost anyone) as her aggression and general bad habits would result in more re-homing and escalation of aggression until she was ultimately put down. That was rough to hear. Being told it might be that I put her down was worse. I don’t think Diane was being too harsh; the reality itself was harsh. Diane suggested that before I do anything, I re-enroll Maus in basic obedience. I said, “She’ll attack everyone and I can’t control her. I’m afraid to bring her.” Diane said that we would work on that and she would sign me up for the Beginner Family Dog Obedience Program, where Maus would review the lessons she had completed with her previous owner and I would relearn the patterns and methods of basic obedience training.

Obedience training

As I expected, I did have to look for and correct Maus’s dog aggression, which was pretty bad. Also as I expected, she did pretty well at the basic commands: I had always felt she was extremely bright. She was quick and remembered what she was told to do. What I had not expected was that as her confidence in our communication and in herself grew, her eagerness and delight in the process grew. The best word I have to describe her behavior is joyous. I was floored. I had no idea she would learn as quickly as she did and so clearly want to do more. For the first time, she wasn’t challenging me. She was asking, in the best possible way, for me to challenge her.

Maus and I continue to take obedience classes. When they are remedial, we raise the difficulty level for her: recall becomes down on recall; stay becomes a down stay (which she resists); heeling becomes off leash heeling. Competition class is much easier for her than for me. She shines at everything but a down stay, while I make progress in things I need to improve on, such as how to teach stand, properly delivering all the cues she is so sensitive to, and so on. Maus took to agility so quickly that I built a homemade course in my backyard. She astounds me. She is so trainable: “back” took one demonstration and she got it. Same with “place.” With Diane’s encouragement, I am looking into the possibility of obedience competition. And my concerns are more about my ability, rather than her issues.

Maus’s behavior continues to evolve as we use the tools of obedience to control her issues. Out of control barking calls for commands to sit, stay, look, lemon juice, etc. A successful, uneventful walk utilizes many obedience commands. We start every walk with Maus in heel position, leave the house in a controlled manner, immediately perform look, left and right heels (in place) and only then begin the walk, the first few minutes of which are at heel. The command string focuses her brain (and mine) where it should be. As we walk, we do spontaneous, random heeling, circles, U-turns, etc. She performs agility on anything that presents itself: curbs, small obstacles, etc. Aggression on walks is immediately addressed and is broken up by heels, U-turns, calls to front, look, etc. Having her on a pinch collar helps correct her behavior with considerably less force and more effectiveness than a buckle collar. Marking desirable behavior and the distinction made between desirable and undesirable behavior provides the vocabulary and mindset to successfully and unemotionally interpret and manage the world for her, and define for her what our respective roles are. And it teaches her how to manage the world. The vocabulary of obedience training delineates what she can fret about and what she should expect me to be concerned with. It controls her, teaches her how to control herself, and appropriately stimulates and tires her. The boundaries of obedience training define her life, give her the freedom to operate within it, and find a measure of balance: something she never had.  And rewards. Constant food rewards.  Hey!  It IS a dachshund!!!

We still have so much work to do and there are things I have to be alert to: too much praise overexcites her, for example. We want Maus to feel what we describe as self-esteem without snarkiness: her automatic response to lavish praise is to nip the nearest dog, so praise has to be delivered calmly. Anyone outside the DogTrain family has to be told not to pick her up and not to overuse affection, as she will try to bite Stella (this is the one situation when she still wants to nip at Stella). Maus is still aggressive to visitors, so the rules are explained before anyone is allowed inside. She wants to attack cars as they approach from the rear at a speed of about 25 mph or higher. Slower cars or cars approaching from the front are OK. (She has just started growling at cars when we stop at red lights while driving, which I need to talk to Diane about.) Barrier frustration (the storm door, fences, the window at DogTrain, the back window of the car) is better, but still an issue.

There are real marks of progress. Overall, the habit of obedience to commands means she challenges me less often: the frequency of “youmeanit-youmeanit-youmeanit?” has been greatly reduced. Maus has alerts me when she needs to go outside. There hasn’t been a housebreaking incident in months. Her excessive barking is more controlled. She doesn’t constantly try to get into the front seat when I’m driving. Mouthiness with me is better, but is something we continue to work on. She eats slower (she would almost make herself sick with the speed of her intake). When Stella lies close to Maus, Stella frequently puts her head on Maus’s back, and Maus accepts it; when Stella inadvertently brushes against her, Maus accepts it. In competition class, the tail of the Lab walking in front of her kept brushing her face; she accepted it. Walking in my neighborhood is fun. She still sometimes wants to go after other dogs, but it is much more easily corrected and she more often ignores the dogs, cats, birds, bikes, squirrels, motorcycles, and people we encounter. Her behavior at DogTrain’s play time is greatly improved as she tries to figure out how to interact with other dogs: sometimes the attempts at nipping is more flirty than aggressive and sometimes she really is trying to play, but fear still colors her response to other dogs. She is happier. Her life is fun and stimulating. At the same time, she’s learning to be bored, such as during prolonged down stays in Competition class, something she needs to accept as a part of life.

Obedience training has also helped me. I had exhausted my patience. I was beginning to yell at her, I spanked her twice. She was out of control, and I was losing control myself. I’ve gotten control back and it’s through the vocabulary and tools of obedience training. As much as it defines Maus, it defines me. Or I hope it does. I’m a work in progress, too.

Maus still can’t completely relax and I don’t think she completely trusts me yet. I do think the day will come when she will relax. And I really hope that someday I will see the sign that means she has completely surrendered control to me. But, I don’t think I have a problem any more. Instead I have, as Diane wanted from the first time she mentioned the little red dog, a project.

Ann Seymour

February 8, 2012




About dianeatdogtrain

Trainer of dogs AND people for the last 20 years -- involved in many aspects of dog for over 40 as a Vet tech, dog groomer, professional handler, Canine Kinaesthetics Specialist and retriever gundog trainer. A fair amount of successful experience with modifying aggression, although I'm getting too old for that nonsense!

Posted on February 8, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Robert Girolami

    What a great success story. Keep up the good work.

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