I have struggled, ever since this story broke, to come up with my own response. It has been one of the most difficult things ever, to come up with the right words and response to this, as it stirs a lot of emotions and outrage for me. Many of my colleagues have done great jobs in their own right, and I have read many of these great pieces, such as Lisa Mullinax and Annie Phenix with Dogster. I have to echo their sentiments and the facts they present. There are so many aspects to this case, but I guess what I’d like to concentrate on is what I would do with a dog like Simon.
First, I will admit that a pig killing dog is not something I’ve personally crossed, as there aren’t many pigs in the city of Denver, where I live and work. Most of the dogs I work with are those with aggression and/or reactivity toward other dogs or people, and most of them are either fearful or are in physical pain, or a combination of both. I work behavior modification clients with a certified TTouch practitioner, Courtney Kirman. I do this because I find those methods complementary to the training we do, as it can help them feel more aware of their physical state, and help them feel better and more calm.
In fact, this is what I would first do with Simon: evaluate his physical health first! When was his last vet exam, and what were the results? What does his gait look like? Is he showing signs of being stressed or anxious–when and where? There are many things I use to help to try and figure out what may be at the root of the problem in this regard. When you have a headache or pull a back muscle, for example, it can cause you to have a “shorter fuse.” Not feeling well physically is an important factor, and I also want to ensure the dog I’m working with feels his or her best to maximize the ability to teach him or her what I want her to do, and make it a positive experience.
Once I’ve covered that base, I would also implement a gradual, under-threshold desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) protocol for Simon. This means I would work with him at his own level of comfort and pace to ensure he gets used to noticing pigs: seeing them, hearing them and smelling them, and making it a very wonderful–in fact, THE MOST WONDERFUL–thing EVER! Once he views them as something wonderful and is in a “happier” state of mind, he will be able to make the right choices to behave around them.
Since Simon is a known killer of pigs, this will take some time. The more severe the response, the more work it will generally take to get a more relaxed emotional response. Killing pigs is something to not take lightly! I would also acclimate Simon to a basket muzzle; this way, he can be fed treats, pant and drink water if needed, but not be able to bite anyone or anything. Until he is conditioned on this muzzle, I would always work my DS/CC with him on leash outside the pig pen, so he cannot get to the pig(s) at all.
Outside the pen, I would be clicking a clicker every time Simon looks at a pig (or I could use a marker word, like saying YES) and follow it with the most wonderful thing ever to him, which may be boiled chicken, or bits of hot dog, deli meat or cheese. I would do this repetitively, and for a short amount of time. This technique is known as the Look At That or the Engage – Disengage game, and is a great way for a dog to learn how to acknowledge something scary or very exciting without displaying signs of over arousal, fear or aggression.
If he shows any signs of stress or aggression, I would make note of that and make more space, and perhaps take a break. It’s important to know the limits; I may make mistakes, particularly in the beginning, of getting too close or training too long, but if I pay attention to Simon’s body language and make those connections, then I can modify my plan to make it less stressful.
For instance, if I was doing this with Simon at a distance of 10 feet from the pig pen, and had been doing it for five minutes–let’s say he had been doing fine until the last 30 seconds, showing slight signs of stress like sniffing and looking away while licking his lips–then I’d resume training later at being 10 feet away for only 3 minutes, so he would be less likely to be stressed, and have a positive training experience.
It’s key to keep the dog from practicing any aggressive, reactive behaviors, and from as much stress as possible. No one can learn when they’re stressed–behavior modification is MUCH harder if there is a lot of stress–and it will not make for a positive experience. If I go too far too fast, like sticking him into the pen without any safety measures like a muzzle or leash on him, it can lead to disaster. It is always better to go a bit more slowly and to ALWAYS consider safety. I would not let him anywhere near the pen until he was acclimated to a muzzle, and without a leash. In fact, as I said earlier, the leash would be used outside the pen as well so we could maintain the right distance we need for DS/CC.
As time goes by, I’d be able to get a little bit closer and go a little longer with training, but it would all be dependent on Simon and the signs he’s giving me. If he’s doing well, I can gradually increase my criteria for him. But I must be careful and not get greedy, and no one likes for things to be harder and harder all the time. It’s best to stop while you’re ahead, especially if you’re blessed with a great accomplishment. Perhaps I’m up to five feet away and Simon is able to look at the pig(s) but then look back at me right away–then I’d click and jackpot with lots of food! The better the response, the better the reward, teaching him how to make the right choices. Our video of Lucy’s story goes through what we have done with dogs like this, who react aggressively to other dogs.
This is a simplified version of a plan–there are many other components to what I would do as well outside of DS/CC, like teaching other incompatible behaviors, doing impulse control work, etc.–but it does give insight into how I approach such situations. Our dogs are so smart, and willing to please us, that we shouldn’t sell them short and force them into situations that can backfire. We should always set them up for success and reward them for what is good. That way we can build trust and a dog that is confident and respectful.
And for the record, if you want to know my opinion on Cesar Millan–you can refer to this earlier piece of mine. I might also add, I consider pretty much all reality TV as total unreality. 🙂
Owner, Delightful Doggies