The picture that developed over the first few weeks we were getting to know Bixie proved far worse than I first expected. Aggression doesn’t trouble me because it’s a problem that at least is at the surface, and I’ve learned that the dog who has the heart to fight, as misdirected as the fight they may pick to fight may be, concurrently has that same capacity to heal. Heart is Heart. So being a predictably aggressive dog has a plus side. However it’s the little quirks in a dog’s temperament that are of the most concern to my way of looking at things because they reveal a deep seated “loading” process which means that the dog is constantly acquiring an emotional charge from the most innocuous, everyday sources.
And this emotional charge can only go out the way IT went in. In other words, if the dog is getting stressed or hyper-excited by way of incidental things, this is like a trickle charge hooked up to a battery and then the charge grows and grows until the battery overheats and explodes, which in Bixie’s case is aggression when she is groomed, collared, touched when she doesn’t want to be touched, or when she has food/bone/toy, the list goes on but most especially she saves up her loaded state for when she is being locked in her crate.
One super cold morning when I was hooking her to the long line to begin a walk I had to yank the long lead that had frozen into the ground overnight. When Bixie saw my arms moving she hit the deck and cowered like I was about to slam her with a plank. Somewhere in her puppyhood Bixie was “corrected,” hit with someone’s hand. In that moment she saw it coming at her again.
This is why the The Natural Dog Training imprint is so important for a young puppy. When you correct a puppy you are creating an emotional charge before she has the emotional capacity to deal with it. For example, you wouldn’t expose a very young child to a horror movie until they’re old enough. So Bixie was corrected in the “usual” ways, housebreaking, manners, no-bite, leave it, etc. and she carries that imprint in every cell of her body and this thereby represents the crack in her temperament, the fault line out of which molten aggression is going to erupt. This also means she is “bleeding out” social energy in all these minor occurrences because it’s constantly eroding away her emotional capacity.
Now I know many dogs are raised this way and they don’t all end up like Bixie, but she has a strong temperament and fierce nature that wasn’t allowed an appropriate outlet. Her owners thought being cute and friendly was the same as being social. The shelters are full of dogs with aggression problems because of this.
So the emotional charge she picked up from that experience is now manifesting in her adult life. This is an important point: The charge will not usually be “released” until later, sometimes years, so we don’t make the connection between the imprint of upbringing and all the things a dog does later. A dog biting his owners hand after he grows up is not random, this was implanted some time ago. For Bixie, one way that charge comes out is when we put her in the crate and she goes for the hand at the latch.
It isn’t that she balks at going into the crate, quite the contrary, she hurtles herself in and then immediately whirls around and attacks the hand at the gate. This is crate rage, akin to a motorists’ road rage. Inside her crate Bixie feels safe to express the rage she’s carrying in latent form in everyday life and which otherwise makes her personality uber-ebullient in some situations and hyper manic in others. The crate is her chance to vent, the opportunity to take all this diffuse pressure she’s constantly absorbing and then expressing it in as coherent (in the sense of having a concrete target) a manner as possible. Thus Bixie can’t wait to get inside her create so that she can explode as this is the only way she can find relief from her constantly charged state.
The short list of “loading inputs” is shadows on walls, being approached when in her outdoor kennel or indoor crate, snakes, low flying jets, woodpeckers, chickadees too close to the bird feeder, robins on the lawn, the slightest trace of our cat, the ultrasound frequencies of small prey animals, the water spritzer on the sink, the beam of a flashlight, typing on a computer, an engine starting, metallic objects overhead, sirens on TV, trucks going by the road about 1/2 mile away. In other words, pretty much everything. Today there’s much discussion in training circles about keeping a dog “under threshold” in order for them to learn new ways of dealing with stress, but what then should one do with a dog that is always OVER threshold? This is the dilemma that some many owners of hyper-happy, overloaded and manic prey-instinct-addled dogs are having to contend with.
The crate is our most important tool of rehabilitation because it’s the easiest way for a dog to learn that being calm is what makes the world go round, they don’t always have to be running the treadmill of their personality to keep it spinning. Furthermore Bixie can’t be learning anything bad if she’s in her crate and with the crate in the quietest spot possible I can keep the loading inputs minimized. So since the crate is so important my first order of business is to be able to move her in and out of the crate without her usual meltdown. Letting her out of the crate is no problem because she associates this with her chance to shine and be the life of the never ending party always underway in her hyper developed personality.
At first I began by being as benign as possible and simply throwing food into the back of the crate and attempting to soften her this way. But no sooner had she snarked up a mouthful of kibble than she was already spinning around and hitting the gate, only now in addition to the normal and vicious cacophony of growls, snarls, and smashing and gnawing of teeth on metal, was a horrid choking and coughing sound as well. And as I would try to get the gate latched, fumbling to align the up and down spokes into their respective slots, she could in fact bite me through the mesh as her teeth could stray outside and get around the spring loaded snap. My fingers tingled on the rods like I was trying to fish out a piece of toast immeshed in the red hot wires of a toaster.
So I stopped using food to deflect her attention from the gate because she merely incorporated this into her spin around and attack move, only now even more intense since food guarding was adding even more energy to the mix.
Since diving into the crate is linked to attacking at the gate, that’s where I have to get a handle on the problem. This means collected walking on the high collar as we approach the crate, but as a preliminary to this, I must do some box “challenges” so that Bixie can become attuned to the high collar as a feedback device. By fighting to get on the box, she gets the fight that has been programmed into her, out of her system, after which she softens, and now I can massage her neck. Now she will be able to associate my touch with a relaxed state and she can feel the pleasure of a massage in the moment rather than relive her fear of my hand when in a charged state. After I make this inroad, she’s ready for a high collar, collected walk into the crate.
She has to walk slowly instead of pulling with all her might to get in there and now she likewise associates this feeling of softening, of being collected and in alignment and in sync with my movements, with the lessening of pressure from the high collar. This is a feedback experience. If she panics to get in the crate, just like she panics to get on the box, SHE MAKES HERSELF uncomfortable. I have nothing to do with it even though of course I’ve contrived for it to happen by the precise angle by which I’m holding her lead over the box. Then when she relaxes, SHE MAKES HERSELF comfortable. Now she associates me and my hand massage with calmness, rather than as a boogie man from her past. And so after she goes in her crate I can massage her neck at the gate. She is now able to feel pleasure rather than fear. She actually is feeling in control of what is happening around her because of the feedback dynamic of the high collar. This is Step One.
Just to repeat, here is the BEFORE video with Bixie going “over threshold.”
Here is Bixie after learning that calmness begets pleasure and which then allows me to use pleasure to raise her threshold.