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Book Review
Aggression in Dogs by Brenda Aloff
Review by: Kate Connick, Feb. 2005

The pet owner struggling through life with an aggressive dog will welcome Brenda Aloff's useful manual Aggression in Dogs, aptly subtitled Practical Management, Prevention and Behavior Modification. It is a daunting task to create a book of this nature that will be informative, effective, and neither exacerbate one's problems nor set one up for injury. Aloff handles the challenge well.

Aloff approaches the subject matter not only as a dog trainer but also as a dog owner who, herself, has had to find ways to live safely with dogs manifesting human-directed and inter-dog aggression issues. Throughout the book, she uses herself and her own dogs as a frame of reference. I suppose some readers might tire of that personal style of presentation, but I'm inclined to think that it lends an approachable, empathetic legitimacy that would be well received by the target audience. The owner of an aggressive dog will identify with Aloff's words, just as Aloff makes it clear that she relates to their experiences.

Approximately 400 pages long, this oversized paperback is not a quick read. Although much of it may have general relevance and be useful in preventing behavior problems, the information is really not packaged in a way that makes it accessible to the average pet owner. Realistically, one needs to be quite motivated to purchase and read this lengthy, expensive book. Owning an aggressive dog could certainly provide that motivation, but the average pet owner of a non-aggressive dog would be likely to find the book's size, scope, and price uninviting. This is unfortunate, because the book does contain a wealth of useful information.

Aloff explains aggression's functional role in a social species. She defines what is normal and what is not, describes classifications of aggression, and discusses factors that contribute to the escalation or diffusion of aggression. Although she doesn't blame owners in a judgmental manner, she does point out the ways in which owners inadvertently create or exacerbate aggression problems.

Although she does suggest that not all dogs are safe and salvageable, and she does repeatedly emphasize that owning an aggressive dog can be burdensome in terms of management, liability, and time, Aloff doesn't directly address the issue of dangerousness and euthanasia. She recommends that an owner meet with a professional to help make these determinations. This book focuses on what to do with the aggressive dog that one owns, not on whether or not owning the dog is a sensible decision, per se.

Aloff limits her target audience to those owners with relatively normal dogs, i.e., dogs that "never learned how to communicate in an appropriate and effective manner to humans and/or other dogs. This animal learned that aggression can be an effective tool to gain social distance or gain access to valuable resources." She contrasts that with what she identifies as a minority of aggressive dogs that suffer from the genuine pathology of "physiological or chemical imbalances" and admits that for those animals, "the training and management protocols laid out in the book may be inappropriate or dangerous." Aloff urges those with any doubt to consult with a veterinary behaviorist or behavioral specialist.

Further, she identifies a specific time frame in which the reader should be seeing favorable changes in their dog's behavior. She notes, "If your dog becomes more reactive, or more aggressive, over a 90 day time frame, or you are not seeing at least some progress over 30 days, you are misusing one of the techniques and may need to seek the help of a behaviour specialist."

The book is founded on the premise that aggressive dogs - and their owners - have poor communication skills. Aloff explains, in detail, how to identify canine stress and arousal, as well as related behaviors that reflect displacement or "calming signals," assertive and yielding body language, and distance increasing and decreasing signals.

Aloff hammers home the concept that an owner must intercede before the dog's stress level reaches a point where the dog reacts aggressively. By manufacturing and heavily rewarding alternative behavior - which essentially boils down to teaching the dog to focus on the owner rather than the environment - the object is to create longstanding, calm, non-reactive responses to previously provocative circumstances. Ultimately the dog should not only behave non-aggressively, but it should not manifest the underlying emotions that originally motivated the aggressive acting out. This is where Aloff's strategy surpasses other, more traditional approaches which may attempt to teach a dog to obey in circumstances where it has expressed aggression but which fail to counter-condition the dog to feel differently about the things that have triggered its aggression.

Although she rejects traditional dominance paradigms through which to interpret aggression, she makes a point of differentiating between her form of positive training and permissive ownership. She advocates making a dog earn everything it wants in life, including food, ostensibly not to reinforce status but to make the owner relevant to the dog as a source of reinforcement.

Much of Aloff's commentary is practical and not specific to dogs with aggression problems. Her cautions about dog parks, as well as her insistence upon the importance of management, structure, and supervision have broad relevance. She is relentless about the onus of owing an aggressive dog, and safety consciousness is evident throughout the text.

Grounded in learning theory, Aloff's approach relies on the use of a Halti head halter, leash, muzzle, food, and perhaps an "assess-a-hand." Readers unable or unwilling to buy into the theory or tools will find her methods unappealing. Corrections are minimal but not absent, and management is paramount.

After presenting background information about aggression and learning, Aloff walks the reader through specific exercises that include focusing attention, maintaining a relaxed sit or down, demonstrating self control in the face of temptation, being handled, relinquishing resources, and greeting other dogs and humans. The real strength of her book lies in these applied exercises.

In general, her writing style is conversational and straightforward. The last section of the book, containing the actual training exercises, is very clear and easy for the pet owner to follow. Goals and progressions are clearly explained, and the exercises are often photographically illustrated.

Presumably intended to inspire hope in the reader, her boastful success rates are puzzling. She claims, "Quite often these protocols produce amazing results, with 70-90% and sometimes 99.9% improvement." But what does that mean? Is this based on the owners' subjective, impressionistic estimates of how their dogs are doing, or is it based on some objective measure? Numbers like this have no meaning and tend to erode credibility if not operationally defined.

A handful of sentence fragments are forgivable, but Aloff's insistent overuse of emphasis is flatly irritating. Particularly frustrating is her Capitalization Of Random Words. She should trust her sentence structure and her audience's capacity for reading comprehension without continually inserting forced emphasis. As it so violates normal grammar, it becomes distracting to read sentences like, "How fiercely your dog guards a resource depends on How Important This Resource Is To Him Right This Minute."

On the other hand, her illustrations are effective - both the black and white photographs, as well as Aloff's own sketches. She's a very good artist.

In the end, this is a very useful manual for the pet owner who has an aggressive dog. It provides enough theory to set the stage, but it's basically a practical guide. Readers will find the training exercises invaluable. Not only are the exercises likely to be effective to varying degrees, but they are presented in a reasonably safe and realistically achievable manner.

This would be a stronger book if it was less expensive and more concise, if for no other reason than it would reach more readers. Nonetheless, if a pet owner is attempting to gain control of an aggressive dog or doesn't want to make mistakes that might lead to aggression issues, it is well worth spending the time to read this book. Even for the pet owner with a completely non-problematic dog, this book is worthwhile reading, especially for the exercises relating to attention and self-control.

Aggression in Dogs by Brenda Aloff.
Published by Fundcraft, Inc., 2001. ISBN: 1591960738

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