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Book Review
How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong
by Pamela Dennison

Review by: Kate Connick, Jan. 2006

Pamela Dennison's How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong might have been more accurately titled "a clicker trainer's purely positive approach to fear-based aggression." The book emphasizes systematic desensitization and counterconditioning of dogs that are reactive on leash when encountering dogs or people in public.

In a nutshell, the author advocates first teaching 10 foundation behaviors: bridge response, eye contact, name recognition, heel on a loose leash, accept touching, accept secondary reinforcers, stays, recall, doorway control, and no resource guarding. After that, the idea is to pair food, toys, praise, petting, and other things the dog enjoys with whatever has previously frightened/provoked him. No punishments or corrections of any kind are permitted. Although the aim is to remain below the dog's threshold for reacting, if the dog does explode aggressively, the owner is advised to let him calm down, call him, ask for three behaviors (e.g., sit, down, stay), wait three seconds, and reward him for returning his focus to his owner. The accent is on brief sessions, along with clear and very gradual goals.

Presumably, the target audience is a regular pet owner with an aggressive dog. There are several ways in which the book seems to shortchange that particular population. Most notably, some explanations are insufficient to be genuinely helpful for the average, relatively inexperienced pet owner.

As one guiding principle is "being careful not to stress your dog," it seems obvious that the reader (who again, is presumably not a dog expert) will need a clear idea of what to look for. Her discussion is sketchy and confusing, especially when she concedes that, "learning is inherently stressful, even using positive methods." The inexperienced reader needs plenty of guidance in grasping what is acceptable stress and what is beyond the point where they should push their dog.

Dennison's quick list includes mild stress signals like drooling, medium stress signals like "eating poop" and drinking water, "hot" stress signals such as sitting or lying down, and "bring out the fire extinguisher" stress signals like chewing and digging. One really needs to discuss context when cautioning about these ambiguous stress signals. Surely dogs being trained with food drool for reasons other than stress (such as when anticipating a treat). Dogs yawn, pant, and scratch for reasons other than stress. While the reader is referred to other books/videos for information, that dilutes the usefulness of this book, per se. As Dennison repeatedly insists that the reader needs to "fully understand your dog's body language," and read the dog carefully, the discussion of stress signals and body language seems poorly implemented.

She would have done so much better to expand on her observation (essentially hidden in a text block, versus the easily accessed but more nebulous stress signs above):

"A general tightening of posture or stiffening of muscles is a fairly reliable barometer of increasing tension. You may see a stiffening of the tail or ears; a change in the appearance of the muzzle and mouth; a heightened, more intense look in the eyes, including enlarged pupils; puffed cheeks and short, explosive breaths; foaming at the mouth (significantly different from drooling); and a noticeable tightness of the mouth when taking food."

Reading a dog is so crucial to her approach that it really should have been discussed with far greater elaboration. The above could have been expanded into an entire chapter. It's not necessarily reasonable to assume of the reader that, "You know your dog - watch carefully for warning signs or signs of stress." Many pet owners genuinely can't read a dog well and need this spelled out more clearly. Beyond that, it would be wise to include many safety precautions for the dog that is not easily read.

Also insufficient may be the progressions that Dennison describes. When describing exercises surrounding a guarded food bowl, for example, she begins with hand feeding for a week. Then she has the owner put one bowl of food (containing a treat) on the floor. When the dog has finished eating it, "take the empty bowl away and at the exact same time, hand him the second bowl." The accompanying photograph shows a person's face perilously close to two dog bowls and a dog's face. If a dog has been a seriously aggressive food bowl guarder, this may be too radical a leap and may set the owner up to provoke a reaction. Perhaps the person could first segue into hand-feeding with a bowl present? Or walking towards a bowl while hand-feeding? Feeding one treat to the dog and dropping one in the bowl? Feeding one to the dog and reaching partially forward to drop one in the bowl? Etc. Picking up one bowl (even if another one is being lowered) may very well cause a dog to aggress. If the book is intended as a "roadmap for rehabilitating aggressive dogs," the author should spell out her approach in steps the reader can follow and not simply jump along concept lines. The reader won't necessarily be able to fill in the blanks on his own. Additionally, simple safety precautions like back-tying the dog are not mentioned. While her directions may be adequate in dealing with a non-guarder or very mild guarder, the very profoundly food possessive dog may hurt someone in a set-up as she describes.

A regular pet owner may find himself alienated by author's enthusiasm for competitive events and learning theory vocabulary. More particularly, they may feel shortchanged when it comes to simple matters of practicality. Dennison's method requires a prerequisite of foundation behaviors that may take several weeks to install before any desensitization may begin. During this interval, one is told that they must have 100% control over the environment, that one "must make sure that each experience (the dog) has is positive and does not cause him undue stress."

While that might be a nice ideal, it is not realistic for the average pet owner. Many people do not have access to multiple training locations that are devoid of human and animal life. People often have to walk their dogs in public and need to do it safely. Although she concedes that crating the dog when visitors come, muzzling the dog at the vet, and not permitting strangers to touch the dog may be reasonable management compromises with an aggressive dog, she really doesn't help the reader who needs to take his dog for a bathroom walk. She doesn't explain nor advocate muzzle or head halter use, for example, as these are viewed as stress-producing devices. Rather, she recommends, "If you absolutely must walk your dog on a street, then map out a course ahead of time and plan out your escape routes. Know the schedules of your neighbors." She even advocates running away from strangers (and eventually teaching one's dog that this is a fun game). It hardly feels like an empowering technique.

The author's harangue about the evils of punishment (and human-caused aggression) is so heavy-handed that it lacks plausibility. Certainly, it is not productive to beat up a dog that is in the throes of fear. However, it is disingenuous to insist that a simple verbal "uh uh" or spritz of water from a spray bottle will wreak devastating fallout. "Even if he 'complies,' the potential bad associations that the dog may learn are too negative to create a 'long-term beneficial outcome,'" she ominously warns. Her rather extreme example is hitting a dog to discourage him from jumping on visitors. Does she really believe that telling the dog, "Uh-uh, Rover sit," will result in emotional trauma that leads to overt hostility where there had been none before? While she does see shades of grey in rewards, she blanketly considers all punishments verboten.

And that's another area that may turn off readers. Not everyone will be comfortable with the purely positive approach. Contrary to her contention that, "positive reinforcement helps to make it clearer to your dog exactly what you are looking for," many trainers opt for a more balanced approach in the interests of clarity and efficiency. It is misleading to suggest, "When you use punishment, you do not teach other behavioral strategies for the dog; you simply leave a void." Many reasonable trainers set up scenarios where a dog is heavily rewarded for compliance to a command that is incompatible with aggressively acting out (like heeling or sit-staying), but correct (punish) noncompliance. The goal of that approach is to make the dog's options and owner's preferences very clear; proponents would argue that it is far more expedient and practical than Dennison's method.

In truth, nothing about this book is aimed at expedience. The author admits that, "the long-term solution of extensive reconditioning and training may not be palatable to your lifestyle and pocketbook." She recommends making short, mid, and long-term goals and accepting that "it will take as long as it takes." Nonetheless, she suggests that short-term goals may include "calm attention from your dog while provoking stimuli are 300 feet away... or your dog allowing you to handle him for a few seconds." Short-term can mean "as long as one year, or as little as five months." This may not be an acceptable time frame for a reader. Unless a dog is so extraordinarily aggressive that it doesn't belong in a pet owner's hands anyway, I can't imagine it taking upwards of 5 months to walk a dog past a person an entire football field away without the dog exploding in an aggressive outburst. These standards really do seem remarkably low.

The author never discusses the potential for psychotropic medications for particularly intractable cases, nor does she address the question of whether a dog is too dangerous to attempt to rehabilitate. I consider these serious omissions in a book specifically about aggression. Perhaps most of the dogs that people think of as "aggressive" are loud, blustering buffoons. Some are moderately threatening, others more so. And some are just plain dangerous in their environment. The author offers no assistance to the reader trying to determine the difference.

Several pages of peripheral information feel like padding. For example, while it is great to teach all sorts of things to dogs (and not just aggressive ones), the quicky explanations of competitive sports (e.g., "Agility - the speed obstacle course for dogs. This is a timed event and you need to run your dog through the course of obstacles accurately and safely") feel out of place in a book of this nature.

Similarly, the chapter listing additional behaviors one can teach (beyond the 10 foundation behaviors) feels like filler, because it doesn't actually tell the reader how to go about teaching these things. Some (like about turns) are obvious, but others (like the dog dropping on a dime while in a full-bore charge at something that provokes him) would benefit from elaboration.

In the end, while one might find this book helpful as a general overview of how to approach fear-based aggression from a purely positive direction, the book may not be the most useful resource upon which to rely. In particular, authors Aloff, Donaldson, and McConnell all offer better alternatives that adopt the same general philosophy but offer greater practical advice and/or offer more elaborate discussion of relevant factors in maintaining safety and progress.

How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong by Pamela S. Dennison.
Published by Alpine Blue Ribbon Books, 2005. ISBN: 1577790758

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