E172: Michael Shikashio - "Resource Guarding, Aggression, and Reactivity"

Mike and I chat about all the projects he's working on right now — and the differing types of guarding, aggression, and reactivity that dogs exhibit.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Mike Shikashio.

Mike is the past president of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC), and provides private consultations working exclusively with dog aggression cases through his business, Complete Canines LLC. Mike is fully certified through the IAABC and is a full member of the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT). He also offers mentoring and training to other professionals.

Mike is sought after for his expert opinion by numerous media outlets, including the New York Times, New York Post, Baltimore Sun, WebMD, Women's Health magazine, Real Simple magazine, The Chronicle of the Dog, and Steve Dale's Pet World. He is a featured speaker on the topic of canine aggression at conferences and seminars around the world.

Welcome back to the podcast, Mike!

Mike Shikashio: Hey Melissa, thanks for having me. I am super-excited to be back on the FDSA podcast.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To start us out, do you want to share a little about your own pups and what you're working on?

Mike Shikashio: I will be honest: I'm working on absolutely nothing with my dog right now. She's getting lots of belly rubs and spoiling, but I have had zero time to do any projects with her, so she gets the occasional hike or swim, but definitely not doing any training exercises or routines with her at the moment. But she's well trained. Moira's got her well trained anyway.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. When working on your bio, I didn't even know where to begin, so I thought I'd just ask you to tell us a little bit in your own words. I know you've got all sorts of projects you're juggling right now. Do you want to talk about the things you've got coming up?

Mike Shikashio: Yeah, definitely. The big thing we've got coming up is the Aggression In Dogs conference later this year. That ended up moving online, for obvious reasons, and Joanne Rechtine from the Loose Leash Academy and I are hosting that together. Super-excited about that. I've also got the Master Course that's still up and running for aggression in dogs. That's geared toward trainers.

I just decided to launch a podcast that's going to be called The Bitey End of the Dog, and it's going to be focused on strictly aggression, for the most part. I've got some interesting guests coming up in the lineup. Super-excited to have a diverse group coming in. That should be launched hopefully in the end of July, early August, if I can get my stuff together and get it all out there.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. Congrats. It's a big deal.

Mike Shikashio: Yeah, I'm looking forward to it.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the conference. I know it's scheduled for October 2-4. For those who hadn't known about it before, are tickets still available? I know it sold out before you decided to take it virtual.

Mike Shikashio: It was really a lot more popular than we thought it was going to be. We sold out the entire conference. It was supposed to be a live conference in Providence, Rhode Island. We sold that out in 48 hours, all of those tickets, so we decided to at that point go to a bigger venue, which I think held 500 people or something like that.

And then of course the pandemic hit, which made us move online, so tickets are still available. People can get those on Joanne's website. It's called TheLooseLeashAcademy.com, and there's an Aggression In Dogs Conference page that they can land on with all the information.

I'm really excited, because I always wanted to do something focused on aggression for a conference, and so I started looking around for speakers. I wanted to pull in folks that I know were good, one of them being Denise Fenzi, of course, and getting her side of things from the dog sports and bite sports world.

We've got someone from the neuroscience perspective, Dr. Kathy Murphy, who's a neuroscientist, among a bunch of other things. She's going to be giving a great keynote on the neurobiology and neuroscience related to aggression.

We've got a veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Amy Pike, coming in to talk about meds. We've got Katenna Jones, who is going to be looking at cats and aggression. Leslie McDevitt, who is also really awesome, I think she's talking a little bit more on the dog-dog aggression stuff.

And we've got the always interesting Jim Crosby as well. He's got his really gnarly dog bites. If you saw his stuff at the Lemonade Conference, I'm sure you remember that. It's not something you want to have lunch and watch one of his webinars at the same time. So we have him coming in.

Kim Brophey is going to be talking about ethology in dogs, as well, and how that relates to aggression. Dr. Laura Donaldson is also coming to give a great talk about cognition. And of course we've got Trish McMillan coming along to talk about the shelter side of things. And I'll be maybe doing a talk or two. So it's going to be super-exciting.

I really wanted to bring in something not just focused on one dynamic in aggression. I wanted to bring in all the different lenses for people who know about aggression and can approach it from different angles. So that's happening October 2-4 this year, all livestream, and we're going to have lots of fun there, too, because we're going to have … the platforms we're looking at, they have these cool chat rooms you can break out, and you can schedule one-to-one Facetime meetings with other people in the conference. It's kind of like networking, the stuff we're missing right now.

We're going to have sponsor booths, just like you go to a trade hall at one of the conferences, you get all your swag, you come home with all your dog toys stuffed in a Kong bag. Kind of the same thing. We're going to have a bunch of exhibitor booths there as well, like a virtual exhibit hall where people can check out stuff, and the people that work for the company will be inside the booth at the virtual show, so really cool options there. And we're going to have a cocktail party. More on that to be announced.

Melissa Breau: For the conference, who should be signing up? Is it for pet owners who have dogs that fall into some of these categories, or is it for more professional trainers? Can you share a little more about that?

Mike Shikashio: It's geared toward anybody that is into dog behavior, so we do have quite a few pet owner/hobby folks coming to see the conference, and we've gotten a lot of inquiries about that. Really anybody who wants to learn more about dog behavior or dog aggression, I think it's suited for.

Of course we have a lot of veterinarians and trainers and behavior consultants signing up, but anybody can join. We have a lot of people that have problems with their own dogs asking about it, and I think there's something to be learned from much of the conference, even for a pet owner. I don't think anything is going to be too jargon-y or too not for a pet owner material.

Except maybe Jim Crosby. I might steer the pet owners away from his talk. But actually I don't think he's going to be showing anything gory. He's going to be talking about assessments in one of the fight busts that he had worked.

Melissa Breau: Oh, interesting.

Mike Shikashio: It should be PG, maybe.

Melissa Breau: For TLC, at the Lemonade Conference, we had people pre go through some of the presentations, just to get them prepped. The pre-scanner person watched his and was like, "I think we need a warning on this." So we added warnings to the website for his graphic slides.

Mike Shikashio: Yes, it's definitely needed. It's just like the book that he's in also, Dog Bites, you're going to have those splashed with warnings, trigger warnings we call them. When Trish and I do our seminars, we have to give tons of trigger warnings for a lot of the stuff we show.

Melissa Breau: So that's the conference. What about the course? Do you want to share a little more on that?

Mike Shikashio: Sure. I launched the Aggression In Dogs Master Course last year, so it's almost at its one-year anniversary. The reason why I launched it was I felt that it was missing in the marketplace. There was nothing out there working aggression cases from start to finish, so that's why I started it. I said, "If it's not there, I might as well create it, because it's needed."

I had a lot of trainers. I had the smaller course through Dog Trainers Connection at one point, and it was sort of an outline of how to work aggression cases, but it really didn't get into the detail that I wanted to get into.

So I launched a much more in-depth course that's got twenty-three modules on everything from assessing to the behavior change plans to medications. Dr. Chris Pachel does that module for me, the ethology aspect of aggression, which Kim Brophey did. And even compassion fatigue. Jessica Dolce came in and did a compassion fatigue module, because I think that's important, especially when you're working a lot of aggression cases, for folks to have that ability to recognize and know what to do when that comes up.

It's all self-paced, so people can work on it at their own time. They have up to a year to complete it. Once they complete the modules, then they get the live group mentor sessions with me, so people can jump into … I do three times every other week, so three sessions at different time zones. I have folks in Australia that appreciate the 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. time, so they get to pick and choose what times they want to come.

We work through cases together, and I have special guests come in too. I had Jessica Wheatcraft is a specialist in leash reactivity, or dogs who have issues on leash, come in and give a special talk last week.

It's been great. I've got quite a few wonderful students now and the community is really awesome. The students all take care of each other, and are nice to each other, and cordial and professional. I have a pretty large group now and I never have to moderate anything, which, as you know, when you have a Facebook group, you've got to have a team of moderators. I'm never — I'm knocking on wood here — had to go in and moderate any conversations. They're just so nice to each other. So shout out to them, shout out to the students.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. And it's specifically for trainers, right? I think you said that at the beginning.

Mike Shikashio: It is. The course assumes you know how to get behavior in a dog, because we talk about operant conditioning, classical conditioning. I skip over the whole teaching the theory of that, because you can get that in 800 other places online nowadays, so I don't get into that. I talk about it, but I assume people know and understand those concepts — how to teach your dog to sit, and things like that — before taking this course, because it's really not something people should start out with at first.

Melissa Breau: In case it's not clear for people listening, it's obvious you made your name as an aggression expert specifically. I was curious: At what point in your career did you decide that that was what you wanted to focus on? And how did you get to where you are today? Because people think aggression, and your name comes up. Period.

Mike Shikashio: I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I started to really like it. Like most trainers start out, I was taking everything. I started out with the basics and teaching foundational skills, and then getting into more behavioral issues. I was also fostering a lot of dogs at the time, and so I wanted to learn how to help those dogs more.

I was seeing a common theme of dogs facing euthanasia or rehoming or really having these terrible outcomes because of the lack of help out there, the lack of knowledge to help these dogs, including myself. I was lacking the knowledge at the time. So I started seeking out … and that was the issue is seeing a lot of those aggression issues. Dogs don't necessarily get rehomed if they're counter-surfing, but they do, or worse, if they're biting or displaying aggressive behavior toward people or other animals.

So that's really where I started focusing on. I started learning and reading and shadowing everybody I could. I was pretty voracious about learning as much as I could, because I really wanted to not just wing it, but I wanted to know it and practice it really well. That's how I started doing that.

And then I started realizing that if you specialize in something, you get better at it faster. If that's all you focus on, if that's all you're reading about and listening to, and that's basically anything with the word "aggression" on it, I was gobbling up and digesting and not paying attention to much of the other stuff, but you get better faster.

And then you also start to see common themes. You start to almost profile things in a way that you might not if you're jumping from a puppy case to a separation anxiety case to an aggression case and back to a puppy case. If you're doing aggression case after aggression case, you start to see common themes that you might not have if you were taking, again, a wide range of cases, and I think there's a benefit to that.

It becomes really helpful for you. As a good behavior consultant, you have to know how to take good history, because especially with aggression, we don't need to see a behavior. We don't want to see the behavior most of the time. I don't need to see a dog trying to bite my face off to get enough history that the dog likes to try to bite people's faces off. So that's often what I can just focus on is good behavior history-taking.

But then you get into the real specifics of the case, that if you see the same patterns over and over, then you're going to be in that zone and really being able to assess what's going on properly, and giving the correct behavior change plans and management techniques for that particular case.

So specializing is … I think we'll see much more of that. We're already seeing a lot of that, of course. We have FDSA. We're seeing lots of people specializing in certain topics, and I think that's great, because people will become much more knowledgeable about that particular topic much faster than if they were taking a wide range of cases.

Melissa Breau: You said you focus on getting better at it faster, but I think there's another piece to that, which is if it's something you enjoy learning about, you're going to get better than if it's just something you enjoy doing, in which case you're not motivated to continue constantly improving, which I think is interesting.

Mike Shikashio: Absolutely. Absolutely. It's both knowing and doing the art and science of things. It's been quite a journey, I can say, in the learning, and how much I've evolved, too. I was talking to Matt Beisner, I interviewed him for my podcast, and we were talking about that as well, just how much we've evolved as trainers, because we both came from a "balanced training" background, using a lot of aversives. It's not a light switch. It's a journey, and it takes time to make those changes. But it's amazing when you look back and see how you were ten years ago. It's such a difference.

Melissa Breau: You've done a number of webinars for us here at FDSA on different facets of aggression — dogs who are dog aggressive, intra-household aggression, resource guarding, and specifically one on resource guarding people that is back on the calendar for July 16. So it's coming back around, since we had a lot of people asking questions about it during the Lemonade Conference. When talking about aggression, why break it out that way? Why those categories?

Mike Shikashio: I think it helps us put things into a context. I know the ABA purists listening along don't like constructs or labels, or giving a behavior a label, like fear aggression, maternal aggression, territorial aggression. Those are constructs, they're labels, but I think they can be helpful for professionals when talking to each other. If I'm presenting a topic, if I say "stranger danger cases," it's a colloquial term for a type of case, which will help them understand the topic.

But then, when you get into the details, of course it's important to understand antecedents and consequences and ascending events for those behaviors. Those are the things I focus on when I'm teaching. But from a marketing aspect, my website name is AggressiveDog.com. That's the biggest label you could put on something. But people, when they're searching for help, they use that term, so it makes sense from that aspect. So for putting it into those categories, I think it just helps people with what to search for and what the topic's going to be focused on.

Melissa Breau: When you dig into those things, what are we talking about in terms of the similarities and differences? Are we breaking things down that way, like you said, because of marketing purposes? Are there actually similarities and differences in terms of what causes those things or differences in the treatment?

Mike Shikashio: I think there's a lot of similarities, of course, with the underlying motivations for aggression and typically to make the bad thing go away. If you use your teeth on something, usually it's not going to stick around. Underlying motivations can be based usually in fear. The dog can perceive the stimulus as a threat. Sometimes it's not always that. Sometimes the dog is very confident about making something go away in the sense of it's not fear. Those cases are much more rare.

Generally speaking, the underlying motivation, the treatment is very similar in many of the cases, so you'll see me using a lot of classical counterconditioning and desensitization, differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors as well. So basically, what do you want the dog to do instead when something shows up. The small subtleties and the changes we make are those things I was talking about.

Let's talk about the owner guarding, the webinar that's coming up soon. One of the things we have to differentiate is if it's resource guarding of the owner or truly protecting the owner. There's subtle differences there. It looks very much the same. So the stranger approaching the owner when the dog is near the owner, the dog starts barking and lunging at that person. That looks very much like the dog is protecting the owner, or is the dog resource guarding the owner?

Resource guarding is when the dog doesn't want to lose possession of something of value. We classically see that with the food bowl or the toys, but it can also be the person. They don't want the person to be moved away or taken away, because they find it valuable. You classically see that directed at other people in the home, or friends that come over that the dog is "generally fine with," and I put that in air quotes, "generally fine with," and the spouse approaches the other spouse on the couch, and the dog jumps off and growls at them because they don't want to lose access to that person, because that other person might come over and get in-between, and basically the dog is losing access or possession, just like they lost possession of the food bowl or toy. So that's resource guarding.

True protective aggression, when a dog is protecting their owner, is when they feel the stimulus approaching is a threat to the safety of their owner, so they're protecting them. That's much more rare than resource guarding. We typically only see that with certain breeds of dogs, so we might see that classic Belgian Malinois from working lines doing that, and it comes out naturally with some of those dogs. I explain that, especially to clients that go out and get dogs that are from working lines, from some of the working breeds like Malinois, Rottweilers, Dobermans, German Shepherds, Cane Corsos and so on and so forth.

Sometimes the behavior just comes out naturally. You don't have to train that into a dog, just like you don't have to train a Border Collie to herd something or a Lab to retrieve or fetch after something. It comes out naturally, and that's true protective behavior in some of those cases. You don't see that in other breeds. You don't see many Cavalier King Charles Spaniels displaying true protective aggression. The funny thing is you hear that. Some owners will misdiagnose that and be like, "I think he's trying to protect me." Probably not. I think he's trying to protect himself from whatever is coming.

So you can see, when we present this broad topic, when we present that category, the differences in the treatment and the underlying motivations might be first assessing the true motivation and then working on the actual behavior issue.

For instance, the subtleties in a resource guarding case versus true protective aggression cases, with dogs that are protecting their owners, typically there's no fear component, so when we have a dog that's fearful, we're usually trying to change that association through counterconditioning and desensitization. We're trying to change the dog's perception of "This thing isn't so bad. It's actually good when it comes near me." That's classical counterconditioning. We can do that with it.

With dogs that are truly protective, they're not scared. Some of these dogs are having a good old time doing their job. They're like, "This is what my mommy and daddy did, this is what I'm going to do, because that's what we do for a living." So there's really no fear component. They're having fun. They're having a good old time protecting their owner because that's what they do. So you can't counter condition that because you're not changing an underlying emotional response with those particular dogs. It's like saying to a Lab, "I'm going to give you cookies every time you fetch the ball, so you become less afraid of the ball." The Lab's not afraid of the ball. The dog's having a good old time doing what he was purpose-bred to do historically over many generations.

The same thing with truly protective dogs. Same thing. So I go much more operant with those dogs, giving those dogs direction, putting things on stimulus control, making sure that dog understands what we expect from them or what we want them to do in that particular context. So much more cuing, much more operant behavior.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. When you say "born with it," obviously that's like … you made a comparison to herding and it's the same thing. They're born with the instincts to do it, but they don't do it very well on their own.

Mike Shikashio: Exactly. Think about it. If you just let the dogs … the big buzzwords right now are empowerment, autonomy, choice, control. Yes, yes, yes, I love all those concepts. However, we have to be careful when we give too much choice and control, because, again, if I've got a Border Collie and I've got a birthday party with kids outside, and I just let the Border Collie go and start choices, "Go do what you want. You can herd the kids, you can sit here," but if I don't give the dog direction, it's just going to often, especially if it's a behavior that is instinctive or it's part of their breed tendencies, then they're going to exhibit that.

Especially when it comes to aggression, you don't want to just say, "What's your choice here? Are you going to sit nicely or are you going to protect me? Your choice, go ahead, do what you want." That's where it can go a little bit sideways. But again, those cases are rare. Most of the time, we do want to give the dog plenty of choice and plenty of opportunities to act on their own environments, so that we minimize the stress and of course the benefits of that.

Melissa Breau: To talk just a little bit more about the webinar, do you mind talking a little bit more about what you cover in the webinar itself?

Mike Shikashio: This one, I'm going to revamp the one that I gave the last time and add in what to do with dogs who guard their owners from other dogs. That was a popular topic. I was focusing a lot on the human side, so dogs that will resource guard their owner or protect their owner from other humans, which is often an easier element to work on, because you can communicate with humans and tell them what to do more readily than you can some dogs.

So I'll be covering the dog-to-dog owner guarding aspect, especially in the home. I'll focus on that, and of course talk about why dogs do that particular behavior, and some of the training strategies or behavior change strategies that you can use for those kinds of cases, both for dog-to-human and dog-to-dog, within the scope of an hour-long webinar, of course.

I want it to be a nice broad overview because I think there's a lot of common questions that people have with this type of behavior, and I think it's certainly treatable, and it's one of the ones that there's not a lot of information out there about how to work with this. So I'm glad I can run this back again.

Melissa Breau: To take a step back for a second, when we're talking about this type of resource guarding, what does that look like? What are we seeing?

Mike Shikashio: With resource guarding behaviors, typically you think about when a dog resource guards their food bowl or toy, what do we see for behaviors? Usually we see the head lower, the ears will pull back, typically you see what's called an agonistic pucker, which is when the commissure, the C-shape of the mouth pulls forward, so it's much more forward versus a long lip retraction. You'll see stiffening, growling often. You'll see those kinds of behaviors.

With owner guarding, typically — and I'm speaking generally here — you can see all kinds of in-between variations, because you have some dogs that are conflicted, so they're fearful and they're guarding, so there's lots of different variations.

But classically you'll see dogs that are protecting their owners that position themselves in front of the owner. They'll get in front of the owner, they'll put their shoulder right up against the owner's thigh, or they'll stand straight spine usually, so not much movement in the spine.

If it's owner guarding in the sense of protective behavior, their ears are forward, chest is forward, front legs are very stiff and straight. They also might be doing an agonistic pucker, they might be barking, usually in a staccato pattern, very staccato pattern, leaning forward. So you'll see much more confident, high-tail flagging type of posturing with those dogs. So there's subtle differences.

But I don't want the listeners to think that's the only thing to look for, because you of course want to get a good behavior history. When you have different motivations, the toughest cases for me are the ones the dog is under-socialized and fearful of people, but they also want to guard their owner. So there's two conflicting things there, in a sense. If the dog is confidently guarding their owner but they're also fearful of people, that's a lot to juggle, because we have to first of all change how they feel about people in general, but then also teach them that you don't want them guarding their owner. So there's a lot to work with there.

Now here's the thing. We were just talking about empowerment and choice and control. When we start using operant behaviors or cuing things, sit-stay, down-stay, place, those kinds of operant behaviors, which are nice, desirable, replacement behaviors — sitting is much better than biting — however, we're removing some of the dog's choice and we're restricting their flight option, so they can't get away from the stimulus that they're afraid of.

And we're asking them to sit and stay because we also don't want them protecting us, so we often have to first build up their confidence around people, safely, and then work on the other side of the coin, which is the dog guarding the owner. So those are the tough cases because it requires a lot of patience, and a lot of very careful management and safety, of course, in those cases.

Melissa Breau: I've got one last question, which is a question I've been asking everybody when they come on these days. What is something that you have learned or been reminded of recently when it comes to dog training?

Mike Shikashio: I will say I've really been connecting to the human element in terms of the cases I've had. Again, when you specialize, you get to see the same things over and over and over, so the dog side of stuff gets … I don't want to call it boring, but straightforward. Anybody else who's listening that focuses on one type of dog sport or one particular niche, they're going to say, "Yeah, we repeat the same process over and over and over with subtle tweaks," and sometimes you get some interesting cases in behavior from the dog's side of the equation.

I've done quite a few online consults over the last few months, with the whole pandemic, and I'm fortunate to get a lot of referrals from trainers from all over the world who are either stuck on a case or they have a real tricky case. So I've gotten consults from as far as Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, and it's really interesting the dynamic of the human side of the equation and how it can be different from a cultural standpoint, how the relationships with the dogs differ, and how society and their area views dogs and relationships and what they tolerate and what they don't.

And then also when you're connecting with somebody by Zoom, you often don't see the dogs. You're just sitting there, making this human connection. With aggression cases there's a lot of emotion involved, so I've been really seeing the subtleties in terms of the owner's emotions and what can impact those emotions, what variables in the case can really change how the owner feels.

A classic one is the owner's perception of a dog bite. Dog bites are certainly not created equally in terms of owner perception. For some owners, it is a very slight scratch on them can be devastating. "How dare my dog bite anybody? That's horrendous." And the injury is less than what they would get when they're peeling an apple. On the other side of the equation, I have dogs killing other dogs or severely mauling people, and people aren't taking it very seriously. So those are the things that you get to see more and more, the more you really consult with clients and focus on the client rather than the dog.

When I was doing in-person consults constantly, a lot of the time you're worried about the dog because you've got to focus on not getting bitten, or making sure the dogs don't have a problem with each other if there's a dog-dog issue. So a lot of the focus is on the dog, but you don't get laser-focused on the client.

So I think the human element, as well as just how much the stress of everything going on in the world right now is impacting owners and how their relationship is with other people in their family and with their dogs. Quite an increase in aggression cases directed at the owner that I've had over the last few months, and I think again that it's due to stress, due to increased exposure with the dog, meaning the owner is home and giving the dog more chances to bite, more chance of the dog being around resource, stress playing a role, so really fascinating look into human behavior over the last few months. That's what I would say has been the biggest change for me.

Melissa Breau: That's an interesting place to end, too, is both the importance of the human in the whole thing, but also a reminder of stressful for us, all those changes are also stressful on the dogs, and now we've got two stressed-out things, living beings, in the same household.

Mike Shikashio: Yeah. I think the dogs can absolutely feed off of that. We're not talking about mystical concepts like energy or anything like that. I do feel, however, that dogs are very in tune to how we're feeling, how we're behaving, and how we're interacting with others. They can certainly sense that and it can certainly have a profound impact on their own behavior.

Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming back on the podcast Mike! This was great.

Mike Shikashio: It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!

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Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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