E232: Aggression in Dogs

This week I'm joined for an extra long episode by several of the presenters for the upcoming Aggression in Dogs conference to talk about how we can better handle these types of cases and debunk some of the many myths out there about aggression. 


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 I have quite the group here with me several of the presenters for the Aggression in Dogs Conference, happening October 22, 23, and 24, sponsored by FDSA.

Hi all, welcome to the podcast!

[All say hello.]

Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk. To start us out, I'm going to have each of you share your name, a little bit on who you are, who your dogs are, and a little on your background. Emily, do you want to start?

Emily Strong: Sure. My name is Emily Strong and I have two dogs. We have Copper, who's a little heeler mix that was sort of given to us. My partner's roommate announced one day, "You're taking my dog. I'm moving to New York." So that's how we ended up with Copper. Bree was a feral dog that we adopted through a sanctuary I used to work at, and she is exactly what you would expect a feral dog to be. But she's also my heart dog, so she's wonderful.

My background started when I was 11. I wanted to go to vet school. 4-H took us on a tour of the vet school, and then they said, "If you want to get into vet school, you have to not just have good grades, but a lot of experience with animals." I took that hyper-literally, and so when I was 11, I started volunteering at a vet clinic and a shelter. And then, over the past three decades or so, did a lot of work in wildlife rehab and aviaries with parrots and other bird species, stables, worked with horses and hoof-stock, and then was a vet tech for 17 years, and working also in shelters, volunteering in shelters.

Through all of that work, I realized that the way that we were taking care of animals was hurting them behaviorally, and I got really depressed by this philosophy of "You have to hurt them to help them." I went through a dark period where I was like, "I've committed my life to animals, but I'm always causing fear and pain to animals."

When I was 28, I had the good fortune of encountering Dr. Susan Friedman, and started learning about the behavior sciences and went, "Forget all this noise. I'm going to be a behavior consultant." I left everything else so that I could devote my life to behavioral health, and things have been significantly better for me since then. So I come from a multi-species background. Let's just put it that way.

Melissa Breau: Mike, do you want to go second?

Mike Shikashio: Sure. Mike Shikashio. I am the founder of AggressiveDog.com and the co-partner in the Aggression In Dogs Conference with Joann Rechtine, so excited to be here talking about the conference a little bit and aggression in general, because that's my passion.

I got into working with dogs because I wanted to, like everybody else, help the dogs in need. I found that most of the dogs I was working with in the foster environment were being surrendered to rescues and shelters because of behavior issues, and so I wanted to learn how to help dogs as much as possible. So I started dabbling in training and learning some bad things and learning some good things at the same time when I first started out, and, like Emily, was doing stuff early on that didn't quite match with what I was trying to actually accomplish in the long run. So I kept seeking out good trainers and advice, and I also wanted to help others learn and help the dogs at the same time.

I started on this journey to help as many dogs as possible and to go at a much bigger scale than just training on my own. That blossomed into of course teaching other trainers, and going and doing workshops with Trish, and having incredible webinars with Melanie and Emily, and all these other avenues to educate not only trainers but the general public about barking with aggression. So that's where it is now, and excited do this podcast.

Melissa Breau: Big things, man. What about you, Melanie?

Dr. Melanie Cerone: I am Melanie Cerone, and I am a psychologist and a board-certified behavior analyst as well as a certified professional dog trainer.

I have two dogs. One is Wyatt, who's a mini Labradoodle, and then Teddy, who is a 16-pound terrier mix, who is just an amalgamation of about every behavioral issue involving aggression that you can think of, so that's been a lot of fun.

I trained dogs as a hobby all of my adult life and even when I was a kid. I've been sort of obsessed with dogs since childhood, and then trained as a hobby through my adulthood, and was working as a behavioral psychologist with people and tended to work with individuals that had pretty significant challenging behaviors. So I've worked with a lot of individuals who've had issues with aggression themselves. I've also worked with individuals who have committed sexual offenses. I've worked in the prison system.

My passion is working with challenging behavioral issues, and having been trained behaviorally, clearly, that was hugely helpful. After 30-some years, I decided to see about applying my clinical skills to help animals, to help dogs who have challenging behavioral issues. So my practice focuses primarily on aggression as well as separation-related problem behaviors.

Melissa Breau: Excellent. And Trish?

Trish McMillan: Hi, I am Trish McMillan. I own McMillan Animal Behavior in North Carolina, and I currently share my life with twenty animals, but you only asked about the dogs.

I have a pit bull from a dog-fighting bust named Theodore, and I have a Sato from the beaches of Puerto Rico named Aleli, and I have a new little scruffy mutt named Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They are all awesome dogs who help me in my behavior consulting business.

I'm a certified professional dog trainer, certified dog behavior consultant, an associate certified cat behavior consultant, and I have a master's degree in animal behavior.

I focus mostly on the shelter world these days. I do take private clients, some of them aggression, but I balance it out with puppies and normal stuff because I can't do aggression all day like some of you guys.

I do a lot of shelter consulting. I teach shelter people how to do defensive handling, I teach a shelter dog behavior mentorship, where we go through everything from intake to capacity for care, to post-adoption support, and everything in-between. That's been taking up a lot of my pandemic time, and I love it. I love coaching. There's really no training program when you go into the shelter world as a shelter trainer. We're all coming from different backgrounds, and suddenly we've got dogs with no owners attached and it's a whole different kettle of fish. So that's where I'm coming from.

Melissa Breau: I hadn't really thought about it from that angle before, but that certainly makes sense. You've really got a different picture there.

Trish McMillan: Yeah, it's a whole different world, and a lot of us are unprepared for it. We're used to coaching the owner who's attached to the dog, and then we have a dog that we need to make appealing to an owner. It's a conundrum for sure.

Melissa Breau: Since everybody here is presenting for the Aggression In Dogs Conference, I thought we'd kick things off by having you each share a little on what your topic will be during the conference, and maybe give us a takeaway or a key point that you hope folks will learn from your talk. Mike, do you want to start this one off?

Mike Shikashio: Sure. I'm really excited for my talk because it rounds out why I wanted to do this conference in the first place. It's going to take us through a journey of the work that's been going on with aggression cases and aggression in dogs over the last several decades. I'm going to go back in history and look at how we first started, talk about some of the developments that happened over the years, but also really focus on what we can look forward to.

Some of the developments in the industry and with some of the science and the research that's coming out now, it's all really exciting because it's coming in at such a high volume now with the way information spreads, not only through channels like social media, but with the research that's available and the information that's out there.

It's an exciting time to help dogs with behavior issues because we're learning so much more about things like emotions, and the cognitive abilities, and things like that with dogs, and enrichment, and so many other different topics that are coming to the forefront, rather than it's all obedience training and all that stuff. So yeah, I'm excited.

That was the goal of the conference is to bring in a lot of different lenses or sciences, not just one or one viewpoint, but to bring in a multi-faceted, multi-viewpoint of how to help dogs with aggression issues. So that'll be my talk, and hopefully it goes well.

Melissa Breau: Do you have a takeaway or something that you want folks to walk away with?

Mike Shikashio: Yeah. I think I just want us as an industry to hopefully be more open to other sciences, to other ideas, to cross-pollinate what ideas we have now, and especially some of the newer things that are coming out with neuroscience and a lot of the other sciences that are putting forward some really exciting things. So that's the goal. Hopefully, it's just that it continues this dive into learning about other things, other sciences, ethology and all the things that we can bring together as an industry to help each other learn. That's hopefully the big takeaway.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Melanie?

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Great, thank you. What I love about doing this work, and particularly with working with aggression cases, is that I get to work both with people and with dogs. Aggression being a particularly challenging behavior, I think there's a lot of emotion that comes along with that with the guardians who have dogs that have aggressive behaviors in whatever form they may take. I love the fact that I get to work with people and help the people have a better quality of life, as well as help the dog have a better quality of life.

I know that it can be challenging for consultants coming into the work to realize that unlike maybe doing some of the shelter work that Trish does, where it's you and the dog, and you're focusing on training the dog to have them be more appealing for an adopter, that you're actually working more specifically with the people. In order to help the dogs, you have to connect with the people, you must have that relationship with them if we're going to make any headway at all with the animal to help them.

And that's not always easy. People sometimes have unrealistic expectations of us or what we can do. They can be very emotional. Sometimes we walk into a home, into a situation, and there's family conflict going on. Perhaps the family members aren't in agreement with even what the behavior is, or the way that they want to work on that behavior. It can be super-challenging for consultants because we're navigating a lot of the human dynamics along with trying to address whatever the challenging behavioral issue is.

My talk for the conference is When People Attack: Defensive Handling Skills For Humans. I took my title from Trish, and Mike's Defensive Handling course, which I've attended and it's fantastic. If you haven't taken it, please do. I highly recommend it for everybody. Even if you're not working specifically with aggression cases, there's so much good stuff there. They talk about what do we need to have, what tools do we need to have in our toolkit, like physical tools. You want to have your gloves, and your treats, you want to have your slip leads and your break sticks, it goes on and on.

We also need to have a toolkit for our skills in working with the people, particularly when things get a little bit heated or contentious or there's some conflict. And that can really be challenging for a consultant. When I look at some of the posts on social media, a lot of it is, "Oh my gosh, what do I do when the family's arguing, or the kids start fighting, and here I am. Mom and Dad are dealing with the kids, and I'm here with the dog and the dog's aggressive." Or what if a couple doesn't agree on how we're going to proceed with training, or one person wants to use aversives and the other doesn't. Those issues can get really contentious.

So a big part of my topic is helping consultants handle those situations, having the tools in our toolkit to identify when there's some early warning signs that maybe there's going to be some conflict in this situation. We're going to talk about essential communication skills for how to navigate difficult, challenging conversations with our clients.

We're also going to be looking at some strategies for managing emotions, and not just our clients' emotions, but it can be pretty emotional for us. Sometimes we can find ourselves feeling pretty frustrated or angry in a consultation and how we manage that. We're also going to go through some specific phrases and questions, and ways to actually manage different conflict situations, and also provide a little toolkit of written resources for consultants where we have some scripted responses that they can use in these challenging situations.

Melissa Breau: That sounds awesome. That sounds like such a needed topic for so many of the trainers that I've talked to.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: It can be tough. And like I said, I know aggression issues are … you can walk in and frequently there's a pretty high level, people are anxious, they're upset, they're frustrated, they're worried, and all of that can get intensified. An aggression case can come out directed at the trainer when it's really not about maybe the consultant or the trainer.

Melissa Breau: It's not just the dog who has big feelings in those cases.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Yeah. And so I think my big takeaway that I would like people to get from the talk is that these are skills that we can develop, they're behavioral skills. Sometimes we think of empathy as something that's an internal trait that you have or you don't have, but we can cultivate our empathy, and we can cultivate our active listening skills and our relationship skills. That's so important. We can learn those things. So that's what I'm really super-excited about helping consultants to be able to help their clients, which then helps the dogs.

Melissa Breau: How about you, Trish?

Trish McMillan: I have a fun topic. I'm looking forward to the people-wrangling one, though. That sounds awesome. I want to hear it right now.

My topic is called Sitting In The U-Bend: Talking About Behavioral Euthanasia.

I seem to have accidentally started a grief support group for people who have euthanized their animals for behavior. It's called Losing Lulu. I run it with Sue Alexander. We thought we'd get a couple-dozen people who wanted to talk about it, and we are now at over 12,000 members and it's only been around for two-and-a-half years. So there's a real need for this. A lot of people have euthanized their animals and kept it under wraps and lied to people about it for years, and they're just stewing on it.

I think as consultants who work with aggression, it's really important to know when and how to navigate these really crucial conversations, because I don't care how good a dog trainer you are, you will have some dogs that you can't fix, and we don't talk about that. We're like, "Here's all the successful cases. I don't want to talk to you about the one that the aggression escalated, despite everything we were throwing at it." It's such an important topic, and nobody really wants to talk about it.

Sitting In The U-Bend comes from the fact that our moderation team — which is my team, amazing people, some of the best people I've met in my life —are on the moderation team for Losing Lulu. We have a lot of Harry Potter fans, so Sitting In The U-Bend is a reference to a ghost who sits in the u-bend of the toilet and thinks about death. That's what we do when we're talking among one another is "I'm sitting in the u-bend today and here's what's on my mind."

That's my topic. What I'd like people to take away is it's okay; sometimes the ethical answer is behavioral euthanasia, whether it's with a shelter dog, whether it's with a client's dog, whether it's with your own dog. The relief of suffering for the human, for the other animals in the household, and for the dog itself is part of our job, and I think it's important to just open the dialogue on it.

Melissa Breau: It certainly doesn't get talked about nearly enough.

Trish McMillan: No, no, and I'm not quite sure how … well, I had Lulu herself. She was my foster dog. When I euthanized her, I got bullied quite a bit on the Internet. I've got a tough shell; I've been in sheltering 25 years, and I've been called things after euthanizing Lulu that I've never been called anywhere else. It just brought out a lot of aggression in humans, which is why I'm looking forward to Dr. Cerone's talk.

And my friend, it's hard enough to go through a behavioral euthanasia, but then to be attacked by your peers, be attacked by people who mostly have never been in your shoes — I really think it's hard for people to understand if they haven't been through it. So it's a super-super-important topic and I am happy to be invited to bum you guys out a little bit, but we need to discuss this stuff.

And it's okay. Sometimes that is the best solution for the entire dog-human-other-animals-in-the-household community. There's a lot of things we need to keep in mind when we're making these decisions.

Melissa Breau: We have to balance everybody's rights, what's best for everybody. It's a hard topic, but certainly an important one. All right, Emily, you want to share yours?

Emily Strong: Yes. We are going to be talking about enrichment and what it is, what it means, how to do it. I think that big take-home point that we hope people walk away with is that enrichment is not just objects or activities. It is an entire framework for assessing and addressing physical, behavioral, and emotional health. So really, enrichment is a welfare framework.

Above and beyond that, we hope to touch on how to do that. Obviously, getting in and learning how to approach behavior through an enrichment framework is a deeper topic than we can fully address in a conference presentation. But we hope that people come away from our presentation with a clear picture of next steps for how they can learn those skills, and move through the process of approaching behavior through the lens of enrichment and what that looks like, and how that differs from a traditional approach to animal training.

I will just echo Dr. Cerone's entire talk just now and say that a huge part of the enrichment framework means meeting the needs of all of the learners in our care, which includes the human learners. And so an enrichment framework also means protecting and nurturing our clients' behavioral and emotional health. We don't have as much control over their physical health, but we can certainly take better care of their behavioral and emotional health.

That is what we're really hoping that people take away from it, that that is how we promote an approach to behavior change and a clear picture of what the next steps are to accomplishing that in their practice.

Melissa Breau: I'm always amazed, and I've had this conversation numerous times with numerous professionals, how much sometimes improving the overall wellness picture and meeting the dog's other needs can help make reactivity training and aggression training more successful, or even significantly decrease the symptoms that we're seeing in everyday life — the number of reactions, the frequency, the duration, and all that kind of stuff.

Emily Strong: In fact, I have had many, many cases across species, not just dogs, where when we take care of meeting the needs, we don't even ever need to train. We don't even get to training, because just meeting needs alleviated the pressures that were eliciting the undesirable behaviors. Obviously, that's not always the case. And I want to say I am not anti-training. There has been some misinterpretation of what I've been saying, so I want to be clear: I'm not anti-training. But my point is, if we're looking at behavior through the lens of enrichment, we're starting with meeting needs. And then, if training helps us get there to meet the needs, we do that.

But in many cases we don't even need to use training as a tool in our toolbox. Training is amazing, and it's wonderful, and we're all here because we love training. But it's by no means the only tool in our toolbox, and it isn't always the one that we need to reach for.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Sounds fantastic. Since we are primarily here to talk about aggression, I figured it made sense to just make sure we're all working from the same description, definition. Mike, do you mind giving us a rough definition here of what we're talking about?

Mike Shikashio: Sure. I'm going to try my best, because coming in from all of these different sciences and different lenses, there's actually going to be different definitions, depending on which lens or science you're looking at, and who you're talking to within that discipline.

Over my many years of trying to research this one definition, nobody's ever agreeing, even in the same sciences, so I've been trying to simplify it as much as possible for discussions like this, or just in general, when I'm talking about aggression. I've narrowed it down to aggression is a label. It's a construct, that word itself, so I've been trying to steer everybody towards talking about aggressive behaviors, the observable behaviors that we can see that we might label as aggressive, or have the function of increasing distance.

So really I boil it down to just that one factor is increasing distance from a provocative stimulus is about as simple as a definition that you can get. And then we can layer in other aspects, depending on which science we're looking at. If we want to talk about it through a neuroscience aspect or an ethology aspect, we can layer in other ancillary definitions and things we need to talk about. If we were looking at the ethology lens, we might start talking about the predatory motor sequence and aspects of that that would apply that to the term "aggression." But in its most simplest aspect, its behavior used to increase distance from a provocative stimulus.

And then we might also layer in keeping access to something that the dog finds of value as a resource, but that's about as simple as I can get, and that's the one I'm sticking with lately, because it works. Most people get it. I've been doing interviews and podcasts and stuff, and it seems to resonate with the listeners and people that are commenting in, because it makes the most sense for them. And then we can complicate it later on. That's what we'll do at the conference. We'll start adding in all kinds of other ideas and thoughts, but we'll wait for the conference for that.

Melissa Breau: Does anybody have anything they'd want to add to that, or that you describe differently, or that you think it's important that we layer in there now, ahead of your talks?

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Aggression is a catch-all, this big label, and so when I'm approaching cases, really I define it based on what the presentation is, what that animal is doing in that situation, in that context, in that home. It can be obviously different, depending on what the context is, but looking at that big framework of "Yes, here's aggression." But it can be something very different. I, too, try to use "aggressive behavior" rather than "aggression," and then define that even more specifically, based on the individual animal.

Melissa Breau: I'd imagine, especially coming from your lens, that what the general populace might label as aggression is probably very different than what fellow trainers and colleagues may label as aggression, which is then even more different than some of the other labels of experts.

Trish McMillan: When you split it down to … like … predation is something that a lot of us see as aggression because the dog is trying to grab and shake and kill something. But that is not trying to increase distance; it's trying to decrease distance, and I don't consider it aggression. It's mostly about food. But if you are living in the house where your large dog is predating upon your small dog, that is absolutely within the scope of … me as a shelter consultant, me as a behavior consultant, it is still a great concern to the people. So it gets lumped in there with aggression, but it doesn't fit in with a lot of the conventional definitions. We could do a whole conference on just defining all this stuff.

Mike Shikashio: It's concerning to the other dog too.

Melissa Breau: I know this can be a super-hard topic. I think one of you mentioned when you were talking about what you're going to be talking about conference, it can be really hard to know what it is you don't know until you're in the middle of it. I think a lot of trainers maybe get their first aggression case and then realize a little bit too late they're in a little bit over their head. But it's still always better, I think, to maybe learn from somebody else's experience who can help us maybe not quite as far over our heads.

So I'd love to start there. If you could each maybe just share a lesson you've learned — either you've learned it the hard way, or maybe you just got lucky and you had a great resource going in that ties back to your experience working with aggression and aggressive behaviors now that we've delineated that in.

Trish McMillan: I had a really big lesson. The first dog of my own that I euthanized was a behavioral euthanasia. It was a huge lesson to me because I was a baby trainer. I was a year into my apprenticeship. I was told, "You need to foster shelter dogs as part of your apprenticeship," and so I fostered twenty-four dogs in twenty-four months because that's how I do things, and one of those dogs was the one that I had to euthanize.

When I went into this, I thought, "I can fix everything." The first few dogs I pulled from the shelter to foster, I turned them around. Some of them were complicated, and I found them homes. It's like the Dunning-Kruger Curve was at the peak of my perceived abilities.

And then the universe sent me Chinook. He was one of a litter that I fostered. His mom was starved, his parents were probably siblings, his mom spent the first month of her pregnancy severely malnourished and the second month of her pregnancy severely stressed in the shelter. I pulled them when they were two days old. Mom was almost feral in her behavior. And I thought, "It's all in how you raise them. I'm going to fix these puppies, and they're going to be the best puppies." I was on the news, talking about how well-socialized these puppies were. They knew how to sit and lie down and shake a paw, they'd been in the car, and they'd met my neighbor's cats, and we'd had kids over.

Chinook was growling at me at 3 weeks of age when I was doing puppy handling. I remember the first time I just rolled him over to tickle his belly, and this 3-week-old puppy has just opened his eyes and it's like, "Grrrr." People think, "Probably he was abused." Well, I had him from birth. This dog maybe had missed dinner, maybe dinner was an hour late one time. Nothing bad happened to him. He was trained with positive reinforcement. he was socialized. He got early neurological stimulation because that was a new thing, and I was like, "These puppies are getting that."

By 4 months of age, he was coming out from under the bed and attacking you if you walked by something he had. By 6 months of age, it took five of us to hold him down for a blood draw so we could put him on Prozac. And by 18 months of age, after many, many, many attacks, which really improved my defensive handling skills … the stuff I'm teaching you is lessons learned from Chinook because he would attack me and my boyfriend and sometimes our other dogs up to ten times a day. He would either threaten or attack us. It was like a switch flipping. It was like, in the morning he's happy Chinook, and after 9 o'clock, he had better be in a crate because anything could happen.

It was really humbling for me as a baby trainer to go through that. It took the Dunning-Kruger Effect onto a steep nosedive into the valley of despair where I thought, "I know nothing." It sparked me to get a master's degree in animal behavior. I think everything I've done since 1997 has been trying to figure out if I could have done anything with Chinook differently. And I can tell you I would have put him on meds sooner, and I probably would have euthanized him sooner, if I had if him today, as opposed to when I had him in the '90s.

I still don't have the answer for dogs like him, where their wires are just that seriously crossed. So that was a big lesson, and I'm glad I got it as early on as I did. It has shaped everything I've done since then.

Melissa Breau: First of all, bravo to you for doing twenty-four dogs in twenty-four months. That's impressive. And then wow, what a story, and what a way to kick off your training career.

Trish McMillan: That could have gone either way from there, honestly, like, "I'm scared of dogs. I'm going to go back to training horses. They're a lot easier."

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people would have gone that direction. They would have dealt with that and thrown up their hands and been like, "I'm not going to stick in this world." So props to you.

Trish McMillan: It was years before I could even talk about him. It was not a fun thing to go through.

Melissa Breau: Thank you for sharing with us. Emily, do you want to go next?

Emily Strong: I think the biggest lesson that I learned, which led me to … or I think I was exposed to the concept of enrichment pretty early on in my career, just because I was working with exotics, and that's where the concept of enrichment comes from. But the lesson that made me realize how to generalize this concept across species was realizing that I can have the best training plan in the world that would be super-effective if I were the one implementing it, and it is absolutely useless if I'm not meeting my client's needs.

If I'm not addressing their apparent pain points as soon as possible, if I'm not framing their expectations, if I'm not establishing a relationship based on empathetic listening, and if I'm not splitting up the steps into small enough approximations that it feels sustainable and comfortable for them, it doesn't matter how good the training plan is. I'm not going to be successful at reaching our mutual goals until I start meeting my client's needs in that way. That was a huge lesson for me, because when I started, I was working with … I ran a foster and information resource organization in Austin called Austin Parrot Society. I was working with horses at a stable where the stable owner required people to get behavioral care for their horses if they wanted to continue boarding them there. And I was working in aviary and wildlife rehab, where we're working directly with the animals.

The start of my career was clients who are captive audiences, or the clients just weren't even involved. Like Trish was talking about in shelters, you're just working with the dogs to help them become more appealing. Or in wildlife rehab there are no clients, because hopefully we're going to rerelease these animals.

I went from that background to a sanctuary, where again we have captive audiences and people who are highly motivated to work with us. If they're willing to drive across the country to adopt an animal from the sanctuary, then they're going to be more prone to listening to the people from that sanctuary. And so the first eight years of my career as a behavior consultant, I had this huge selection bias of only working with clients who had to succeed.

It wasn't until I moved to Salt Lake five-and-a-half years ago that I really entered the real world where clients are free agents and they come and go as they please. On top of that, the communication culture here is very interesting, and so I had to learn how to work with all types of communication styles. That was where it was a really painful lesson. There was a two-and-a-half-year period where I was really discouraged because the strategies that had been successful for me my whole career suddenly weren't working.

The lesson that I had to learn was every experience I've had up to this point are people who had to work with me until the end if they wanted the animal, or if they wanted to continue boarding their horses, or whatever. And now I'm at a place where if I want to keep clients and I want to help them to succeed, I have to focus on meeting their needs. It's not just about meeting the animals' needs; it's also about meeting the client's needs.

That was a game changer for me, because I had been taught well by my mentors how to write good training plans, and how to implement them and be successful and be a creative problem-solver. But I had to learn from the real world how to apply the concept of enrichment to the humans who were also in my care, and that was the doozy for me.

Melissa Breau: A couple of pieces in there. First of all, props to that barn owner. I don't get the sense that that's common.

Emily Strong: She was unique in that she was a Liberty Method trainer, which is as close to LIMA training as at the time you would find. But also she worked a lot with horse rescues, so she got a lot of horses with

maladaptive behaviors. And so in order to keep the stable peaceful and functional, she had to have some pretty strict rules in place.

Melissa Breau: Major props to her for doing that, and for acquiring that and for investing in that, or requiring people to invest in that. I think, similar to what we were talking about with Trish, where a lot of people might have thrown up their hands and been like, "I don't want to learn this. This is too hard," or "I don't know how to handle this, so I'm going to give up," you chose to push through and learn those skills. I think that ties back to what Melanie was saying about they are learnable, and they are things that are valuable and worth learning, because look at the difference you're making now. I think that's a great thing to remind folks of.

Emily Strong: All credit my mentors too. I constantly am asking questions and bugging and crying to them.

Mike Shikashio: I was thinking about this as I was listening to you guys talk about your experiences and I was like, "What is mine?" I always think back to one moment. People are like, "What mistakes have you made?" or What resonates in your mind as something that has really changed, maybe from one incident or a combination of incidents?"

One time I was working with this Bernese Mountain Dog and it had handling issues — didn't like nail trims, it would bite the owners for any kind of husbandry, like ear cleanings, that kind of stuff. I was working a lot of aggression cases at the time, and I was working mostly through the framework of desensitization and counter-conditioning, and mostly dogs with leash reactivity issues or dogs that resource guard, so stuff at a distance with these dogs. I wasn't doing a lot of husbandry handling at that time. I had done some, but it was always again that d/cc framework. You go in, and you can d/cc anything. You can make dogs love everything with d/cc. That's what we were all stuck on at the time.

But the big thing that was missing out of that was the choice of control in that conversation with the animal. I could be as rainbow and unicorns and flowers as possible with this dog, but even doing that, you could still be coercive without realizing it. That's what I was doing with this stuff, sitting there with a client, I'm like, "Yeah, I know what I'm doing." I've got hot dogs, I'm going to be showing the dog the nail trimmer and giving a hot dog, next thing you know, everything you read in books — the dog's going to love this. But the dog was not part of the conversation.

I learned very quickly that it's a very bad idea to enter into a conversation with a dog that's not ready for it, especially one that weighs over a hundred pounds and that I was not using any protective contact with. I was sitting on the floor, stupidly, and the dog was like, "You know what? I don't think I'm cool with this anymore." He lunged and snapped in my face and fortunately had very exquisite bite inhibition, didn't make contact, but he left some spit on my face and no marks, thankfully.

That was a big game-changer for me, because not only was it startling — I'm like, "This dog almost bit my face off," and I did some stupid moves here; I thought I could do this d/cc really well — the dog wasn't entering that conversation. So I've learned a lot over the years to make sure I'm reading dogs in the sense that they're entering in the conversation, they actually want to be part of the process.

There's ways to do that, of course. Start button behaviors and the communication you're getting from the dog, but it's so important because we do that; we throw these magical plans that look good on paper, but we forget sometimes that the dog has to be part of that conversation. That was the big thing that really helped to shift how I was approaching a lot of my cases, especially when we're working up close with the dogs with limited options for protective contact. Now I also put in layers of protective contact in those handling cases as well. So that was the big moment for me in my career that said "Thank you for letting me know" to the dogs.

Melissa Breau: What a good thing that that dog had that much bite inhibition, because that could have been bad.

Mike Shikashio: It could have been really bad. I can think of a number of dogs it could have gone really badly with. Bravado and just not knowing enough at the time, it's what can happen.

Melissa Breau: We all make mistakes, and when we're dealing with aggressive dogs, those mistakes can have some serious consequences.

Mike Shikashio: Yes.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned you would do it a little bit differently today. Do you want to give folks a sneak peek into what you do?

Mike Shikashio: It would be all about consent, exercise, getting something from the dog, a start button behavior, some indication that the dog is an active participant in the exercise. So maybe taking a step back and seeing if the dog approaches in this whole nail-trimming d/cc type of thing, or installing a start button behavior like a chin rest or something else, looking at the food bowl — Chirag Patel's bucket game; shout out to him — something that the dog says, "I want to continue on," or "I want to move forward with what's happening here. This looks like a fun game. I can do it." But the dog has got to say they're okay with it, or else again we're just hoping that the dog is okay with it, and that's not always the case.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: One of the things that I think about when I was making this transition into helping people with their dogs, and a part of it is my learning history and what I brought from my previous work.

You would think that having this background in psychology and behavior analysis that I would have used those skills. Unfortunately it all didn't transfer. There wasn't the natural generalization. We talk about generalization, animals not being good generalizers. Well, guess what: we aren't good generalizers either, our species.

One of the things that I did that was not particularly helpful, and it hit me like a ton of bricks and really changed how I have worked with my clients, is I would come in, do my consultation, come in with a lot of resources — I would want to dump the kitchen sink at this problem and onto my clients. "Here's everything I know, everything you can do. Here's articles, here's links, here's blogs, here's videos. Here's the training plan, here's what you need to do for management, here's some enrichment ideas." And then guess what happens: the next week comes and they haven't done anything.

I think that we as consultants can see that as if these people cared enough about their dog, if they were really invested, they would do as we say. They have this aggressive dog and they're still not doing anything.

This, I realized, was my problem. I was not breaking it down — as something Emily said earlier — I was not breaking it down for my clients. It was dumping too much information on my clients with this expectation that you have to do everything. I wasn't shaping their behavior. And so I have really changed how I work.

The first things I want to do, just like if I were working with people and doing behavior analysis with people, is that I would want to set them up for success. I'd want to get the environment enriched. Emily, you talked about their wellness. Make sure everything is in place, so let's make sure some of the basic needs, the dog's getting enough exercise enrichment, they're in good health.

Have some of these things in place as well as … I stopped calling it management. I'll say our first line of training strategies, because some people will say, "I don't want to do that management stuff. That's an appetizer, and I don't want an appetizer. I want to get right to the training, which is the main course." When really we know that those antecedent things make those things like, let's not take our dog out walking in the neighborhood where they're going to encounter all kinds of people and dogs that they're already firing off and they're very reactive with, or when you have guests come to your house, you're going to have your dog in another room so they're not bombarded with people right from the get-go.

But those aren't optional. Those are really antecedent interventions, and they're interventions that we need to get up and running and in place first before we can move on to the main course.

And shaping those behaviors in our clients. If they're not doing our great big giant training plan … Emily said, "I can do the best training plan in the world, but if I haven't broken it down, and I dump that on my clients and they are feeling like, 'Oh my gosh, I am so overwhelmed; I don't even know where to begin,' that's not serving anybody."

So it has really changed how I give people information, where I look at where are they in this situation with this dog, what is going to help them right now, what do they need to have in the next day or two, in the next week. And then dripping that information, communicating more frequently with them, and guiding them, helping them with baby steps so that they stay in the process. And making it more manageable so that it's something they can do.

Once I realized and made that shift, it's been a game changer, and I think more helpful for my clients. And I've been able to be more effective.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of trainers find client compliance is hard to get. That's what you're getting at — how do you get the client to do the things.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Yes. That was my talk at the Lemonade Conference too. A piece of that was client compliance — if they would just do what we tell them to do, or do what we want them to do. A lot of that is how can I meet my clients where they are, how can I figure out where they are at in this moment, and how can I shape their behaviors, have them contact reinforcement so they keep going with it, and break it down for them.

Melissa Breau: I think we hear the analogy all the time of you don't take your car to the mechanic and expect them to teach you how to fix it. You want them just to fix it. But also it's not a perfect analogy, because with dog training we do need the client to do some of the work.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Yeah, again, it's the dog in that context with those people in that environment, and it's making them working with their dog.

As a psychologist and behavior analyst, I worked in residential. We would take kids and have them in our residential program for maybe a year or two, and then what we would do is they would go back home, and although they'd made tons of progress in residential treatment, they went home to their home environment and those behaviors didn't generalize.

Well, their context was different, and we weren't doing a good job of teaching their parents how to implement those interventions in their natural environment. Now, in psychology and behavior analysis, there's much more focus on thinking about generalization from the get-go, and it's the same way with our dog clients.

Melissa Breau: So much carryover.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Yes. It's all the same.

Melissa Breau: That's awesome. It's very important stuff, very important lessons here. To build on that a little bit, I'm on lots of — probably more than I should admit — Facebook groups and lists and communities for dog trainers. On one of them the other day, we had a more novice trainer ask a question about a case, and she got piled on. People were like, "You should refer this out," or "You shouldn't be handling this; this is clearly over your head."

But we can't learn if we don't start with asking questions, so I think it's super-important to find safe places where you can learn, and where you can ask questions, and how to handle all of that. I would love to have you each talk a little bit about where you turn if you have a tricky case and how you work to continue to grow your own skills and learn, maybe with a little advice so that folks know where they can go.

Emily Strong: That's a multipronged question, so you're going to get a multipronged answer. First of all, I have, as I've mentioned before, a bunch of mentors. And I joke … as much as I talk about consent with clients and their pets, I haven't given as much agency to my mentors. I joke that I "stray kitten" them home. When I meet somebody that I feel like, "Oh my gosh, I have a lot to learn from you, and I feel safe learning from you," I latch on to them, like, "Congratulations. You now have a lifetime of me asking questions." Of course they can always say no, but I do joke that I "stray kitten" people home.

I feel like that is something that doesn't happen enough in this field because people are afraid to bother other people, or because they don't even know that that's an option. But the reason I have been able to overcome as many obstacles in my career as I have is because I have a team of people that I go to.

And I ask multiple people the same question, even people who aren't my mentors, because I have found it enormously helpful to hear how answers are the same and how they differ. That gives me some information about what are fundamentally agreed upon within a cross-discipline and where individual people are bringing their own perspective and opinions to the table, which is enormously helpful, because as much as we all honor academia and think it's really important, there is a little bit of a pattern of people answering confidently as if it's a fact when really it's their personal opinion. And so asking different people the same question has helped me to filter through what does everybody in this field agree on and what is personal opinion, or what is still a debate within that field.

I think those have both been enormously helpful for me, and also it's a little bit easier than asking the Internet, because you're speaking with somebody where there's safety. There's a level of trust between you and that person that you don't get from asking Facebook. So that is my go-to for information gathering I don't ask the Internet questions very often. I almost always speak to my mentors, or I ask, "You're an expert in this field. Let me ask you this question."

That said, I do think social media support groups can be really helpful and important. I want to give a shout-out to Animal Training Academy, because Ryan and his team do an exceptional job of protecting the emotional health of their members and creating a culture of safety and support, which is rare in social media, so big shout-out to ATA.

The only caveat to that is that I don't see as much discussion about aggression and maladaptive behaviors in that group because it's a more training-focused group. I love what they're doing, but for the topics that we're talking about, we just don't get a lot of that in ATA. So Allie and I created our own group, with that same mindset of support and safety and protecting the emotional health of the members, called LIMA Animal Trainers and Behavior Consultants, where we can talk about some of the more difficult topics, and people can ask questions and discuss things, and the group agreement is that we treat each other with care and support. We assume the best about people instead of assuming the worst.

We do weekly Facebook Lives, which has been an exercise in processing emotions for me, because in the Facebook Lives we talk about difficult topics that I find really stressful because I have a history of being attacked for these topics, but we speak about them in a way that is as balanced and looking at all sides as possible.

Nobody is free from the affect heuristic. We all perceive and learn things based on our emotions and learning history. But as much as possible we try to discuss things looking at just the fact of what's happening. Even though that has been a difficult exercise for me emotionally, we've gotten a lot of feedback that that's really helpful to people because it's really hard to bring up certain topics without big emotions from every side.

So we created what we couldn't find, which was a safe space to talk about hard topics in our profession, and so far, knock on wood, it's a pretty neat group. We've had a pretty good experience with people honoring the culture of the group. We haven't had to intervene anywhere yet. I'm sure nothing is perfect, but we are trying our best to create that space that we haven't yet found for this specific topic.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to mention the name again one more time?

Emily Strong: LIMA Animal Trainers and Behavior Consultants. Just to recap, because I feel like I rambled … I apologize, but to recap, first, don't ask the Internet. Find mentors, ask questions of experts, ask the same question to multiple people to see what is the same and what is different. Second, find safe groups to ask stuff. I love Animal Training Academy. I highly recommend them. And then our group, LIMA Animal Trainers and Behavior Consultants, hopefully is also a place that will be helpful.

Mike Shikashio: For me, I just want to give a shout-out to my students as well. The Aggression In Dogs master course are really kind to each other in the Facebook group. In fact they don't have any moderators because they do such a good job of self-moderation and being kind to each other, so shout-out to them.

Melissa Breau: That's impressive.

Mike Shikashio: It is impressive. It's been amazing. It has grown to a pretty large-size group and very rarely do I have to step in. It's not even moderation; it's that I'm commenting during conversations, so it's great.

I'm fortunate in the sense that I have a lot of mentors, similar to Emily, not in the traditional mentor/mentee sense, but just a ton of awesome people that I can reach out to with questions in all of the different sciences and academics.

But I will say I'm very lucky. It's because of the work I do with the organizing of conferences and workshops and podcasts and everything like that. I have a very big network of people that are in the know, so to speak, and so I'm very fortunate. I'm lucky in that regard. So I think my viewpoint is a little skewed, a little different than what others might experience.

That being said, if you're a new trainer, or you're looking for those mentors or people to talk to, they're out there. The best thing you can do is reach out to them, and do it in a way that is professional but also respects their time. From that aspect, I have a lot of people that reach out to me and through all the different forms. It's hard to keep track of all those messages, as you guys know, but the ones that you really pay attention to is when it's got some information about the person, and they're kind, and you can tell they're open to learning versus a two- or three-sentence message. That's not being professional or showing me what you're interested in or what you want to learn about.

It's better from that standpoint because there's plenty of trainers, and people can be really surprised that they will be open to answering your questions or maybe taking you on as a mentee. There's plenty of those kind folks out there. You've just got to look and be prepared for a little discouragement sometimes. You might not hear from somebody, maybe they're busy, maybe they don't see your message, that can happen, or maybe they're just not at a moment they can take on any mentees. But don't get discouraged, because it's nothing personal. It's just a matter of reaching out and finding those people.

There's plenty of good people out there that are willing to do that, so go out and find those people. That way you have some people to bounce ideas off of, and making sure that what you're doing is having the checks and balances put into place by somebody that has more experience in what you're doing. That's what I've done over the years, and like I said, I've been very, very lucky, so I want to give a shout-out to all of the people — many, many more than I can mention in one podcast — that have been helpful to me over the years.

Melissa Breau: I know you said you've been lucky, but I think you're also pretty good at being intentional about building relationships and making sure that you're giving as well as getting.

Mike Shikashio: That's what it's all about. It's easy to just take, and take information, but you've got to give back, however it looks. You can have them on your podcast, or write a blog post, or share their links, or whatever it is. Or on another level you might consider working for that person, or hiring that person on a consultant basis. There's lots of ways to make those connections. But it is important that you are giving back or providing something to that person, because we're all working and busy in our own lives, and so it is important to have that connection to build that relationship. That's the keyword there is the relationship aspect.

Melissa Breau: At an absolute minimum, if you're going to reach out to somebody, you should find something they wrote, or watch something they presented on, or something.

Mike Shikashio: I'm sure Trish and Melanie and Emily can agree — there's nothing worse than getting an email from somebody, "So excited to have you on, so excited to talk to you. Tell me about what you do. Are you a dog trainer?"

Emily Strong: And please bother to learn their name. Get their name right. I don't know what it is. People misname Allie all the time, like, "Dear Amy and Emily, we're the hugest fans of your work." I'm like, "Are you, though? Because her name is Allie, not Amy." So get their name right. Do that much labor.

Melissa Breau: The bare minimum. What about you, Melanie?

Dr. Melanie Cerone: I agree very much with what Emily and Mike said about mentors. I know again I'll speak to my trying to transition into this field and that question of "How do I become a behavior consultant?"

It's like the wild west, and coming from psychology, where there's a very clear path. You go to school for this number of years, you do this number of practicum, you do this type of internship and then you get so many supervision hours after you graduate, and then you get licensed, and there's a very clear path. Same way for behavior analysis, people who are certified behavior analysts. There's a very clear path.

We don't really have that in this area. I can remember reaching out early on to somebody, and they said to me, "We really don't do that in this field." I was shocked. I had asked for some supervision or mentoring, particularly on aggression cases, and I was sad because I thought, "It's not being done, but I think it should be done."

I think that's changing and that shift has been occurring since I asked that question many years ago, so I'm happy about that. But I agree very much: having good mentors and/or somebody who supervises your work early on, who is willing to help you on a regular basis and then maybe that gets into a more informal mentorship. Always look for people. There's always somebody out there who knows more and is more experienced. I have found people, thankfully, who were very helpful and generous, and I, too, have a great network of mentors now.

Just everything you said that's so important: we never know it all, and the more I've learned, the more I've realized I don't now, and how much more I need to learn. So I'm always open to feedback and hearing from other people who have more expertise than I do, more knowledge about a subject. I also want to be able to give back to trainers who are new in the field and looking for that. That's something important to me as well, that giving back piece.

Melissa Breau: I think a lot of people overlook the fact that other poepel actually want the opportunity to give back, and so a lot of times they're afraid to even ask. So I think it's good that you mentioned that, because sometimes people just need that little push. It's okay to ask.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Thankfully I asked again after that initial, "We don't do that in this field." I continued to ask and pursue and look and consult. And offer to compensate people for their time, because that can be an issue, and I value supervision and mentorship enough that I paid for it in the field of psychology and in behavior analysis, and in the training behavior consulting spaces as well, so it's that important to me. But yeah, keep asking. Find those people.

Melissa Breau: Trish, any additional thoughts, ideas, prompts?

Trish McMillan: There's so many paths to learning in this field, and I don't think any one of us would follow the exact path of any of the rest of us. I favor getting people's hands on animals first and figure out if you like the work. The best place to get your hands on animals is in a shelter. If they get no training and they get some training from you, it's probably going to be better.

I've had some amazing mentors in my career, but the entity I have learned the most from is hands-down shelter dogs. Those twenty-four dogs I brought home and looked into their little eyeballs as they're guarding a pile of vomit in my kitchen and I have to figure out how to get into my kitchen again, there's really no substitute for that. So I think get your hands on animals.

The really cool thing in the field of animal training and behavior, there's always going to be somebody who knows more than you about something else. All I've been doing for the last twenty-five years, and twelve years with horses before that, was find people who know more than I do, download as much as I can from their brains, take what's useful to me, toss what's not useful to me — sometimes that comes back later: "Oh, that was useful" — and continue going to conferences like this one.

When we did in-person conferences, I found that a lot of the synthesis for me happened in the bar after the conference, or in the lunchroom in-between sessions, or in the hallway, "Hey, did you hear what Patricia McDonald said about that?" We'd just sit there and talk it through.

The other thing I would urge people, particularly in my field of sheltering, is to follow the evidence. I am such a nerd. Learn how to use Google Scholar, learn how to read a scientific paper, even if you just get through the abstract, look up the words you don't understand. There's so much changing, there's so much in flux, in the decades I've been training animals, and there's new stuff to learn all the time, and so if I ever stop learning, that's when it's time to quit.

The other thing that's happening now that I'm teaching newer trainers newer behavior consultants, newer shelter people is I learn from them all the time. There is always somebody in my mentorship who is doing something super-cool that I've never heard of. I'm like, "Can I steal your video of that to put into the next mentorship, because that is super-cool."

Also by teaching you synthesize your own brain's knowledge in a way that you understand it better. Every time I teach aggression and defensive handling, I learn something from the students, and I learn how to say things a little better in ways that people are going to understand. So just keep on learning.

There's so many little paths to go down, and I believe it's good to put your own dogs up to peer review. I train for agility, I train for rally, I really want someone to move here who does nosework. I've had the Fenzi nosework module sitting in my inbox for about two years now because I packed up the kit and it's in my storage locker somewhere, and when I find it I'm going to hope that course is still there and download it again.

But there's so much that even if you study it all day, every day, there is still so much to learn. So I think stay excited about learning, find people who know more than you do, download everything you can from their brains, and rinse and repeat. That's how I've learned, how I continue to learn, and I'm excited to be part of this conference and hang out with all of you after the actual broadcast and pick your brains on all of the cool things you've been talking about here.

Melissa Breau: One of the advantages of presenting is you can talk to the other presenters. I want to shift gears a little bit, because we've talked quite a bit about consultants and other professionals, and I think some of the folks listening, especially with our audience, may actually be handlers, may be owners, who have dogs who are struggling with some of these behavioral challenges.

For those out there who may be struggling with a dog who has been labeled aggressive, or who they tend to think of as aggressive, I'd love to have you each offer a few words of advice or encouragement, your thoughts and what you'd want them to hear. Melanie, do you want to start us off for this one?

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Take care of yourselves. It is challenging. It is difficult. I have had a dog — not Teddy, not my little dog right now — I had years ago my German Shepherd, who was my heart dog and had issues. Eventually I did opt toward behavioral euthanasia, so I know how stressful that can be to try to take care of a dog, keep everybody safe, keep your family safe, keep the community safe, and balance all of those things, how difficult that can be.

I had an infant at the time, and a 15-month-old, and my elderly mother in my home, and this very aggressive German Shepherd/Chow mix, so my hair was standing on end every day, and if I got through the day without anybody bleeding out, it was a good day. I had a consultant come in who wasn't very sensitive to everything that was going on and made some recommendations that were just unrealistic in light of everything.

It can be super-challenging, super-overwhelming, but get support, find somebody to talk with, take care of yourself. If you reach out to a behavior professional and you do not feel they are a good fit, they are not listening to you, you don't feel like you can communicate with them, you feel overwhelmed, which is how I felt with my consultant — I didn't feel like I could express, "This is so much, do you see what's going on, I'm trying to keep everybody and everything under control" — there's somebody else out there who will help you. Reach out. Don't give up and say, "I tried a trainer and it didn't work." There are good consultants out there who can help you. There is help available.

Melissa Breau: Trish?

Trish McMillan: I think that most behavior can be improved, and what can be really helpful is writing down exactly what is going on and tracking whether things are getting better or worse or staying the same. It can be a simple as putting a happy face or a neutral face or a frowning face on your calendar, and just seeing if you're having more good days than bad days.

The other thing that I tell all of my clients is, I'm going to give you a behavior plan. These are general things that tend to work in situations similar to yours, but all dogs are individuals, situations are different, and if anything I'm telling you is making your dog worse, stop immediately. Contact me immediately. There are many different ways to approach problems and we can make it one person better every day and those frowning faces start turning into neutral faces start turning into happy faces, that's what we're aiming for.

On the flipside, not everything can be fixed, and I believe a lot of aggression has its roots in pain. A lot of it has its roots in biochemistry that may be getting worse as the world continues for that dog.

Thinking back to Chinook, I had a boyfriend who was like, "We cannot euthanize this dog until we've tried everything." We had this list on the fridge of all the things we should try, and all the medications, and all the behavior modification and tests. Every time we got near the bottom of the list, he would find one more thing. He was like, "We haven't looked for a sanctuary yet. There's a new medication we haven't tried."

You don't have to try everything. You just have to try everything that's reasonable for you. If you're a household with toddlers and other animals and a life, and you've got to be away from home eight hours a day, what you can do with your dog may be different from a professional trainer could do who doesn't have a toddler.

I think it's not the end of the world to send the dog back to the shelter if they're not a good match. If they're absolutely intent on killing your cat, and you have tried a reasonable number of things for you, it's okay to call it at a certain point, whether it's behavioral euthanasia, whether it's rehoming, whether it's sending the animal back to their source.

But keep track. I think that was the most important lesson I got with Chinook was looking at how many times a day he was going off. That helped me tell which treatments were working and also helped me tell which treatments were not working, and it helped me see that over weeks and months that his behavior was deteriorating n matter what I threw at it. So a calendar, smiling face, give it a try.

Melissa Breau: It gives you the data to feel like you're making a decision based on information instead of instinct. On the flipside, when things are actually getting better, sometimes it's still possible to have a really bad day where suddenly it feels like things aren't getting better, and it gives you data to realize that you've come a long way.

Trish McMillan: When you're in the situation with the dog every day, it can feel like it's not changing, but if you look at a month ago he was exploding three times a day and this week it's every second day, at least we're heading in the right direction. You know what you're doing is working.

Melissa Breau: Emily?

Emily Strong: I would say, first of all, you're by no means the only person who is going through this, so there's nothing wrong with you or your household. Even if you regret things you've tried in the past, remember that everybody is doing the best they can with the information and resources they have at the time, including you, and so playing the "should have, would have, could have" game never does anybody any good. Learn how to be in the moment, and look at where you are in this moment, and give yourself some grace with how things happened in the past, because you could not have done better than you did with the information and resources that you had at the time.

I will echo the sentiments of both Trish and Melanie and say data collection is your friend, because training is never a linear process. You never just get better and better every day. I tell clients all the time that progress is like climate change, where we have these spikes and dips, and what we're looking at is a general shift in direction, not just this linear progression of words.

Data collection helps you to see what that shift in behavior actually looks like, and like Trish said, data collection doesn't have to be scary or rigorous or intensive. We have very simple ways of helping our clients track data. It sounds like Trish has a really simple system as well. So find a consultant who can teach you how to do really simple, sustainable, easy data collection that will help you to see with your own eyes, with tangible evidence, how things are shifting over time, as opposed to winging it and thinking you're doing the best, because as I mentioned before, nobody can escape the affect heuristic.

We're all perceiving and learning things based on our emotions at the time and our physiological reality, how tired and cranky and frustrated we are, and we can't not see through that lens, because we exist in human bodies. And so we have to have a way to navigate around our own affect heuristic, and the best way to do that is simple and sustainable data collection.

Mike Shikashio: For me, I think focusing on normalizing aggressive behavior for clients, because it can be very offensive for a dog to display any kind of aggressive behavior in the eyes of some clients, so we have to normalize that. Aggressive behavior is normal behavior. It's a normal survival mechanism for all species, or else we wouldn't be here if we didn't display aggression in some context.

The same thing for dogs. Sometimes I'm helping clients just normalize those things and help them understand what their dog is going through and why their dog is displaying that particular behavior. Keeping in mind that person's unique cultural aspects and what they've learned about dogs and how they should "behave" in our world, and that's normal sometimes.

Most cases of aggression is just normal behavior. There's of course some abnormalities and extremes, but most of the time it's very straightforward in explaining what's happening. So for me the big focus in this regard, for this question, is just help clients understand what's going on and to help them normalize that. If the dog growls or bites or whatever the aggressive behavior, it's just a normal response sometimes to a perceived threat, or something they're scared of, or anxious about, or stressed about.

Melissa Breau: Dogs have limited communication tools, certainly far fewer than we do.

Mike Shikashio: Dogs are so good at reading our communications in some ways. We're just really bad at reading theirs sometimes. I think there's some arguments toward that we as humans also have a lot to learn about dogs and what they're saying.

Melissa Breau: I know we're running long. I do have two more questions, but I'm hoping we can work this next one quickly so that we can get to the last one.

I know there are so many myths out there, especially when it relates to aggression and aggressive behaviors and what we see in dogs. I wanted to give everybody a chance to debunk their favorite myth. If we could run through those, you could tell us what myth you've heard and why it's not true, or what is true in that instance. Trish, you get to start this one off.

Trish McMillan: I've already touched on it, but my favorite myth to debunk and something I've spoken on at conferences is "It's all how they're raised". A lot of us blame ourselves for our dogs' aggressive behavior. We're like, "What did I do wrong with this one? I want to get a new dog, and how do I make sure that I don't screw this dog up?"

There's so much that affects behavior. It's a lot of hubris in humans to assume that everything the dog does is because of something we did, or because he was in the shelter, or he must have been abused or something. There's lots of men wearing hats going around beating 8-week-old puppies in the mythology of the shelter world.

I would just say there's so much else. There's prenatal effects, there's genetics, body chemistry that's going on, brain chemistry that's going on, pain is such a big part of aggression cases. Don't blame yourself. Just give yourself a break.

It's really unusual … on Losing Lulu, we have people who are, "I had to euthanize this dog. I want to make sure this never happens to me again." Lulus are really rare. It's really unlikely that the next dog is going to have the same problems. It's probably not you, so take a deep breath, alleviate yourself of the guilt, and go forth with your next dog with some faith that it wasn't you, if your last dog had issues. It's usually a perfect storm of a lot of different things.

Melissa Breau: Emily?

Emily Strong: I think the myth I would most like to debunk is just because you can get a behavior to temporarily stop through some method that seems to be quick and effective doesn't mean that you've actually addressed the underlying causes of the behavior, and it doesn't mean that that behavior problem has been fixed and you can just move on with life.

Behavior is not a light switch. You can't turn it on and off. A lot of the discussion that happens in the shelter world and also in the pet world is, "Why wouldn't I use this method when I can fix the behavior in three days?" The answer is, "You didn't fix the behavior. You just temporarily stopped it, and that's not the same thing." Temporarily stopping a behavior for the entire lifetime of an animal isn't meeting the animal's needs and it is also not fair to the owner, because that's a lifetime of constantly suppressing a behavior. So don't fall for the quick fix is the myth I want to debunk.

Mike Shikashio: I will say the myth is "Do not comfort a dog that is fearful," or "Don't give treats to a dog that is showing fear." That's a big one for me. It's absolutely okay to comfort or give treats to a dog that's displaying fear or aggression that is based out of fear, because you want to change how the dog feels. If you change how the dog feels, it's going to change how the dog is behaving in the moment. Short and sweet: You can't reinforce fear.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Corollary to Emily, we can't "cure" aggression. As Mike said earlier, Aggression is an adaptive behavior for animals. There is no "cure." Stopping a behavior or suppressing a behavior is not curing that behavior. A risk of an aggressive episode or another aggressive incident — risk is fluid and changes with the context, what's happening with the animal, as Trish said, if they're in pain, if something is going on with the physiologically. Risk is fluid, there is no cure, so I'll piggyback on Emily and "Don't fall for that quick cure or fix."

Melissa Breau: Our last question, to round out our conversation, I want to give you each a chance to drill down … we covered so much ground in this conversation … but to give you each a chance to pull out one takeaway or one piece of information you really want people to walk away from the conversation with and remember, a last thought. I think we're back around to Mike to start this one off.

Mike Shikashio: My big takeaway is for everyone to go to the Aggression In Dogs Conference and learn more about aggression. There's been a lot of great conversation in this podcast. We've talked a lot about the people, and that's why I love having Melanie, too; she's going to be focusing on the people side.

One of the big takeaways when I'm talking to a lot of professionals — we always get back to the people, and helping the people in these cases understand what's going on and why we have to focus on the humans so much in aggression cases.

So for anybody that's taking on aggression cases or thinking about working with aggression cases, I always remind them that you've got to like people to work with dogs anyway, but you've got to really like people and consulting with people if you're going to be working aggression cases, because most of the time that's all you're going to be working with is the people. You hardly work with the dogs on these cases much because the behavior plans for the dogs aren't that challenging all the time. It's working with the people that's going to be challenging.

Hopefully we'll continue to see that conversation evolve in our work, and again I'm glad we have people like Melanie and others that are bringing in this conversation, and the expertise and the degrees and the letters after the names that can actually speak intelligently and are qualified to talk about this topic as well. Again, great example of cross-pollination of different sciences and disciplines and how it all boils down to helping the dogs.

Dr. Melanie Cerone: Thank you, Mike. I have to say shout-out to you for being so open to bringing in different perspectives and for welcoming me into this, and valuing and looking at the mental health issues and considerations when working with people, but also the mental health issues of consultants and trainers. You are a big champion of taking care of yourselves as consultants and providing resources for consultants who need that help, so shout-out to you for that.

For consultants to really meet your clients where they are, look at them and their circumstances, as Trish and I think Emily was saying as well, people have finite resources in terms of money and time and emotional bandwidth. That's going to vary from family to family, and not everybody is going to be able to do what we would do if that dog were ours. And so respecting what that client can do, helping them to the best of their ability.

And for clients looking for consultants to hopefully find somebody who you connect with, that you feel comfortable talking with, and that you can have a conversation about what your limits are and what you're comfortable with, and to advocate for yourself as well, if you think that what the consultant is asking you to do is too much or something that you're not comfortable with.

Trish McMillan: I think come to the conference, even if you do not have an aggressive dog, even if you do not currently work with aggressive dogs. I think just doing obedience training you sometimes find yourself in the middle of an aggression case without knowing you're in the middle of an aggression case. Mike posted an amazing video on his membership page with a groomer who was being attacked and she was not expecting that to happen when she came to work. So knowing all you can about aggression.

If you work with dogs who have teeth, the possibility for aggression is always there, so I would encourage everybody to come and learn. It's about people as well as about dogs. It sounds like we're going to have a really wide variety of different looks at this big and important topic.

Emily Strong: I think my takeaway is that when people are first presented with this notion of approaching behavioral health through the lens of enrichment or through the enrichment framework, they feel overwhelmed and like it's a hard way to approach training.

But what I want people to know is that once you learn how to do it, there is enormous freedom in taking a systematic approach, because when you have these parameters to work with, it gives you very clear guidelines so you don't feel like you're grasping at straws or throwing everything but the kitchen sink at a problem. It gives you a very clear plan of action, and that is enormously freeing for both clients and the consultant.

So even if something new sounds scary and overwhelming, I would encourage you to dive in and learn more about it, because you might find that it's the most liberating experience you've ever had.

Melissa Breau: Thank you all so much for coming on the podcast today. I think this has been a fantastic conversation. I super-appreciate you all taking the time.

Mike Shikashio: Thanks so much for having us on and for promoting the conference. It's been great.

Melissa Breau: Do you want to mention the website address where folks can go?

Mike Shikashio: Sure. They can go to TheLooseLeashAcademy.com. It's on Joann's webpage there. You can find out all about the conference, the speakers, the topics, the times, and register for it there. I hope to see some of the listeners there. It's going to be a great time. We're going to be livestreaming from Chicago, so it's not going to be just streaming from a Zoom screen behind somebody's computer. We're all going to be hanging out in a TV studio there, so it's going to be a lot of fun.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Thank you to all of you again, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in.

We will be back next week. We'll be here to talk about pressure in training: how trainers may be using it more than they think, how to train for the inevitable pressure of the ring, and looking at pressure in all its various formats.

If you haven't already, subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available.


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!


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! 

E233: Megan, Denise, and Stacy on Balancing Skills...
E231: Sara Brueske - "Breaking Down the Retrieve"

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