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What Is Defense Aggression?

September 02, 2000
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What Is Defense Aggression?

By Dave Reaver

In the not too distant past the terms we used to describe how we trained, or conditioned our dogs to perform, while somewhat anthropomorphic, appeared to be much easier to understand. Many problems were created by not first recognizing that behavior which is innate in our dogs has to be completely understood before it is possible to condition (train) them properly for the sophisticated task of being an effective Police Service Dog. While certain learned techniques can be used successfully to train a dog to bite, it is necessary to understand the innate behavior of the species canine and more specifically, the animal you are training, to accomplish this at the highest possible level. It is not enough to be knowledgeable of the dictionary definition of the different drives the species canine operate in, but be aware that the domesticated version of the species shares many traits with his ancestor the wolf.

However, many of these traits, or innate modes of behavior, are mutations of the wolves behavior and have to be studied specifically to understand their origins and the mutated forms that are present in the domestic version whose behavior you are attempting to shape. The terms generally used to articulate how we transform this innate behavior into something useful are “prey” and “defense” drives. The success of trainers attempting to reach lofty goals without understanding the concept are many. The term “prey” recently became unpopular due to its dictionary interpretation “To vanquish and to kill”, as well as the problem of the “equipment crazy” dog that had so made the sleeve his prey he could never be counted on to bite a human. “Defense” on the other hand primarily portrayed an overly aggressive watch dog type. While most recognized both drives are present in their dogs their ability to secure the proper balance, or even realize what that balance should be, was limited.

Recently a new drive definition has been introduced. Rather than accepting the concept that balancing the drives through proper conditioning could produce good results, the misunderstandings of the “prey” and “defense” drives has prompted trainers to insist that their dogs are being trained in their “fight” drive. While we could probably reduce the interpretation of this drive as separate from both “prey” and “defense” as semantics, the true origin of the drive would defy a logical explanation. While it is true the drives of our domestic dogs are mutations of the wolf, the concept of any animal, other than a human, to search for someone so he may defend himself upon locating him, exceeds even that expectation. In addition it does not address the drive used to initially train a dog to bite. This has to be “prey”. It is inconceivable that a puppy could defend from a human over his “fight” drive.

This raises the question of when do we no longer call upon “prey” and switch to “fight” drive in our training program? To understand this I believe it is necessary to view what is occurring during advanced apprehension training through the dog’s mind. The concepts are not complex. The types of dogs that are sought for police work normally fall in to three categories. Type “A” is a strong, lively, excitable dog that resists compulsion, and is very active in his response to stimuli. This type is genetically imprinted to actively respond to stimuli on his own volition. When not handled (corrected) properly this dog may be aggressive to the handler.

Type “B” is also a strong lively, somewhat less excitable dog. His response to stimuli is strong when the response is innate; however, when presented with our tasks he tends to be re-active in his response. This dog is rarely aggressive toward his handler. Type “C” is strong, but lethargic type. He shows a pronounced re-active response to both innate and conditioned responses. Not as cooperative as type “B”, but rarely handler aggressive. The majority of our dogs are in the type “B” category, with a smaller number classified in category “C”. The type “A” dog is the only dog that would have a natural balance of “prey”/”defense” that could be labeled as “fight” drive. The key points are, a very small percentage of working dogs would fall into this category, and this dog would be dangerous to the handler and the public if in the wrong hands.

The type “B” dog is generally able to be conditioned to be active, or show a balance of “defense/aggression” if he is trained properly. This does not mean he is made stronger by diminishing compulsion to perform properly. Another point is that all compulsion, or compliance to training is done through the dogs “defense” drive. For example, the dog sits when told, simply to avoid the negative reinforcement that he has learned will be applied if he does not sit when commanded. The dog does a guard and bark or releases the bite only to avoid the correction that will surely come if he ignores the order, that is he “defends” himself. All “defense” in the dog is self defense. The dog is not generally a confrontational animal with humans outside of his own close environment. If he shows this trait in his yard it is normally a strong defense mechanism that manifests itself with a lot of body language: showing of teeth, hackles up, tail tucked between legs. This dog is torn between fight and flee.

This is nature’s “fight” drive. Absent having an “A” type dog we must condition our dogs to be active in their pursuit of drive satisfaction, while still complying with a training doctrine. This is accomplished by developing aggression and defense simultaneously. This behavior should properly be called defense/aggression, not fight. Note “Active” is not equal to disobedient. The primary drive in a dog doing excellent apprehension work, is still “prey”. This combination of 75% “prey” and 25% “defense/aggression” gives us a Police Service Dog that searches well and responds to the situation he finds at the completion in an active manner. The most successful way to accomplish this is using very skilled agitators.

This is a very condensed version describing behavior modification in the context or form recognizable to the dog. The techniques to accomplish this conditioning are another subject. Note: It is more difficult to develop the active conditioning in the type “C”, however, a properly trained “C” can perform at a very acceptable level. When attempting to elicit this behavior remember: The primary function of a Police Dog is to find things or people. This can only be accomplished at a high level of a dog’s “prey” drive. If your dog only recognizes a sleeve as prey you simply have not finished the job.

Seldom does a dog fall totally into one category i.e., a predominately “A” dog often has some “B” characteristics as well. If you do not have an “A” dog you must condition for “defense/aggression”. How you do this is critical. Developing aggression over the dog’s “defense” can induce the opposite of the desired result if not trained properly. If the dog does not adopt the desired behavior you will certainly elicit other behaviors when dealing with the “defense” drive. “Defense” can also manifest itself in avoidance/flee or submissive behavior. While some of this theory is mine, most is accepted as factual in the field of training dogs to reach their full potential.

Adlerhorst International, Inc.
Riverside, California

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