‘Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression’ by Barbara Sykes: Book Review

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The book, ‘Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression’, is an introduction into canine aggression and its causes. Its author, Barbara Sykes, is a highly experienced dog trainer and registered behaviorist and also one of the UK's top shepherdesses, winning many trials. She has a specialization in Border Collies and has also written books regarding the training and handling of that particular breed.

The book has several different elements to its structure. On the one hand it gives details of what aggressive behavior is and its reasons, signs given off by dogs and reasons for these signs and an insight into how aggressive behavior develops. It provides an overview of Sykes' own training theory and how to develop it and handle aggressive dogs. In each chapter there are details of her own experience with an aggressive dog called Craig which she rescued after the dog had bitten its previous owners. Finally, there are case histories from Sykes on dealings with problem dogs and the solutions that were found for the aggressive behaviors.

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The book is written in a way that makes it very easy for any reader to understand and no real background knowledge of any kind regarding dog behaviors and training is required. There are no real scientific or technical details in the book that may confuse or put off the reader. The book serves as a real confidence boost to the owner who may be suffering from the stress of owning and dealing with an aggressive dog. The end of each chapter has a summary of all the previous information in that chapter and this is helpful for the reader to again briefly recap on the points realized or is an easy reference when returning to the book. Throughout the book there are photographs of dogs and people which serve to assist the reader in identifying different situations and body language used by both dog and human and also displays basic handling techniques.

Overall, the book is a wonderful way to ease into the subject of canine aggression. It gives the reader an insight into the thoughts of the author and a sound understanding of the author's view of how to deal with the aggressive dog. Each chapter flows easily into the next. Chapter one begins with an explanation of aggression and makes comparisons between human aggression and also how dealing with it compares to raising children. It also covers the topic of aggression and the destruction of toys. Chapter 2 goes on to the factors related to recognizing aggression, reading the dog's body language and how humans can give off the wrong signals and lists three types of aggression, dominant, nervous and protective. Chapter 3 explains how aggression develops and how owner behavior, toys and play and diet can influence the behavior. Chapter 4 covers dealing with aggression and Sykes sets out her rules and some techniques for dealing with aggressive dogs, such as basic obedience, where the dog should walk, and when and whether to chastise the dog. Chapter 5 is called ‘Restoring Confidence’ and deals initially with the nervous dog and puppy socialization. It moves on to the case histories and then comes back to dominant aggression and puppies. The end of the chapter deals with the owner and goes some way to empower the owner to retake control of the dog and begin to train and restore their confidence. The final chapter deals with the owner and their own capabilities and how they should proceed at their own pace and within their own judgment. It also gives advice regarding children and training and how the dog views the child. Finally, there is the concluding section of Craig's progress.

Throughout the book Sykes makes constant reference to 'pack leadership' and that the owner should act as a 'pack leader' and ensure that the dogs know that they are subordinate to the human. This is the basis of most of her references to her training technique and much of the psychology of the behavior is explained using this one maxim.

For me this is where the book fails. “Dogs are instinctively pack animals, so in their natural world they would have the support and safety around them and a strong pack leader to guide them”, - Sykes writes. However, much research has been carried out into dog behavior and it is proven that dogs rarely, if ever, form packs. It is a myth that has been carried over from the studies carried out on wolves by David L. Mech back in the 1970s when he used the term alpha to explain the hierarchy system within a captive wolf pack. In fact, contrary to popular belief, dogs around the world do not (or only rarely) exhibit pack behavior. Dogs hardly need a social organization to feed on discarded chicken bones and mango skin. For dogs, other dogs are no help when it comes to feeding themselves or feeding pups Coppinger 2001. David Mech went on to try and resolve the incorrect use of the term alpha pairs in wolf packs which led to the pack leader maxim being adopted to describe the dog's view of their relationship with humans. Given this natural history of wolf packs, there is no more reason to refer to the parent wolves as alphas than there would be to refer to the parents of a human family as the 'alpha' pair. Thus, we now refer to these animals as the male breeder and female breeder and as the breeding pair or simply the parents.

This pack leader explanation continues through the entire book. For instance, when referring to a dog pulling on the lead, Sykes writes, when the handler pulls the dog back, the desired reaction of making the dog understand that is must not pull is reversed. For while the handler is pulling the dog back the dog is pulling forwards and thus any words it hears, such as heel are associated not with being pulled back to heel but with pulling the handler forwards. This is good advice but then Sykes goes on to say, “Subliminally the dog is learning that heel means pull, this in turn condones the dog making decisions and telling the handler what to do and promotes it to pack leader”. I think a more beneficial explanation could be found in the basic science of classical and operant conditioning. The dog has learnt to pull forward, not because the dog thinks he is in charge but rather that the dog has been conditioned to do so.

If the basics of classical and operant conditioning and the Premack Principle (the theory that a likely behavior can be used to reinforce and reward an unlikely behavior) had been explained, I think this would then lead the reader on a more thought-provoking journey in not only understanding their dog's aggression problem but resolving it through careful training. For instance, there is a part which refers to the subject dog Craig and Sykes writes about the first days of the dog being homed with her. She states that she isolates the dog in a kennel for three days and the only contact is with her and she does not make any eye contact or 'reverence'. Then she takes the dog out and if he walks in front of her, she returns the dog to the kennel and isolates him again. She repeats this exercise until the dog learns not to walk in front and states that this is due to her asserting her leadership over the dog and the dog understanding from its pack mentality that she was in charge. There is clearly much operant conditioning in this regime. There is the initial isolation which serves as a punishment to a dog who would naturally desire freedom and contact. Then Sykes takes the dog out and as soon as the dog walks ahead the dog is returned to the kennel and isolated again. Here we have positive punishment - the isolation in the kennel, and negative reward - the cessation of the walk and contact. This is repeated until the dog stays behind Sykes and the dog is then allowed to continue with the walk. This behavior is rewarded with positive reward - the continuing walk and contact, and negative punishment - the dog is not isolated again. These I think are better explanations for the process.

Sykes then goes on to write I accept that many owners use titbits and toys as rewards for a dog doing as it has been told”. In my opinion if bribes have to be used to ensure good manners, then there is something wrong. For me, this is a real problem in that Sykes is anthropomorphizing the dog's behavior problem as being like a child with no manners. This is not a great way to illustrate to a reader the relationship between themselves and their dog. If the reader is beginning to think that the dog's behavior is something personal, this will just frustrate the owner if the dog continues to misbehave and could lead them to using inappropriate or forceful methods. So far, I have mainly discussed how dogs learn based on things they like to do - eating, playing, getting praise from their owners. Dogs must have learned in this way ever since they were domesticated, and indeed the most modern training methods are largely based on setting up associations between rewards and things the owner wants the dog to do. However, as we have seen, dogs also learn from avoiding things they do not like. Until recently this was the main principle behind the craft of dog training, which was largely based on selective application of physical punishment (Bradshaw, 2011). Also, the reference to 'titbits and toys' does not do justice to the neuroscientific research into the effects of reward training for reducing aggression in dogs. Dopamine levels for example are of major importance in dealing with a fearful or aggressive dog and clicker training has been proven to affect the dog's neural functions. However, clicker training normally relies heavily on food being used as the primary reinforcer. I am not the only clicker trainer being drawn toward new development in neuroscience. One candidate for involvement is the brain chemical dopamine. Perhaps our little click affects the brain chemistry not only in a way that words do not but, more important, in ways that the basic primary reinforcers such as food treats do not (Pryor 2009).

Sykes at no time advocates the use of punishment in training: “Remember, no confrontation with an aggressive dog; all it will do is frighten a nervous dog and antagonize a dominant one”. However sometimes I find her a little vague and she seems to leave it to the reader's discretion as to whether physical punishment is appropriate: “A handler should always know how best to deal with his own dog and quite often a young insubordinate pack member will accept such a minor physical contact (scruffing) as a way of admonishment ... if the down command is operational then it is easy to put the dog on the floor, but it is rarely as easy to keep it there when it is striving to prove its importance. So lay the dog down and place your foot on the lead close to its collar, keep the hand loop of the lead in your hand and ignore the dog. If it is struggling then tell it 'no'; when it is still and quiet give it a 'good dog'”. Again, for me this is telling owners to force their aggressive dog to cope with situations that are beyond the dog's capability at that time. The dog is beyond its threshold and there is a good chance the dog will bite the owner.

There are many other examples of the way the book either subtly or accidently puts the owner into a position of possible forceful actions with their already aggressive dog with such sentences as: “if it was a rescue (dog) then it probably arrived on your doorstep looking peaceful and within a week had begun to order you around ... Do not wait until you dog tells you that it is going to be aggressive: you must tell it that you will not tolerate this behavior ... now go back to your dog, put on his lead, take him into the room and tell him to lie down by your side. Do not negotiate, do not point to the floor and do not wait to see whether he wants to listen. Never push a dog that is aggressive towards you, if you think you are going to lose the battle about lying down the tell him to stand. You can do this by holding the lead and making sure that he is not allowed to move ... He is not worth the argument and you must not let him think he is, he must be told to go to his bed and stay there until such time as he is prepared to listen to you and behave with respect in your house”. All these statements in my opinion may give the reader a feeling that they cannot allow the dog room to make mistakes and perhaps the reader may become aggressive or forceful in their dealings with the dog. Sykes says never push a dog that is aggressive. Does she mean that it is okay to use physical force to push a dog that is not aggressive? Does this lead the reader to think it is okay to use force on the dog as long as there are no signs of aggression? Are they able to make that judgement? However, the big question is, should we be forcing dogs physically whether they are aggressive or not? I don't think so.

James O'Heare (2007) wrote in many of the less veiled or euphemistic formulations of the ‘Nothing in Life is Free’ or leadership protocols, owners are encouraged to perform behavior that would intimidate or dominate the dog. It has been my experience that, even in the better formulations of the plans or programs, owners commonly misconstrue them. The term leadership means something different to everyone, and often the meaning is not conducive to proper training. The whole notion of leadership, dominance or NILIF tends to imply an adversarial relationship, even when we try to convince owners that that is not what it means. By setting up a paradigm in the owner's mind that someone should be leader, we imply that someone else should not be, and it can simply sow the seeds of an adversarial relationship that can cause damage to the relationship between owner and dog. My preference is to simply focus on behavior, avoiding any talk of dominance and even leadership and NILIF. They are not necessary and they can lead to misunderstandings. Clients should be advised to take every opportunity they can to train the dog, using the principles of positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors and preventing reinforcement of unwanted behaviors. People who impose a power struggle view on their relationship will see exactly what they impose; this is a no-win scenario. Simply train the dog.

I do not think I would recommend this book due to the negatives I have outlined above. This is a shame as there are positives in the book but most are undermined with the 'pack leader' explanations. I would like to see an updated version written with current understanding and research in dog behavior and a more scientific aspect included explaining behavior modification techniques. It has been helpful to me as I have been able to read and use the knowledge, I have gained over the time, I have been studying to understand how the methods described really work through operant and classical conditioning.

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‘Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression’ by Barbara Sykes: Book Review. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 22, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-and-handling-dog-aggression-by-barbara-sykes-book-review/
“‘Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression’ by Barbara Sykes: Book Review.” Edubirdie, 15 Dec. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-and-handling-dog-aggression-by-barbara-sykes-book-review/
‘Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression’ by Barbara Sykes: Book Review. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-and-handling-dog-aggression-by-barbara-sykes-book-review/> [Accessed 22 Jul. 2024].
‘Understanding and Handling Dog Aggression’ by Barbara Sykes: Book Review [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Jul 22]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/understanding-and-handling-dog-aggression-by-barbara-sykes-book-review/
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