Aggression in dogs is one of the most common and most serious concerns for dog owners, and it is the primary reason dogs are euthanized. However, while aggression is a significant problem, Karen Pryor Academy and ClickerExpo faculty member Emma Parsons has proven that no dog should be considered hopeless. Inspired by her own quest to rehabilitate her beloved golden retriever, Ben, Emma refuted punishment strategies that were often used to deal with dog aggression and developed an innovative, positive approach. For the last decade, Emma has given hope to many owners in their quests to find solutions for their reactive/aggressive dogs. Since the release of her bestselling book on dog aggression, Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog (KPCT, 2005), she has traveled throughout the US and Europe to share the "Click to Calm" clicker training methodology. In this interview, we catch up with Emma and explore why her strategies work, as well as discuss the resources that are available for pet owners who are facing this most challenging behavior problem.
What was the catalyst that led to your interest in rehabilitating reactive and aggressive dogs?
When I was rehabilitating my golden retriever, Ben, he did not fit the typical pattern. Back then you either punished the aggressive behavior so severely that the dog would never think to do it again, or you waited for the dog to stop aggressing and be quiet so that you could reinforce the dog for the correct behavior. Ben did not fit into these slots. At one point, I tried to keep him in the presence of other dogs, hoping to reinforce the calmer behavior. Unfortunately, he started vomiting before I could reinforce anything! Ben would be aggressive toward dogs up close as well as dogs 100 feet away—with the same intensity!
At that point, I discovered the learning theory principle that states that you can reinforce behavior at its lower intensity. Shaping Ben's reactivity was never black or white. There were many shades of grey in between. With Karen Pryor's advice, I started by clicking him for taking a breath. Little by little, tiny windows of silence started to open up. I only became aware of the silence when I had an easier time placing my click.
I am so committed to helping others with their dogs because Karen was so committed to helping me save my golden retriever. If it hadn't been for Karen, Ben would not have lived past his second birthday.
Click to Calm has been described as the ultimate reference book for those looking for answers about dog aggression. Did the book achieve what you hoped it would?
Yes, writing Click to Calm: Healing the Aggressive Dog did achieve what I had set out to accomplish—that and much more! The most important reason I wrote the book was to teach others that you can shape a dog's emotions like you can shape any other behavior via clicker training. I especially wanted others to know that, even if the dog appears to have no discernible threshold, there is still hope.
What are some of the key steps pet owners should take once they realize that their dogs have aggression issues?
The first thing that they need to do is see their veterinarian. I always recommend that my clients look medically first. If everything checks out fine, they should then see a veterinary behaviorist. Before I work with a client whose dog has a severe aggression issue, I want them to see if behavioral pharmaceuticals are appropriate. Once both of these specialists have been consulted, a pet owner can set up an appointment with a behavior consultant, someone who will work with the dog safely and in a positive manner.
Why do you think clicker training works so well with reactive dogs?
Clicker training works well for a variety of reasons. The click is a precise marker signal. It means the same thing all of the time, no matter what the circumstance or who is holding the clicker. The clicker is easy for the handler to carry. The sound of the click is calming to the amygdala of the brain (it calms our brain as well as a dog's brain).
What are some of the myths about using a clicker with reactive dogs?
One of the misperceptions is that if you use a clicker to mark the pieces in between the aggressive cues, then you are reinforcing the aggression itself. For example, if an owner is out with his or her dog and the dog focuses on another dog, the owner should click and feed the dog for looking at the other dog quietly. Just because the dog is quiet does not mean that the dog is not stressed. The dog is very likely stressed, but if the owner can capture the behavior of looking at the dog quietly more and more often, then the dog will become calmer over time. The dog can learn to look at the thing that was troubling in the past.
Are there any dogs that can't be rehabilitated with positive reinforcement?
I have never worked with a dog that did not improve to some degree. The issue is whether or not the improvement was enough for the family. We all have dogs for different reasons. In order to work with an aggressive dog, family members must push aside all of their previous expectations and let the dog blossom into the dog he was meant to be.
For example, I chose Ben hoping he would become a highly competitive obedience dog. Once his issues began, my main intention was simply to save his life. If we could do other things eventually, then that would be an extra blessing. I had to push aside all of my previous expectations and allow Ben to be Ben—the dog he was destined to be. In the beginning, I was not sure who that dog was!
What have you been up to since the release of Click to Calm?
Since the release of Click to Calm I have been teaching seminars and workshops in the US and abroad. I feel blessed to have worked with so many owners and dogs. Not only have I traveled across the US, but I have visited the Netherlands as well as Europe to share the "Click to Calm" clicker training methodology.
I work fulltime as a veterinary technician at the VCA Rotherwood Animal Hospital in Newton, Massachusetts. Though I could work solely in the behavioral field, I love having one foot in the medical field. It is such a nice balance to my life and I am hoping I can continue in this fashion. I am always worried that at some point my two worlds will collide!
I am also working with my dogs competitively in agility and obedience. I have four dogs: three golden retrievers and a papillon. Kayden Blue, my reactive golden retriever, will be reintroducing me to the world of canine freestyle. I let my dogs pick their sport, and Kayden has decided that freestyle is his sport!
Julie Robitaille is the "brain child" behind our video called TACT: A Training Program for Dogs that Are Fearful or Reactive Toward People that was published by Clean Run. Though Julie could certainly have done this project beautifully on her own, she asked if I would participate and help put it together. I was honored to oblige!
How did the idea for TACT come about?
Julie had been one of my reactive dog assistants for several years. Her degree was in canine massage. At the conclusion of one of our classes, she mentioned to me that she had set up a dog-massage booth at one of the pet fairs. There she met many people who asked if they could get their money back if she could not actually put her hands on their dogs to massage them.
Julie did offer money-back guarantees, but she introduced challenging dogs to the clicker, working with them just as we were working in our reactive dog classes. Basically, she shaped all of the appropriate things that the dogs would do. Before long, she could actually touch and massage some of these challenging dogs!
When I learned that Julie had been having this fabulous success for three years, I encouraged her to share this technique. When she asked if I would work with her on this project, I agreed happily!
What dogs benefit from TACT?
All dogs benefit from TACT, but especially dogs that are fearful or reactive to people. The most wonderful thing about TACT is that it uses a predictable protocol, which is HUGE for shy and fearful dogs. TACT places a format around how they can introduce themselves to people and how they can interact with them.
What are you working on now?
I am working on integrating a puppy into my reactive-dog household. This is new to me since I never introduced another dog into my home when I had Ben. I am currently writing about it on my blog. The other thing that I am describing on my blog is how to raise a clicker trained pup that will compete successfully in obedience and agility.
I am also continuing to teach reactive dog classes and Control Unleashed classes, with a little bit of "Click to Calm" thrown in.
Emma, thank you for sharing your insights and for everything you've done to give hope to aggressive dogs and their families.