The Art of Developing Active Aggression
The techniques being described in this article have been developed during the course of over two decades of hands on experience, working hundreds of dogs, listening to, watching and training with some of the top working dog trainers our industry has ever known. They all deserve recognition for their contribution to the evolution of dog training as we know it today. Some of the people who have had the greatest influence and impact on my education as it relates to aggression work and drive manipulation are; John Rodriguez, Ed Nurse, Dean Calderon, Dr. Helmut Raiser, Mike Lorraine and Greg Doud to name a few. I am forever indebted to the people who have entrusted me to work their pets, protection dogs, sport dogs and K-9 partner’s over the years. Without these people providing me the forum in which to practically apply the things I was taught, the theories could have never evolved into successful techniques. My utmost appreciation is directed towards the dogs themselves. From the subtle ear twitch and tail wag, to instantly educating some bad timing by leaving me bloodied, every single dog has taught me through their non-verbal song. I haven’t invented these techniques, only compiled them and composed a method. I have also been fortunate enough to work with the right people, been able keep an open mind and ear, along with choosing a profession which has provided the opportunities to apply theses techniques in the real world, with sustained success. My eternal attraction to dog training is derived from the glorious struggle of climbing a mountain of knowledge for which there is no plateau. There is always more to learn and I hope someone can benefit from this method, digest it and catapult it into another level.
The goal of this method is to arm the animal with a powerful tool which can be utilized to not only defeat, overpower, intimidate and apprehend a threat in a real world confrontation but also to instigate activity in a passive target, through what I refer to as active aggression. I define “Active Aggression” as forward, animated, offensive offerings by the dog which can be shown through, but not limited to; erect and dominant body posture, eye contact, a desire to advance towards the target, combined with strong, convincing, repetitive, powerful barking. Restriction from a leash can alter these behaviors but the intent of the animal remains the same. These behaviors are all initiated by the dog, not a reaction provoked by an outward movement or stimulus created by the decoy or target. Initiating a fight with a passive target and creating activation is the desired response from the dog when placed in these situations. Although this article’s main focus is for Police K-9 training, this method can benefit sport dogs and personal protection dogs as well. Many dogs don’t have the genetic potential to produce these behaviors. This is why the selection process is crucial to the success of the team and achieving their ultimate goal. However; I have had success enhancing the confidence of weaker dogs in the sport world or working in other applications through “Boogie Man” work. This method, when applied correctly with perfect timing, can greatly enhance the dog’s confidence, harden nerves, bolster awareness, and raise the bar of the dog’s genetic potential. There are several key steps to follow in order to produce a dog who will display active aggression which is reliable and purposeful, even on the most passive of potential threats. The dog must believe, through his own self-initiated effort, he/she can cause a fight to start and their aggression is the key to winning.
In order to invoke feelings in the dog which will ultimately produce active aggression, controlled conflict must be brought into their world which can elicit Fight, flight or freeze responses. The animal must perceive a real confrontation in order to elicit predatory reactions to which we can build upon. This is extremely delicate work because we are placing the animal in a very vulnerable state. In the early stages of Boogie Man, the confrontation is less intrusive and getting the Boogie Man to retreat happens with the slightest offensive behaviors displayed from the dog. A less experienced decoy can participate at this level due to his greater distance away from the dog. As this technique progresses, the Boogie Man becomes much more of a threat and formidable opponent. Having a decoy that has a deep understanding of dog behavior and drive channeling/manipulation is crucial. Flight obviously is the least desirable of the three responses we want to see from the dog. Restricting the option of flight can result in advancing towards the ultimate goal but prolonged duration in this mode would suggest this would be the wrong animal for this task. The secret behind the success of this technique is how the decoy responds, rewards and alleviates the conflict at precisely the right moment. This decoy’s role and responsibility is discussed at length in the next chapter. Environmental factors play a crucial role in taking dog out of their comfort zone and producing uncertainty. The uncertainty and insecurity is what forces the dog to switch gears into predatory aggression mode, tapping into “survival” feelings. This technique is ideally done in darker, low-light areas such as alley ways, business parks, and industrial plazas. Wooded areas can also be utilized but generally speaking, most dogs feel more “at home” in the woods. In the beginning, you do not want any connections to a training field. Many IPO/Ring/PSA dogs have the genetic potential for this type of work, but it will never be revealed in a sport setting. In the presence of a prey stimulus or other equipment cues (suit, sleeves, jumps, blinds etc..) the dogs are programmed, comfortable and imprinted for a “sparring match” not real world aggression. It is essential we remove the animal from its comfort zone and eliminate equipment cues in order to get them out of balance. Selecting a location the dog has never been is a priority to achieve the aforementioned. This will avoid any territorial reactions through familiarization. This exercise takes a few seconds, there is no equipment needed by the decoy and it pays tremendous dividends for such a small investment. I have my handlers take all equipment off of the dog except a choke chain or fur saver. I don’t want to activate the dog with equipment cues for working. I want the dog to believe they are just getting let out of the car for a bathroom break. The leash must be secure but the handler must convey a very relaxed, nonchalant picture to the dog. I recommend using a six foot leash and allowing the dog to have the entire leash to roam and explore in a casual manner. Reeling in and letting out leash in an abstract manner can affect the dog’s behavior and choices. The dog must visually acquire the decoy with no influence from the handler and at this point in the process, I don’t want the wind in the dogs face to make any scent associations. Pairing the scent of the Boogie Man happens later in the game. This mission is self-discovery on the dog’s part. The decoy is pre-set at a location so the dog cannot acquire his scent, upwind. This exercise is set up as only a visual one in the begging, later we attach a scent picture to the encounter. The decoy is dressed in attire which is non- training specific. In contrast, the decoy is wearing the most bizarre clothing or costume they can find. Halloween masks are always a solid choice for changing the “picture” for the dog and also injecting some humor into the training environment for the handlers. It makes for great training and great camaraderie amongst the troops. The decoy is in low-light, mostly concealed and lying in a low or prone position, always maintaining eye contact with the dog. This is crucial not only for the decoy to analyze the animal’s behavior to add and subtract pressure in order to create a reward but also for safety reasons should there be an equipment failure or human error. You want to be hidden under debris, brush, boxes, pallets, darker shadows, wearing ghillie suit or any item(s) which provide concealment but also allow the decoy to maneuver without too much limitation. Ideally we want the dog to first become aware of the decoys presence from a good distance away. Close enough for the dog to realize something “odd” is in his environment, to which he must pay attention, but not too close to cause avoidance. Too far is always manageable and can be corrected as opposed to being too close and causing a serious avoidance. Always err on the side of caution. Taking baby steps towards advancing to your goals is always advisable in any phase of training.
Handlers Perspective & Responsibilities:
During the first few repetitions, there will come a moment when the dog has recognized the decoy and a clear and defined behavior change will occur. There a myriad of physical characteristics and behavior traits a dog can exhibit when confronted by a real world conflict in which they perceive as a potential threat. They are categorized in three common traits which can be juxtaposed with one another as the threat escalates and deescalates. They are fight, flight and freeze. When applying this technique to brand new dogs, freeze is probably the most common behavior the dog will demonstrate. This gives the appearance of the dog being momentarily suspended in time, balancing on a tight rope of nerve and self- preservation as they are processing their environment. In this moment, he has choices and this is where we see the raw character of the dog. At the point of recognition, the handler should take in whatever slack may be in the line. It should not be done in a way which is a quick pull simulating a correction, but a slow, methodical retracting. This will tap into some opposition-reflex, giving a greater likelihood of forward activation and aggression. This will also give the dog an enhanced sensation of pack drive being solidified, making them more confidence as the handler has gotten closer to the dog. The handler is to remain silent, giving no verbal or physical praise. This is a conflict the dog must resolve through his own aggression, not handler induced. Once the dog realizes the decoy is a risk factor, he may give a low growl, lean into the collar, bark, spin, sniff the ground, look for an escape route, try backing out of the collar…etc. The handler must try to keep the dog’s focal point towards the decoy if there is avoidance. You might have to trap the dog between your legs and apply pressure with your inner thighs in order to maintain them in this position. You may have to employ this handling technique for over animated dogs or ones who like to spin. You cannot accurately predict how a dog will behave. I have seen dogs who are very strong in other forms of training have issues, in contrast, I’ve seen dogs who lack drive in some areas of training show very strong in this game. You won’t know until you’ve placed the dog into this position. The low growl, lean into the collar, barking and any other form of forward aggression should be immediately rewarded by the decoy by getting up from his lowered position and takeoff running in a 45 degree angle away from the dog. Some screaming from the decoy can add to the effect of fear being induced and cracking a whip can enhance the dogs drive and frustration associated with the moment. The understanding we want to create in the dogs mind is when placed in a confrontation, active aggression will result in the threat becoming prey. A process known as “drive channeling”. As the decoy is running away from the dog at a great distance, I allow the dog to conduct a short pursuit or “push” towards the decoy, with tension on the leash. This continues only for a short distance and once the decoy is out of sight, I disengage the “push” and I allow the dog to investigate the area where the decoy was originally hiding. This is where we create a scent association to the exercise. The dog will switch gears from a visual game to a nose game and deep learning will take place. The dog will begin to sniff the ground, vegetation, or whatever material the decoy came in contact with. This is the key to building strong dogs in Boogie Man work and in the real world; the dog has caused great fear in its opponent through their active aggression. This will soon empower the animal to display active aggression faster and faster as a form of conflict resolution every time the opportunity presents itself. The team training the dog must collectively conclude the dog is ready to handle more pressure from the Boogie Man. A telltale sign the dog is ready for more is evident in the way the dog comes out of the car. He comes out of the car with a greater purpose, looking to pick a fight. The feedback I get from handlers new to this technique is “I can’t even get him to take a bathroom break when I get him out of the car….all he (the dog) wants to do is find the Boogie Man. The dogs get addicted to the game. As a handler, the process doesn’t change much. They are to provide safe handling, paired with solid timing when the dog is rewarded and the pursuit takes place.
Traditional dog training lends itself towards the idea there must be a tangible reward in order to increase the likelihood of the behavior reoccurring (bite, ball, tug, food…etc) Modern dog training speaks of the behavior itself becoming the reward. It is very evident through the progression of “Boogie Man” the actual behavior itself becomes extremely rewarding, self- gratifying, confidence building and a situation they look forward to more and more. The action of intense barking displayed through forward aggression which causes activation, flushing and ultimately flight of a target is so rewarding for the dog, they actively seek these moments as soon as their paws hit the ground. On very few occasions, I will give the dog a reward bite on a prosthetic arm/leg to which they are manually removed, never a slip and carry away. On occasion, I will use a muzzle to add physical contact to the exercise, as long as the dog is properly conditioned and desensitized to the muzzle. This simple exercise makes such a vigilant patrol dog, who craves the next fight. It also prepares his nervous system for the most intense, chaotic, stressful and violent encounters.
Decoy’s role & responsibility:
In all phases of aggression training, a skilled, knowledgeable decoy is worth their weight in gold! Although there is very little physical contact with the decoy and the dog in this method, the timing of when to add and subtract pressure is even more crucial due to the dogs being on edge with a lowered threshold and in a vulnerable state. Pressing a dog too much can cause irreversible damage, placing a very negative stigma on this situation. When I train new decoys in this technique, I have them hold an Ecollar which is set on vibration. When I see or the handler see’s that critical moment when pressure should be released and the Boogie Man should run, the handler or I can communicate with the decoy instantly, non-verbally by vibrating the Ecollar. This gives us a much greater likelihood of perfect timing and success without having to announce it to the decoy creating another cue for the dog which will cloud the learning process. It is essential the animal learns his active aggression causes surrender, retreat and flight in the threat. Especially in the early stages, there are extremely subtle behavioral changes from the dog the decoy might not be aware of due the darkness, concealment limiting vision or distance from the dog. In the first few repetitions of this work we might not get a barking reaction from some higher threshold dogs or dogs in deeper avoidance who are giving no behaviors to reward. I may reward perked ears, glaring eyes, a low growl, one step towards the decoy or any slight offensive offering by the dog, many of which can’t be detected by the decoy. The Ecollar being held by the decoy is a great communication tool between the instructor, handler and student without ever adding an audible signal. I’m reiterating the delicate, impressionable state the dog is in several times throughout this article to add emphasis on taking your time on building small, rewarding increments while advancing towards your ultimate goal. Go slow, start at great distances and allow the dog to dictate the pace at which you gradually implement more and more pressure. If done correctly, what we once perceived as pressure to the dog, will actually become a cue for dominance, aggression and a predatory concurring of the dog’s environment. A moment they enjoy and seek to create over and over.
Identifying Drives & Mood:
As mentioned previously, it takes many years of training dogs as a handler and as a decoy to have a solid working knowledge of identifying drives, more importantly, how to safely manipulate them. Watching how dogs interact socially and analyzing the intricate, non-verbal communication process which takes place amongst them is fascinating and crucial to a trainer’s education. There are four basic drives we operate within this specific technique and each drive has a specific goal to be reached in order for that drive to be satisfied. They are; Prey, Defense, Fight, Pack and I will provide a very brief description of each. These drives can be described in depth as they are vast and at times, not clearly defined. Theses drives can have subsections, varying degrees and even intertwine at times. A whole article or seminar for that matter can be solely dedicated identifying drives, what triggers them and analyzing the body language and behavior patterns associated with each.
A stimulus to which the dog perceives as desirable and wants to engage for the purposes of hunting, pursuing, catching, biting, shaking and killing. This drive can be enhanced by the prey stimulus activating and moving away from the dog. This drive creates an extremely positive mood in the dog and is an optimal drive. The tone and pitch of a dogs barking is generally a good indication of what gear they are in. However; this is not an absolute.
An insecure mood in which the dog displays behaviors of nervous aggression, due to the dog wants the threat to go away. This is not an optimal drive for any dog to work in. This drive can be displayed in the early stages of this work but with sound genetics and solid training, it can be switched to a more offensive outcome. This term gets tossed around in many circles of training and can mean different things to different people. This is just my interpretation.
This drive and its actual existence has been debated and disputed since the beginning of time. I wholeheartedly believe it not only exists ,it thrives in an experienced patrol dog. It’s my personal opinion fight drive can only truly evolve in dogs that have successfully hunted humans and engaged in violent encounters with them on a regular basis. It is truly an offensive, predatory state that encompasses the high mood of prey but is immersed in the power of real world aggression. It embodies the physical characteristics of desperation to locate the battle and win. I don’t believe this drive can evolve and mature in a sport setting as the components of real world violence are absent. I’m going to provide some examples of how the decoy can address the different behavioral responses from the dog. This is an ever-evolving, fluid training exercise which can take many twists and turns, hinging on an acute body language communication process. There is no substitute for experience and a vast knowledge of canine behavior. We must understand that there will be a dynamic, non-verbal dialog going on between the decoy and the dog, with the decoy being tasked with capturing the very precise moment when to submit to the dog, relieve pressure and flee.
1) Flight: The handler must restrict the dogs movement, keeping him focused on the decoy. The decoy can remain in a lower posture to minimize stress on the dog, simultaneously crawling in 45 degree angles towards the dog, always bladed away. The decoy must move slowly and suspiciously almost as if a Komodo Dragon was stalking its prey. Moving slow also insures the decoy doesn’t become perceived as prey to the dog. At the very first sign of the dog holding its ground or more favorably advancing towards the threat, the decoy can get up and run the opposite direction. Once they realize flight isn’t an option, we want to see the dog switch gears and attempt to defend itself. In some extreme case of avoidance or extremely high threshold dogs, closer physical contact may be required. As noted previously, flight is not an option you want the dog to consider and remaining in this realm one should choose another occupation for the dog
2) Freeze: This is the most common response from dogs in the first few sessions of Boogie Man. The decoy can implement the same protocol as the beginning portion of the “Flight” segment but eventually standing up on their feet. Moving slowly at a 45 degree angle from the dog, eyes looking away, shoulders bladed away and gaining ground on the dog ever so slightly. The dog may remain in a fixed position, processing your movement, actions and body language. They are in this mind set because they realize something in their environment is abnormal and requires their attention but haven’t decided how to respond. In this situation, I will show the dog a frontal view of the decoy, still at a great distance to avoid overwhelming the dog. If the decoy receives no reaction, they should attempt to make themselves look bigger by raising up higher in their posture and expanding their arms slowly out to the side, while continuing to advance. In the dog’s world, making themselves appear larger with a higher head, inflated stance and raised hackles is a very common trait displayed during social aggression. A picture which is very familiar and very clear to them you mean business. As with in every phase of this work, when the dog has overcome the conflict and displayed active aggression, the decoy must discontinue the pressure, submit and turn into a prey object by running away.
3) Fight: This is the ultimate drive goal we hope to obtain and maintain. This is the basis for active aggression. The dog is in the most confident state, dragging you from the car and looking for the Boogie Man so he can pick a fight. As this game progress the Boogie Man isn’t so easily scarred off and will press the dog more and more. The decoy must project the image to the dog he is there to hunt, stalk and kill to create the realism necessary to harden the dog . I will also conduct scenarios where the decoy remains prone and completely still. The reward for active aggression is allowing to dog to advance down rage in separate increments. For example; The decoy is 50 yards away almost completely covered in a tarp, with only his face exposed but covered in a bizarre Halloween mask. The dog initiates the game through active, convincing aggression. His reward is to quickly advance down range towards the decoy with the handler commanding the bite. The team travels about 10-15 yards and comes to a stop. Most dogs will become silent while in pursuit, giving the opportunity to create several reps. Once the dog stops, the game begins again and the dog must initiate the activity by producing active aggression in order to keep advancing. This process continues, with several reps until they are in close quarters with the passive decoy. This will put the dog in an intense state of drive and he can be rewarded with flight by the decoy. A muzzle can be utilized to get the dog to throw the first punch and bring the decoy to life. A series of giving and taking away pressure can occur within the same session, while the decoy continues to gain ground on the dog. This happens as the decoy shows the dog a frontal picture igniting conflict by squaring the shoulders directly towards the dog, intensifying eye contact, deeper breathing and an inflated posture. When the desired level of aggression is shown, the decoy can blade the shoulders away and slowly move at diagonals towards the ground. This relieves the pressure momentarily, confirms to the dog his aggression worked but the decoy closing ground keeps the stakes high. The idea is to slowly inject more and more pressure into the equation; all the while the dog holds the answers to the test by bringing more and more active aggression.
4) Pack Drive: The dog has a natural desire to assimilate into a pack with a clear and defined hierarchy. When this nucleus is well established and harmonious, it enhances the dog’s nerves, mood, drive and confidence, giving them a greater likelihood of reaching their genetic potential.
Throughout a Police K-9’s career, a large majority of their apprehensions take place without a bite. The dog’s mere presence can alter a criminals mind to stop active resistance. A natural fear of dogs potentially causing a suspect to surrender is greatly enhanced by a dog who is demonstrating controlled, purposeful, active aggression in the form of intense and convincing barking directed at the target. Common dog training theory 101 would suggest there isn’t a reward. This method installs a reward system the dog builds upon in the real world as bad guys are placed into custody, hand cuffed and escorted into a patrol car. In closing, as with any training technique, it is much easier to demonstrate it in-person than to explain it in written text. There are many nuances to this technique to insure its success and every dog has a different perception of their environment which is molded by their raising, training and genetic blue print. Of all the techniques we utilize to train and prepare our patrol dogs for the real world, Boogie Man is hands down the most beneficial and practical of all.