Is TTouch of Value for Aggression?

By Sarah Fisher

Aggression in dogs seems to be an increasingly common problem. Whilst it is not always possible to determine the root of the problem, fear and pain in the body are the common denominators in the majority of cases that I see.  This applies to aggression towards both people and dogs.  I use the term aggression here because that is a how many people describe the behaviours that they see although personally I prefer to refer to it as reactive behaviour.

I have worked with a range of dogs with fear related issues and unfortunately they include puppies as well as older dogs.  Rough handling, inappropriate games, inconsistency, noise sensitivity, and aversive training techniques are just some of the reasons that puppies can become defensive around humans. 

The puppy that will always stand out in my mind is Denzil, a Rottweiler that found his way to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home at ten weeks of age.  He could not be touched anywhere on his body, and was so stressed he would fly at peoples hands, arms, legs, feet and faces growling and snapping at every opportunity. He pinned other dogs he came into contact with and when contained would throw himself to the floor with his lips and gums going blue in colour. It was very distressing to see and I did wonder whether this poor little mite had any future at all. 

I brought him back to Tilley Farm and TTouch body work and ground work combined perfectly with clicker training. Denzil learnt how to engage with dogs in an appropriate way, worked with our top Practitioners Marie Miller and Maria Johnston and has matured into a spectacular, gentle giant of a dog who lives with another dog, two cats and an assortment of rehabilitating wildlife that he baby sits on a regular basis.  When a young ducking fell out of the box that it was living in Denzil picked it up and placed it carefully in a nearby bucket.  He could not put it back in the box as the lid had shut firmly behind the escapee.

The mature dog that will always stand out in my mind has to be U. A large, mature, entire guarding breed. The first four years of this dog’s life are a little unclear but U’s owner knows that the dog was trained with aversive techniques and handled by someone who believed that they had to assert their power over the dog in order to get the dog to toe the line.

He had been in his new home for a few months when the attack occurred. His new owner asked the dog to move out of the way, and the dog went for him. U dragged his owner around the garden by his arm for several minutes, then got him on the floor and went in for the leg.  The owner remembers the noise of the teeth sinking into his flesh and he is scarred for life. It took another person to get the dog off his owner and had the owner not been hospitalized for a couple of days the dog would have been destroyed that afternoon.

I was asked if I was prepared to work with U and I have to confess that I did not exactly leap at the chance to take him on as a client.  I reluctantly agreed to look at the dog to see if there was anything I could see in the posture of the dog that might give the owner some clue as to how he could maybe, just maybe, start to rebuild a relationship with U.  I knew what he would look like before I ever laid eyes on this dog.  Dogs with a bite history are usually tight in the back, stiff and choppy in the gait, fixed in the neck, hard eyed, and aloof.  There are other patterns to look for in the coat texture, body temperature and colour of the gums, eyes and skin and all these observations have served me well in my many years of working with animals and kept me safe. 

Tension in the lower back triggers the flight/reflex and dogs that dislike being touched or approached by people and/or dogs are often carrying tension through the lumbar area and hindquarters. They may have hip problems or be dropped in the pelvis and there is usually restricted movement through the right hind leg.  If the owner is happy to handle their dog I ask them to feel for hot spots on the top of the head and the middle of the back. These are often present in dogs that will bite when alternative behaviours are unavailable to them either because they are on a lead, feel threatened and have no means of escape or their early warning signals are being ignored or misunderstood.

U was a classic, classic case. He couldn’t bear contact on any part of his body but the work that would transform his life began the day he first set foot on Tilley Farm. 
TTouch can be a life saver for dogs with these issues.  The work is so gentle and respectful and the education is not limited to the dog.  The owner learns how to approach their dog and to handle him in a more appropriate way, to understand his body language and to recognise early signs of stress.  The ground work exercises can be an invaluable start for dogs that cannot tolerate body contact.  The sessions are kept short with plenty of variety in the way we interact with these dogs so that they remain calm and as free of stress as possible.  We work well below the threshold and use every tool at our disposal to help the dogs develop confidence and self control. The work starts in an environment where the animal feels safe and the owner learns skills that can be taken into day to day life and a variety of situations.

U became one of my all time favourite clients.  He is a puppy in a four year old body.  His eyes are soft, his tail now wags and his owner can do anything he wants with this dog, such is the level of the trust and communication between them.  His coat is just glorious and his movement alive and more balanced. The understanding that the owner has for this dog is incredible.  When he first came to me he told me his dog was dominant.  Now he can see that his dog is desperately insecure. I can touch U all over his body, his eyes are bright and his future secure.  He is meeting new acquaintances and making new friends.  I adore him.

The principles of TTouch are the same whether we are working with a dog that is fearful and reactive towards people or other dogs.  We will vary the work to suit the individual needs of the dog and take things one simple step at a time.  Sometimes a body work session is all that it takes to liberate the dog from his concerns and enable him to enjoy the company of others; sometimes the sessions may start with or include the groundwork too. It just depends on the dog. 

The dog reactive dog that I think of most often when lecturing and teaching is S.  A Border Terrier with an unpleasant penchant for throats.  She had already felled the village Pug, two Labradors and an assortment of others and came to visit the farm on our Practitioner Training Programme whilst holidaying in the area.  She was the type of dog that worries me the most. Silent and with a focus that would rival an exocet missile.  Her posture would change the moment she saw a dog. Even if that dog were three fields away.  She would lower her body, extend her neck and take her body weight forward over her fore quarters.

The groundwork showed S an alternative way of moving when in the company of our big fake dog that we use when starting the rehabilitation process.  Working over poles softened her top line, and began to shift her focus; a little.  I used the clicker to mark any softening in her posture, and used my hands to work on her body to give her a new experience of well being when in the company of what she assumed was another dog.  Did Robyn and I end the session with S wanting to play with the Stuffie (as opposed to a Staffie!)? Far from it. But here perhaps is where the magic of TTouch lies.  I had spotted some nice changes, not many, but enough for me to suggest that S come back to the farm the following day. 

The next morning I thought I might bring her into the training barn for a few moments so that she could sit in the company of the real dogs participating in the clinic.  At first she was reluctant to enter the room.  Then slowly she became braver and sat by the door.  I had thought I would probably be there for a few moments but S had other plans.  She braced momentarily when she saw the other dogs, but Ear Slides and more bodywork kept her calm. She spent the morning lying quietly watching other dogs move around and the participants thought I had actually brought in a different dog as they could not believe the change that had happened overnight.

We went out to the arena and dogs moved in figures of eight around her as she walked through the labyrinth and over the poles.  Her owner could not believe what she was seeing.  And the great thing about TTouch is that its effect on the nervous system enables the dog to take that experience with them when they leave the Practitioner.  S stayed in Bath for a week on her holiday and walks were pleasant and calm regardless of the size or shape of the canine residents that S met when trotting through the park.

I do use the clicker as I have mentioned when working with reactive dogs but am clear to mark the changes in the body posture, any sign of relaxation, a turn of the head, a softening of the ears perhaps rather than simply using it as a lure to get the dog to focus on the handler instead of the dog/person that is causing concern.  Could I work without the clicker? Perhaps. Could I work without TTouch? Absolutely not.  TTouch teaches the dog to respond rather than simply react. The owner learns, as does the dog.  This technique quite simply is the TTouch that teaches.