Ruff Lives Review — Aggression A-Z Online Course with Mike Shikashio
Please note: I was not requested to write this review, or compensated in any way. I’m just sharing my experience.
Also note: Just as I was finishing this review, I learned that what is possibly the last iteration of this class is scheduled for May 29,2019. I assume Mike will be offering the same or similar information on a different platform in the future, but I have no information to back that up.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 4 Paws
At the risk of sounding like a complete fan girl, I loved, loved, LOVED this class. It caused a deep, fundamental shift in my perspective that I am still working to fully integrate. It wasn’t a bombastic, life-altering realization, but more like a vertebrae at the base of your spine that you didn’t realize was a just tidge out of alignment until it clicked into place. Relief on a very deep level, but more “Ahhhhhh,” than “AH-HA!” I’ll talk about that at the end.
This is a course for professional dog trainers who work with, or want to work with, aggression cases. Logistically it includes access to a password-protected site with 5 short (10-20 min) preview lectures—one for each week of the class. Then once a week there is a live zoom call where Mike lectures for about an hour and then answers questions for about 30 minutes. The final class has a full hour for questions in addition to the lecture. Slides for the preview lectures, and videos of the live calls, are available for download so you can keep those forever. Plus there’s a secret Facebook group for alum (though I’m not sure if that will stick around after they’ve stopped hosting the class or not).
In the first preview lecture Mike says he’s going to provide a start-to-finish summary, and I immediately braced to be disappointed. I already work with reactivity and aggression, and I’ve already studied what lots of great trainers have to say about it (e.g. Emma Parsons, Leslie McDevitt, Jean Donaldson, Amy Cook, etc.)
My worry was fully unfounded, this class is overflowing incredibly practical information. Some of the class topics are addressed in-depth, and for some he indicates additional resources or areas of study where people can fill in on their own. Topics covered include:
Prerequisites for taking aggression cases
Initial contact with the client
Metaphors for client understanding
Observation and initial greeting with the dog
Determining antecedents, distant antecedents, and motivating operations
Prognosis and realistic goal setting
Management and safety
Tools to assist (actual physical tools, not training tools—though there are some of those too)
Creating a behavior change plan
Follow-up and fine tuning
Common errors in a counter-conditioning protocol
How to break up a dog fight
Case studies of actual clients—including video
And more (plus anything anyone asks a question about)
This course won’t make you an aggression expert (not that anyone would expect that from a 5-week online course), but it will give you a solid framework from which to approach aggression cases, even if you already have one.
As I was taking this course, my confidence in discussing all the things that need to be discussed with aggression cases—directing the intake, explaining realistic outcomes, imparting the details of the training protocol, etc.— increased significantly thanks to Mike’s clarity and directness. Also, as a newer trainer, I found it validating that my most frequent training approach is fully in line with what he typically uses.
Mike also gave me permission (so to speak, he didn’t literally give me permission) to bring a big chunk of the work I was doing outside of sessions (e.g. reviewing long intake forms before, emailing detailed summaries after) into the session itself, and made some compelling arguments for doing it that way.
Which I suppose points to what I appreciated most about the class, because in the end it’s just a presentation of the way one person approaches canine aggression cases (albeit a person considered to be one of the foremost experts in the field right now). Mike doesn’t just tell you what he does, he tells you why he does it that way. And he does that for every choice point throughout the design of an aggression case.
For me, a ‘How’ is semi-meaningless without the ‘Why’ because the ‘Why’ is what allows me to determine which situations are appropriate for any given ‘How.’ In other words, it give me the power to make the process my own, because without a ‘Why' I’m just rehearsing something someone else told me to do, which leaves me stumped if it doesn’t work as expected. (Not entirely, I am a professional trainer after all so it’s my job to figure this stuff out, but you can never actually know another person’s reasoning unless they tell you.)
And the reason Mike is able to share so many ‘Whys’ of his process with aggression cases in a 5-week class is because he has honed and clarified his process over decades with the precise practicality of an outstanding teacher.
Which brings me to my shift in perspective...
I am a professional dog trainer, so maybe this goes without saying, but I love training dogs. I love the training process. I train for fun, even when I’m not working.
I think this is true of many dog trainers (though not all it seems), and that this love can create a gap between trainer and client because most people don’t get a dog because they want to train. Most people get a dog just because they love dogs.
As the professional, it’s my job to bridge that gap. And, thanks to my foundational perspective shift facilitated by this class, I now have to admit that up to this point I think I was doing so somewhat begrudgingly.
Not that clients who didn’t inherently love the process weren’t seeing results with me, of course I adapt to whomever is in front of me. But if I’m honest, my faves were the clients who loved training as much as I did, the ones who geeked out on the possibility of it all. Seriously, I’ve had a few clients tell me they were behavioral psychologists and I could actually feel myself lighting up.
Which to some degree is normal of course, we all get excited by people who love what we love. But I think the shadowy part of it was that I was, to be honest, somewhat judgmental. And the truth underneath that was that I didn’t entirely know what to do with the clients who didn’t love (or at least like) training and weren’t excited (or at least willing) to do the work.
Even outside of dog training, I am by nature an approach-a-problem-from-as-many-angles-as-possible kind of person. I will dive into research to find the best things reported to help with any given situation, and then I will do them all. It’s just who I am.
Plus the reality of reward-based dog training, whether you are creating a reliable recall or counter-conditioning aggression, is that you are ultimately relying on your dog’s reward history—the expectation built into their brains between a behavior, or a situation, and something that is awesome for them. Building history takes time, effort and skill. And the more building you put in, the more results you get out.
But Mike’s class gave me the framework and the reassurance to simplify in this particular context. Trust the basics of the training, it doesn’t have to be complicated. And he is entitled to say that because he has spent decades removing complexity from his process while still getting results. As he stated, his mantra now is: “Keep it simple.”
I also think keeping it simple holds the accountability primarily on the trainer, where it belongs. It’s ego-boosting to know all of the things that could contribute to improvement of a dog’s behavior and quality of life. It’s harder, in a way, to pull out just the essentials and say let’s start here and stay here until this part is firmly in place.
Yes at the end of the day the client has to follow through on the trainer’s instructions, but it’s the trainer’s job to set the client up for success. That means conveying the relevant ‘Whys’ and ‘Hows’ in a way that the client can actually implement. If they aren’t getting it, then we aren’t teaching it right, at least not right for that particular client.
I think a parallel distinction could be made between science-based dog training and myth-based dog training. Myth-based dog trainers blame the dog (or the client) when things don’t go as planned. Science-based dog trainers re-evaluate their plan.
So set a clear, simple foundation in place first. Then, if clients have the time, energy, resources and desire to take it to the next level and provide their dog with even more direction, clarity and engagement, then great. Then you do the extra stuff that trainers love to do. Then we can start playing the games that result in a dog that happily stays on their bed waiting for release while you throw treats on the floor, or waits quietly on a platform while your guests come in and take off their coats, or happily checks in with you when a dog is on the other side of the fence barking and snarling.
These types of “impulse control” (that’s becoming a naughty phrase in dog trainer circles, but the more accurate “stimulus control” is jargon that I just don’t see non-trainers picking up)—sorry, that was a side-trip... These types of impulse control skills can be incredibly useful for a dog that often defaults to barking and lunging, or even biting, but they may not be essential (depending on the case).
And in the end I think that is my take home message from Mike’s class—assure safety, communicate clearly and directly, start with the essential, trust the training and make sure it’s implemented correctly, and don’t give the client so much that you make them non-compliant. Set them up for simple success, and then build on top of that only what is either necessary or truly desired.
As I mentioned at the beginning, the likely last iteration of this course starts Wednesday May 29, 2019—you can register here: https://atozmay29session.eventbrite.com/.
For more information about Mike Shikashio, you can visit his website: http://www.completecanines.com/.