Just a Bit Off the Top – Working with Aggressive Dogs

  Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance, order, rhythm and harmony.

   – Thomas Merton


If you know anything about Darwin Dogs, you know that we don’t cotton much to extremes of any kind.  Extreme thinking is, well…rather extreme.  Not every behavior issue can be resolved with a click and a treat, and not every dog behavior requires a shock collar.  There is plenty of room for moderate, balanced training.

A few years ago I was presented with a very difficult dog named Chex to train.  Chex’s owner was very forthcoming with the issues.  He bit.  Everyone.  And not just a nip, it was all out aggression.  His owner, we’ll call her Annie, was concerned because she had already had another trainer out there.  I assured Annie that it was a situation that could be worked with.

I walked in the door and met Annie’s partner, Susan.  Susan was being followed by a very docile looking Border Collie mix.  This looked so much easier than what I had been preparing for!

“Oh, this isn’t Chex!  This is Sadie, my dog”, Susan informed me.  “Annie is in back with Chex.  She wanted to make sure you were safely here before she brought him out.”  Great.   I asked her to bring out Chex.

Out came a writhing 35 pound mass of dog, dragging his owner at the end of a harness.  Chex was out for blood. There was an intruder in the house (me!) and Chex felt the need to let everyone know that this wasn’t okay, and the situation was dire!

This is what Chex looked like to me.  Only a little less stable.

This is what Chex looked like to me. Only a little less stable.

Chex was in full-out panic mode.  His choices of flight or fight having been reduced by the fact he was restrained by a leash, he went all out on fight.  I knew I had to get him under control as quickly as possible.  That’s where I made a mistake.  See, Chex was on a harness.

Harness. n
1. an arrangement of leather straps buckled or looped together, fitted to an animal in order that the animal can be attached to and pull an item more easily and efficiently, such as a cart, or a human.

A harness offers no control (read: safety) for a human.  The dog is able to go teeth first towards whatever item they want.  That’s one of the reasons we use collars, so when held at arm’s length, a dog can’t put teeth to flesh quite as easily.  Unfortunately, Chex was looking for any place to put teeth, making this a very dangerous situation.  My choices:  ask them to take him into the back room again and put a collar on him that I had, or simply take the dog and work with him immediately, knowing full well I’d probably take a bite.

Of course I chose the latter.

As Annie tried to hand Chex over, he jumped up and bit me on the thigh.  It took some effort, but I managed to disengage him from my leg and kept him at arm’s length while using my body language to keep him from connecting.  After “dancing” with him for about 5 minutes, he calmed down enough for me to have his owners place the safety collar around his neck, and then we went for a walk.

The aftermath.  I called this bite The Eye of Sauron because of how it bruised.  Yes, I name any bites I receive. Hobby needed - pronto.

The aftermath. I called this bite The Eye of Sauron because of how it bruised. Yes, I name any bites I receive. Hobby needed – pronto.

Chex tried to attack me at least 5 more times during our walk.  I maintained calm boredom in between attacks, but when he did attack, I gave him a negative answer.  You simply can’t put a positive spin on, “Can I attack you now?”.  The answer must be a negative, and it must be given clearly.  The first attack inside the house was the worst, and resulted in an impressive bite.  By the time he attacked for the 5th time, it was a half-hearted attempt on his part…at best.  After our 10 minute walk, Chex and I went back into the house to meet with his astonished owners.  I explained to them that Chex was trying to protect them from everything.  He was actually a very frightened dog.  Nobody made him that way. Dogs have personalities, too, and they run from Hippie to Rambo, just like we all do.  Let’s just say that Chex wouldn’t have been caught dead at Woodstock.

Rambo_DogAnnie and Susan were amazing.  They understood how important it was for them to get this right.  Their dog wasn’t attacking people because he was a jerk – he was frightened!  After explaining the need for positive and negative reinforcement, and the proper times to give each, I took Annie on a walk.  We passed by a crazy old woman with her dog  off-leash lunging at us – a situation that would have set Chex to nuke-mode.  Chex merely eyeballed the other dog, eyeballed the old woman (who yelled at us for walking our dog on the sidewalk in front of her house and thereby making her dog go ballistic).  It was extremely anti-climatic from Chex’s and Annie’s point of reference.

After our session, they mentioned the other trainer they had gone through.  It was a click-n-treater.  Positive only.  They said she came in for 1/2 hour and was greeted with the same reaction from Chex that I had been treated to.  She refused to go near Chex, and proceeded to diagnose him from a distance.  Her expert opinion?

He’s bi-polar.  Oh, and probably had a bad past life.  That’ll be $75 for the visit, please and thank you.

I’ve heard from Annie since our session.  She said he’s a different dog now.  She answers his questions, and he doesn’t seem fearful any more.  He’s a dog now, instead of a mess of teeth and hate.

I train dogs.  I don’t train puddles of pudding with no personality.  Each dog I work with has a definite personality, from the “No-No Bad Dogs” to the heavy hitters like Chex.  The object is to retain the dog’s personality, but moderate it to accommodate a human world.  The “No-No Bad Dogs” need to have their questions answered (“Can I jump? Can I race around the house knocking things over?”) just as much as the Chex dogs do (“Should I attack that person before they attack us?”).  The nuance is not to create a robot in the process.  Chex is still Chex.  He hasn’t been turned in to a perfect little machine covered in fur.  He has his personality intact.  We’ve just skimmed the unsavory stuff from the top, and left the happy, mischievous dog in place.

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

10 thoughts on “Just a Bit Off the Top – Working with Aggressive Dogs

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  5. I’m a bit confused as to what body language tells a dog that he can not bite you when he sees you as a threat to him, his home or his pack? I understand when you tell them they can’t have a treat, jump up, or get on the furniture. I have been bitten by small dogs on hands/arms – usually during activities like vaccinations. Dogs that I know to be biters that are smaller, I ignore (no eye contact, no reaching towards them) and usually we at least come to a truce. I’ve never been attacked by a dog big enough to do real damage if my face isn’t close so I would really like to understand this before it happens. (I work with shelter animals, most are frightened and insecure when they act like this, so I get that part).
    If you can help me get it, maybe it will help me and my fellow workers in the future.

    • Good question, Lisa –

      First, bear in mind the three steps to working with any animal:
      1) Control yourself, meaning no extra energy, verbal or physical. This includes the body language you give off. Sit and stand like a letter “T” instead of a letter “S”. In other words, act calmly bored. If you can’t envision this, go by old reliable. Stand with your feet about 1 ft. apart, and your hands crossed behind your back. If you’re sitting, but your elbows on your knee, and your legs should be at least 1.5 feet apart. Whew! That was the hard step.

      2) Control the situation. Don’t add energy if you don’t have control of the present situation. I think that’s the part where you refer to “coming to a truce”. When I have control of a current situation, I’ll incrementally add stimulation/energy. Note that in the blog post I did not immediately take Chex for a walk. I made sure I had control of the situation in the present circumstance before adding stimulation in the form of new surroundings.

      3) Answer the dog’s question, yes or no. In Chex’s mind, the question was, “Will you please leave now?”. Obviously my answer was no. So we “danced”, bearing in mind at all times steps one and two. I would use my negative body language described here, but only moving forward so long as I felt I still had control. If I felt things got too tense, I would stop all forward movement (or any movement at all), wait for the energy to subside a little, and then press forward when things got a bit calmer. Wash rinse repeat.

      In other words, I was only pushing forward when I knew I had the advantage. When I had to stop and wait, I would hold my ground, using firm eye contact and strong body langauge, but not intruding physically any further. The key with this strategy is to realize when a situation has become too tense to press forward. A lot of people make the mistake of trying to hold their ground that they’d already lost. Going very slowly is the best way to go about this. Also, no matter how terrifying the situation, always maintaining your composure.

      Hope this helps!

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