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

aggressive-dog

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

Support Systems

 

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

We come in many different shapes and sizes, and we need to support each other and our differences. Our beautiy is in our differences – Carre Otis

We learn early on that it’s important to surround ourselves with people that offer support and positive energy to our lives. Of course, we learn that, but aren’t always good at picking out those individuals that may actually make us question ourselves and how valuable we are. It’s a tough balance throughout our whole life. Some of us get very good at picking out those individuals that need to be kept in our lives and some of us still have some trouble figuring that out.

It’s a life lesson that comes into play even when you have a dog. For those of you who have a reactive dog, a difficult dog, a dog that doesn’t act like Lassie, it can get frustrating. There’s a lot of work involved with creating a dog that is balanced and happy. There are days when you feel like you haven’t made any progress and there are days where you’re pretty sure you have the best dog in the entire world. However, through it all you need a support system to keep you going.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

The problem is, those of us with dog reactive dogs are sensitive. We take our dog’s behavior on personally. We look at it as a relfection of ourselves as owners. Which means, if you have individuals around you that are quick to point out your dog’s flaws, their regressions, their lack of improvement we feel as though they’re saying that about us as owners.

These negative comments ultimately affects how we work with our dogs if we take it too personally. It’s important to feel as though you are making progress and acknolwedge the work that you’re putting into your dog in helping them lead a balanced life. Sometimes, we can’t always cut out every negative person in our life. Which means we as dog owners, need to learn how to ignore the negative and embrace the individuals that support our work.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

Tall Guy is Porter and my’s biggest supporter. Yes, he has helped with Porter as well, but when there’s a bad day he’s always quick to point out the progress we have made so far. These comments are the ones I take to heart. The support system is so important. We all have our rough days where we feel like we’re moving backwards with our dogs instead of forward. But, I promise you, if you have been doing the work there’s someone in your life who is willing to point out the progress and acknowledge the effort that you’ve put in so far. Look for those individuals and keep them around.

The stars of Dogs in the CLE  courtesy of Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

The stars of Dogs in the CLE courtesy of Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

So, it’s time to look at who the negative is in you and your dog’s life. You can’t always just cut them out, but you can remember to let the comments roll off of you. It’s not worth it. They’re not the ones helping you move forward with your dog so they have no say in what progress has been made. Listen to the individual’s who offer you and your dog the support you need. Those individuals will keep you grounded and working hard. And that’s the most important part when working with a dog.

Keep calm and pilot on

Danika Migliore
Darwin Dogs, LLC
Dog Training in Cleveland, OH