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

Talk to the Animals – How Our Dogs Communicate

“But animals don’t always speak with their mouths,” said the parrot in a high voice, raising her eyebrows. “They talk with their ears, with their feet, with their tails—with everything. Sometimes they don’t WANT to make a noise. Do you see now the way he’s twitching up one side of his nose?”

“What’s that mean?” asked the Doctor.

“That means, ‘Can’t you see that it has stopped raining?’” Polynesia answered. “He is asking you a question. Dogs nearly always use their noses for asking questions.”

- Hugh Lofting, The Story of Dr. Dolittle

Brittany Graham Photography

Brittany Graham Photography

I frequently wonder why there aren’t more dog bites happening.  We humans do the craziest things.  We take a dog out of it’s natural environment (outside), “domesticate” it (well, not entirely), and then expect poor Fido to act human.  He barks – let’s use a shock collar.  He pees on the floor – let’s rub his nose in it.  He pulls on a leash – prong collar it is.  Why? He needs to be punished, so he knows he’s been bad.  

The concept of punishing a dog always confused me.  People tell me they do it so the dog knows that it “did wrong”.  But in reality, have they? Dogs are very honest creatures.  They aren’t conniving.  They aren’t diabolical.  They don’t bluff.  Unlike, say…Oh I don’t know.  Maybe….

evil_cat-136142

In other words, they’re dogs, not cats.

So how can a dog be bad?  Fido’s problem isn’t that he’s a bad dog.  Fido’s problem is that he’s a horrible human.  And you’re punishing him for it.  

Well, guess what?  We don’t always make the best dogs.

Rather than placing blame (on either species) and feeling the need to punish, let’s focus on how to more effectively, and humanely, communicate with our dogs. To do that, we need to understand where they are coming from.

Dogs ask questions.  A lot of questions.  All day long, nonstop.  For example:

"Can I eat that?"

“Can I eat that?”

"If he doesn't want it, can I have it?"

“If he doesn’t want it, can I have it?”

Yes, most of their questions do revolve around food.  But rather than punishing them for asking a question, let’s just do the logical thing and answer their questions.

Dogs are binary creatures.  Everything is “yes” or “no”.  Think of it as a giant game of hot/cold.  Even easier, “yes” is the absence of “no”.  (If you have kids you know exactly what I mean.)  Or imagine if you’re at a dinner party, and there’s one more piece of cake left.  You ask if anyone minds if you take that last piece of cake.  You pause for a few moments, but since nobody has said “no”.  So you take that piece of cake and enjoy it.

giphy (7)

So how do you answer a dog’s questions?  Body language.  As Polynesia the parrot from Dr. Dolittle pointed out above, animals don’t (usually) use their voices to communicate.  For the most part, they use body language.  All you need to effectively communicate with your dog is to learn how to tell Fido “no” in a way he understands, without resorting to violence, while still respecting each of you.  A simple answer to a simple question. We call this Piloting your dog.

Step 1 – Control Yourself.
If you’re angry, rushed, annoyed, hyper….it’s not going to work.  Fido is simply going to fling that energy right back at you like monkeys at the zoo.  Be calm.  Or at least pretend to be calm.

Make sure you’re controlling your body language, too.  Stand up straight.

giphy (8)

Step 2 – Control the Situation

You can not add stimulation until you have control of the current situation.  For example, how many times has someone knocked at your door, and your dog goes charging at the door, barking up a storm and causing a commotion…and you just open the door.  You didn’t control the situation, you added more chaos to the situation.  So don’t add to the chaos until you’ve controlled the current issue. Sometimes that may mean moving backward a couple steps.

For instance, when you go to answer the door.  You answer your dog’s questions using body language (“Mom, do you need help at the door?” No.  “Okay!” *sits down*), and they’ve accepted your answer to their question.  So you open the door…..

...And they see it's Grandma

…And they see it’s Grandma

Rather than inviting Grandma inside to “enjoy” this display of loving affection, ask her to wait a moment, close the door you just opened (thereby removing stimulation) and regain control of the situation.  Now you let her in.

Step 3 – Add Stimulation/Answer More Questions

You controlled the situation, so you were able to add more stimulation.  More questions will come up, (“Did you bring me anything, Grandma?!”) and more answer will have to be given.

So exactly how do you give your dog an answer?  Easy.  Remember, we’re using body language …their language.

To tell a dog “no”, simply pretend they are a lot taller, and you are trying to hit them with your belly button (pretend there’s a little laser beam coming out of your navel).  Stand up straight, and simply walk into them, with your feet like a letter “V” (so you don’t step on his toes!).  Don’t baby-step it.  You aren’t angry, but you aren’t timid either.  You are acting confident you have the right answer, which in this instance, happens to be “no”.

A better way to visualize is this:

If your dog is staring at a treat on the floor and then at you, he’s asking if he can have it with his body language, as Polynesia the Parrot would tell you. If you do not want your dog to have it, answer his question by walking in between him and the treat, facing him, with the treat behind you. This means that you are “claiming” the treat. You can move into his personal space to back him off it a bit.  Once he’s engaged with you, nothing, or everything (in other words, engaged with anything but the treat), remove your strong body language by walking to the side or away from him. This shows him that he is giving you the correct response: accepting that the treat is yours. If he looks at your treat again, simply use the body language again.  (He’s a dog.  He’s allowed to ask a question more than once.)  Use the appropriate amount of body language for each question he’s asking.  For example, if he’s politely asking if he may have the treat, please don’t go charging at him like the Kool-Aid Man.

Unnecessary

Unnecessary

You can claim anything…the door, Grandma, even his behavior such as barking.  He’s asking a question: Can I bark?  The answer is “no”.  Simply move at him using the body language, until he ceases, even for a moment.  Yes, you may have to answer the same question over and over initially, but now you’re starting to communicate in a way he understands.

Communication.  That’s what a happy, healthy, trusting relationship is built on, regardless of the species.  Yelling and shouting, that’s not respect, that’s frustration.  But what if you could talk with the animals?  Answer your dog’s questions?  Well, that’s the basis of communication.  So start “talking” to your dog…in the way they understand.  Stop being human, and expecting human behavior from your dog.  Because they are already perfect the way they are, all they need is for you to see how they speak, and to start communicating.

Yes, you can “talk” to the animals.

 

Keep calm and pilot on

Kerry Stack
Darwin Dogs
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio