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

Watch Dog – Learning To Do Better

I praise loudly. I blame softly.

- Catherine the Great

I hate blame.  Especially when it comes to dogs and humans trying to co-exist.  Let me tell you a little story that highlights why.

I recently acquired to adorable watches.  One is a vintage Timex from the 50′s, the other is a Lady Hamilton that’s just a bit older.  Neither one was working, and I was hoping the problem was that they each needed a new battery.  So I went to a local jeweler and explained the problem to the gentleman who worked there (and looked all of 19 years old).    He then disappeared in back with both of my watches, returning only moments later with good news.

“It looks like the Lady Hamilton does indeed need a new battery, so we put one in and it’s good to go.”

Awesome!

He then continued, “The Timex doesn’t take a battery.  It’s a wind-up watch. It, uh, just needed to be wound-up.”

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

I blushed right down to my pretty little danishes.

He actually managed to get this out without any trace of sarcasm, condescension nor laughter.  I felt like an idiot already, and I truly appreciated his not adding to my embarrassment.

I personally have never owned a wind-up watch.  I have a general idea of how watches work: you look at them, take them off when showering and doing dishes, and if it stops working, you got to the jeweler to hopefully get a new battery.  Well, now I know more.  Ignorance is a very acceptable excuse in my opinion.  Determination to stay ignorant isn’t.

If I take another wind-up watch to the same jeweler and ask them to put a battery in it to fix it, I’m now a moron.  I deserve blame for not knowing better, because I have learned better.  The same goes for dogs.

Boots and Bee Photography - by Brittany Graham

Boots and Bee Photography – by Brittany Graham

For some reason, people constantly try to blame themselves for their dog’s behavior. I hear a lot of “I tried to do such and such to fix it, but it didn’t work”, and my personal favorite, “I know I did everything wrong”.

First, kudos to you for trying.  Seriously.  You may not know what to do, but you gave it a good effort and a lot of Google searches.  It didn’t work (and maybe it did make things worse), so you called me to help.  I’d call every step of that a success.  Sometimes learning what not to do is just as important as learning what to do.

My mother has a saying:

“You’re really going to wear that?

If you keep doing the same thing, and you keep getting the same result, try something different.”  

Combine that with my favorite Maya Angelou quote:

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”

I apply Angelou’s quote to every aspect of my life, including when I’m working with dogs.  The methods I use now are a little different than what they were when I first started training dogs all this years ago – a tweak here, a different word there.  That’s because along the way, I learned a little bit more. I suspect that in another 20 years, my methods will look slightly different than they do now, too. And I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

So stop being hard on yourself.  Yes, maybe you did end up having to call someone out to help with your dog, but now you know better.  And now you’ll do better.

Keep calm and pilot on