I frequently am called to help owners with their “aggressive” dogs….dogs that have bitten people before and who always seem to be on the attack,snarling and snapping at people. Usually I use my little Orion as “bait” for these dogs…he’s well trained, and will make the dogs react so the owners can learn how to address this behavior with their dogs (Orion is a true hero). Recently, instead of Orion, I asked Danika to accompany me on her first aggressive case.
Although I’ve been working with dogs for a while, I’m still learning. Never stop learning right? There are some situations I’m more comfortable with than others at the moment. But, my goal is to be a well-rounded trainer in every aspect. So, when Kerry has a case that interests me, or I feel like I need to learn a little bit more about, I tag along.
I tagged along to my first aggression case the other day. Now, I’ve seen aggression before. I’ve dealt with aggression before. But in most cases it has been with my own dog, Porter. Porter knows I’m not going to beat him, so even when he is aggressive, there’s a mutual trust between us. With a dog who doesn’t know me from Michael Vick, it doesn’t work that way.
My first reaction when I saw Cinnamon, who was deemed aggressive, was this can’t be an aggression case, look at that adorable… and then my thought process was stopped by lunging, barring teeth and sounds that generally mean I’d like to murder you.
Rule #1 – Don’t judge a book by its cover.
I’m going to admit it. I was nervous. I tried to act confident, but it didn’t go well at first. Inner monologue: So what if the dog bites you? It bites you, you move on. You’ll have a good story of it and you’ll get over it. Slowly, I felt myself become more comfortable. Then, I felt the owner become more comfortable. And there’s Kerry, who’s well, always comfortable, or at least fakes it well.
Rule #2 – Fake it until you make it. The confidence that is.
I’ll be honest with you, Cinnamon’s owner was great. She had amazing instincts with her dog. While I was sitting down with her and explaining the PAW method, Kerry was working with Cinnamon. She was working on gaining her trust and building a bond. But slowly. Slower than I’ve ever seen before. One of my favorite things about sessions is getting to play with a dog for 2 hours. However, an aggressive case is not a normal session. It takes time to bond with the dog, and you may actually never be able to physically touch the dog. It’s different than other sessions. It has to be handled delicately and slowly.
Rule #3 – No physical contact right away.
I never anticipated Kerry or me being able to touch Cinnamon. I was afraid that this would be a case that would take 2 sessions and we’d really have to focus on the dog. As I continued to talk with Cinnamon’s owner I see Kerry doling out treats and Cinnamon relaxing. Kerry then moves quickly to pick up the leash close to the dog. All of a sudden I’m on high alert. Fast movements around potentially aggressive dogs are dangerous. All movements should be slow and calculated. My eyes watch each movement ready for the dog to lunge out. Kerry shrugs “she’s fine now, but normally if they’re really aggressive don’t do that”.
Rule #4 – A dog that is aggressive, doesn’t necessarily stay aggressive.
Kerry had worked with Cinnamon enough where she trusted her, respected her, looked to her as Pilot. Then there was me. I was still a threat to Cinnamon. I was still Michael Vick (the resemblance is uncanny). So when we needed to transfer some Pilot money to Cinnamon’s owner, I was the bait. I was Orion for the night. It was up to Cinnamon’s owner to let her know that I was not a threat.
Rule #5 – Never take Orion for granted. He’s a tough little dude.
When I knocked on the door to work on Cinnamon’s door reactivity, I wasn’t sure what the outcome would be. However, Cinnamon’s owner rocked it. Not once did that dog growl or lunge at me. She just waited for the cues from her owner. It was amazing. I know this works, I do it every day. But, it’s amazing to see the power that you can transfer to another owner. And it was great to see Cinnamon relax as well. She didn’t need to be fearful of every person that walked in the door.
Rule #6 – It doesn’t matter what caused the fear, it just matters that the dog doesn’t have to Pilot.
In Cinnamon’s case, fear was causing her aggressive behavior. It doesn’t mean she was abused or had an epic traumatic experience. It just means that her questions weren’t being answered and her anxiety was increasing each time she didn’t receive a response. Once Cinnamon had her questions answered (“Is this a threat?” ”Will this person hurt me”?) the anxiety and aggression melted away. I was able to walk away from that session more confident with aggressive cases and understanding that aggression cases are not always what they seem. It’s relieving and heartwarming to see an aggressive dog finally relax and be, well, a dog. And let’s be honest, Cinnamon got even cuter, as impossible as that sounds, by the end of the session. So I’d like to say thank you to Cinnamon for turning all of my initial judgments upside down. This isn’t only a learning experience for our 2 and 4 legged clients. Each session is a learning experience for us too.
Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio