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Working with an Aggressive or Anxious Dog

"Control yourself, control the situation, start communicating - Kerry Stack"

I received the most fascinating message today via Darwin Dogs' chat:

It’s clear you mean well in terms of wanting to treat dogs with kindness, but the amount of pseudoscience you’re just making up here is disturbing. You use terminology incorrectly, you ascribe characteristics to dogs that they simply do not possess. Creating your own terminology like “piloting” isn’t groundbreaking, it’s dangerous. It makes people think you have expertise you simply do not. Your blogs are full of errors that you would recognize if you’d done the work to really engage in canine behavioural analysis. If you want to really excel and really do what’s best for dogs, stop, go get your cpdt, iaabc, or kpa certification and come back. But the fact that anyone can randomly call themselves a trainer by writing some meaningless blogs is what’s wrong with the dog industry today. There’s a reason why so many countries require actual certification—and your website makes that clear. Dogs are not children, and a good trainer knows that they don’t know enough about dogs to go it alone and simply declare themselves a trainer based on personal experience. That’s why they go to school. Be humble enough to recognize that the thousands of trainers teaching canine behaviour who have dedicated their careers to studying it know more than someone who just happens to own dogs and likes training them. - Name Redacted

Well lookey what we have here.

So the fact of the matter is that no, I don't have cpdt, iaabc, or kpa certification. What I do have is a lot of clients who previously utilized trainers who did have those certifications.

So at the end of the day, all I care about is creating a goal of less anxiety, which is typically the reason for most behavioral issues. That goes double for the dogs. So let's talk about how we can achieve that goal. I would like to focus today on aggression, and how anxiety leads to aggression. Starting with our little darling, Name Redacted.

Our precious little Name Redacted not only took the time to peruse my entire website, but send me that personal message and took the time to write nastygrams on quite a few of my posts. So let's break apart that behavior by comparing it to "aggressive" dogs.

I firmly believe that aggression is merely fear/anxiety turned outwards.

For example, average Joe, calls me with an "aggressive" dog, who we'll call Benji. Poor Beni, the border collie, has been nipping at people as they enter the home. Also quite a bit of snapping and growling going on from Benji (Joe didn't growl or snap even once!).

So most people would take this dog as a potential threat (which he is) and that he wants to be aggressive (which he doesn't). The root of the problem is that Benji is scared and anxious. He wants to know who this person is who has just walked in the door. He doesn't know if his family is in danger. Benji is given no direction nor answers by Joe other than the mewling sounds of, "It's okay, Benji...this is a friend. See?" which obviously doesn't help Benji calm down, but merely does the reverse. Joe sounding like a wounded kitten only amps up Benji, who starts barking louder.

The human at the door, trying to help the situation, offers to make friends with Benji by leaning down towards him with his hand outstretched towards the dog. This sets off Benji even more, and he nips/bites the guest. Yikes. Now Jake is labeled "aggressive'.

So let's break this down as the myriad of issues here, starting with the basis of Piloting.

- Control yourself

- Control the situation

- Communicate/answer questions

Controlling yourself is actually pretty simple. Liz Taylor said it best.

Put on some lipstick, pour yourself a drink, and pull yourself together.

Control yourself:

Piloting is a job: so put on your uniform. If you're going to answer your dog's questions about who is at the door, make sure you look as if you have something worthwhile to say. Your body language should emulate RuPaul.

Note the confidence. Not aggressive, just calm and confident. Stand up as straight as you can. Technically, your hands should be down at your sides, but she's walking a catwalk, not working with dogs, so we'll let that slide. Note how she turns to face the audience, addressing them directly, not from the side. That is confident body language. That says, "I have an answer to give you, or information to give, and I deem it valuable". She looks like she knows her own importance and is ready to communicate that to you. Confident people exude confidence through their body language.

Another aspect to controlling yourself is to get ahold of your emotions.

Emotions aren't right, nor are they wrong. They just are. And what they are right now is not needed.

Hang tight, emotions, I'll get back to you in a moment. But thanks for telling me I'm afraid, because that will make me pay attention more. Thank you for letting me know I'm frustrated, because that will remind me to take a step back and watch my tone. If I'm confident, I don't need to be aggressive. I need to be confidently communicative.

So stop mewling at your poor dog that "everything is okay". That's a lie. Your dog knows it and so do you. Your dog is panicked, and that's not okay. And it's up to you to Pilot him so he can get back to calm. As a matter of fact, don't talk at all. Noise equals energy, and the last thing we want to do right now is add more energy to an already volatile situation. Channel your inner Prof. McGonigle.

Calm and confident. Even when faced with trolls.

Control the situation:

As I always say, you can't control a situation by adding more stimulation to it. When Joe was opening the door to let his friend in, at some point he lost control of the situation as the door was opening, and Benji came rushing up at him. Rather than stopping and rebooting, he continued to open the door and let his friend in.

Folks, I'm going to let you in on a little secret: doors close as well as open.

Rather than continuing to let his friend inside simply because he had started, what Joe should've done is control the situation by removing stimuli (friend) rather than adding it ("come on in").

Consider how a goalie plays soccer. A goalie typically doesn't let the other team walk right up to their goal.

Goalie is defending, and backing them off...but not too far, or they will get around them. The door is goal, you are goalie. Once you have control of the door, and the present situation, you are able to let more stimuli in (friend). If you lose control, remove some stimuli.


The whole time you are doing this, you should be answering questions, or as I like to refer to it, Piloting. You are actively choosing communication over anger and aggressiveness. It's not an easy choice to make, which is why you are doing it. Because you are better than aggression or anger. You are choosing to do better than circle the drain of anger, frustration and aggression.

To find out how to answer your dog's questions, give this post a read, and watch the video to see Piloting in action.

So the conversation looks like this now:

Benji: Who's here?

Joe: Mine. Someone who belongs to me.

Benji: Can I verify them?

Joe: No. Trust me.

Benji: Should we bite them?

Joe: No.

Benji: Can I get up close to them where they can lean over and scare me by trying to pet me when I'm only interested in reconnaissance, and not actually ready to be friends yet, so I bite them?

Joe: No.

Benji: Should I wait over here desperately trying to trust you enough to accept your answer?

Joe: Yes. I'm so proud of you. Thank you for trusting me.

So now you've communicated rather than reacted in anger and frustration, which results in aggression. Rather than creating a scenario that is ripe for aggression, you've taken the time to address your dog's needs (communication) ahead of your wants (simply letting your friend in). Communication is the basis of society. Even agreeing to disagree without being disagreeable. You always have a choice.

Aggression is rooted in fear and anxiety. I will always choose communication, even when I don't want to.

Aggression can be fear of many things: safety, resources or family/pack are the most common in animals. In humans it's not much different. Fear of becoming obsolete. Fear of new things. Fear of irrelevancy. Even fear of having made poor decisions, so deriding the decisions of others. Fear is okay, but how you act upon it is what differentiates the trolls from the McGonagles.

So back to the myriad of nasty-grams I received from Name Redacted. They took the time to seek out my page and write so many aggressive messages and posts. They took the time to rattle off all of the things they believe are incorrect about my Piloting philosophy.

So I will take the time to communicate the question back to you: Which part to you disagree with, controlling yourself, controlling the situation, or communicating answers?

Because right now, it seems you are engaged on a path of aggression, which leads nowhere.

Kerry Stack Darwin Dogs

Dog Training in Cleveland, Ohio

743 views2 comments


Stumpicus Kat
Stumpicus Kat
May 09, 2021

What an interesting blog! Thank you for posting it. When I first hired, Kerry, at the rave recommendations of someone who had worked with her, my 5 month old lab was a bundle of bossy energy. Now, with the three rules of the Piloting program in place, my dog is well on the way to cooperative self-control and to becoming a therapy dog when grown. Name Redacted's reference to all the degrees and certifications reminded me of the Wizard of Oz and his comments to the Scare Crow: "Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no mo…

Kerry Stack
Kerry Stack
May 09, 2021
Replying to

Thank you so much for your comment. That was the most succinct way to put the gist of the matter: Wizard of Oz.

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