When A Dog Goes To The Dark Side

March 27th, 2011
By Eric Letendre

A cold sweat broke out on my forehead and I could see my hands starting to shake. It was just a small shake but there it was. I knew the client couldn’t see it, but the dog was definitely picking up on it. As I tried to continue, I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach and I started to think back to a few weeks before.

The dog I was working with became more and more agitated as I tried to continue the training. It finally got so bad that I had to end the lesson and ask the client if we could reschedule. A big part of my training business was dealing with aggressive dogs. Not all trainers are cut out to deal with aggressive behavior, and that’s okay – it’s good to know your limitations.

As a former animal control officer, animal shelter trainer, security patrol dog handler and protection dog trainer, I had a lot of experience dealing with dogs that had gone to the dark side. Over the course of my career as a dog trainer, I had been bitten about a half dozen times. A few weeks before the incident I described above, I was attacked and seriously injured. I had been a little too confident with the dog and luckily, I wasn’t injured worse than I was.

How it happened…

A few weeks before I received a call from a single father that was very concerned about a dog that he had recently adopted. He asked if I could come out and look at the dog, he added that another trainer was there the day before and the dog bit the trainer.

When I arrived at the house, I looked at the dog and he seemed to be very nervous. He came up to me but was not overly friendly and was very aloof. The owner said that the dog had been showing some signs of aggression and he was cocncerned. He had a daughter and her friends were always over and wanted to make sure his dog was safe.

He informed me that the dog would growl around his ball, food dish and toys. He said that the trainer that was there the day before had put a choke chain on him. Everytime he growled, the trainer would lift his dog off the ground and hold him there until he just about passed out.

I spent a little time with the dog and that’s when I made my first big mistake. I asked him to hand me the leash. I immediately saw the dog tense up. I tried to get him to relax and started to walk around.

Then I made my second big mistake. I asked the owner to drop the ball on the ground. My intention was to just walk past it and see how intense he was around the ball. As we got closer to it, I could see a change happening in him. A split second before it happened, I knew that I had made my last mistake for the day.

As we approached the ball, the dog, who’s name was Scar, stopped and then launched in full attack mode. Luckily, I took that split second to put my arm out in front of me and fed him that part of my body. With the full force of his jaw, he clamped down around my forearm and even though my blood was flowing, I didn’t feel any pain.

Scar released my arm and went in for a better bite. Again I was able to put my arm in front of his mouth and then I grabbed the leash and started to swing him away from me. Before he was able to get his footing, I swung him again.

His owner was able to grab him and get him into his kennel. My arm was in bad shape and needed immediate attention. I’ll never forget his daughter sitting on their steps and crying as I was being driven away.

Why It Happened…

You would think that I would be upset with Scar. As I thought about what had happened, I felt really bad for him and as I put the pieces together, I realized that he was only trying to protect himself. In fact, when I took the leash he thought he was in for a fight for his life. I also understood why I was attacked.

You see, after working with aggressive dogs for as long as I have, I can usually avoid being bitten, but as I thought about it some more, I should have been a littler smarter about the whole situation.

Understanding Aggression

Aggressive behavior is very complex but without getting into all the little details, there are a few basic facts that you need to understand about dogs going to the dark side.

Fact #1: There is always an underlying reason for the aggression.

Think about when you have acted aggressively towards someone. There was an underlying reason. Somebody was talking bad about you, they cut you off while you were driving, they owe you money, etc. Once you discover what the underlying reason is, then you can start to work on the aggressive behavior.

Fact #2: Aggressive behavior is conflict resolution.

Dogs resolve conflicts by using aggression. If you have five dogs and one bone, they won’t sit down and take a vote on who gets to chew it first, how long they get to chew it, etc. They will use aggression to resolve who gets the bone.

Fact #3: Aggression is always triggered by something.

There is a reason for the dog becoming aggressive. Dogs bite for a reason. I get calls all the time and the person will tell me, “The dog bit for no reason.” There is ALWAYS a reason, we just don’t understand what the reason is.

Fact #4: Environment contributes to aggressive behavior.

A dog that is in a negative environment will, overtime, become aggressive. A dog that is smacked for peeing on the carpet, smacked for barking at the door, has an electronic collar on, and is trained using a prong or choke collar from a very early age is going to get nasty – how can you blame the dog?

Fact #5: Dogs will give very clear warnings before biting.

Some of the warnings are so subtle and fast that we miss them. A dog will use his body, tail, face and voice to give a warning. A dog that is scared will tuck his tail, pin his ears back, crouch down and growl. This posture is of a dog operating out of fear, he will bite but he doesn’t want to. A dog that is puffed up, ears up, tail up, and growling or barking is a dog that is confident. This dog is not operating out of fear and will bite and want to win the fight. The scared dog will bite and then retreat as fast as possible.

If you were standing next to me the day Scar attacked me you would have thought that he attacked me for no reason. All I was doing was holding onto Scar’s leash when he lunged at me. Scar also gave no warnings. He did not growl or show any body postures. He just attacked.

Here’s what you need to understand. The day before I worked with Scar another trainer was there. This trainer hung Scar with the choke chain and cut off his air whenever he showed any signs of aggression. Think about this from Scar’s point of view. He’s nervous around strangers and does not trust them. Because he is in conflict, he tries to resolve it the only way he knows how – aggression. When he uses aggression he is hung up off the ground and is not allowed to breath. He thinks he is going to be killed.

The trainer tried to use force to overcome an aggression problem. This is where ego kicks in. The dog does respond to the leash correction and the trainer gets angry and intensifies the correction.

The reason I was attacked was because he was hung every time he gave a warning. You see, when he growled, the trainer hung him. After he let him down if he growled again the trainer would hang him again. THE TRAINER TAUGHT SCAR TO NEVER GIVE ANY WARNINGS!

He didn’t get rid of the aggression, he just taught Scar to never growl or give a warning, that when he felt any conflict, to attack. The previous trainer did not understand that using aggression to combat aggression will only escalate aggression. I hope this article gives you a better understanding of aggressive behavior. If you’d like to know more about this subject please go to The Dog Training Inner Circle.

Post By Eric Letendre (497 Posts)

Eric Letendre is a professional dog trainer from the United States and has been training dogs for over 20 years, teaching regular, average, every-day owners all over the world how to get the training results they want as fast as possible. Eric is also the author of numerous reports, the E-Book “101 Ways to Improve Your Dog’s Behavior,” “The Amazing Dog Training Man Book,” and produced and stars in his DVD “Secrets of a Professional Dog Trainer.”

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22 Responses to When A Dog Goes To The Dark Side

  1. Jen says:

    Hi Eric,

    I hope you are ok? and will continue to help Scar to overcome his aggression, he attacked out of fear just
    to protect himself. He must has been abused before by his
    previous owner/people.

    As to the other trainer, am shocked to hear the method he
    used, more like abusing the dog then training, i wonder
    is he qualified??????

  2. sandy sculley says:

    Hi Eric,
    I am curious as to what became of Scar and the breed, size, etc. Very well written article–the previous trainer should not even be called one!

    Sincerely,
    Sandy

    • Bob Plescia says:

      What happen with Scar? Did you help him out? I’m a recent graduate of Animal behavior College and would like to begin training dogs….my question is how to get started.

  3. SxE Dragon says:

    Cool story. Love reading your stuff man.

    How did you get rid of Scar’s aggression?

  4. SxE Dragon says:

    Cool story. Love reading your stuff.

    How did you get rid of his aggression?

  5. Sherry says:

    I had my first encounter with a fearful-aggressive dog while petsitting. I opened the door to a new German Shepherd client to let him out to go potty and he lunged upward at me with teeth bared and was snapping. I took an instinctive step backward and he came toward me.

    It was only luck that prevented an actual bite. First, I had just met the dog a few days before during a consultation so he was familiar with me. Second, he was fearful so his instinct was to attack and retreat. The lucky part was that he recognized me and that I always smell like a dozen other dogs so when he caught the scent he stopped to smell me.

    This scenario was my fault. I knew, from the first meeting, that he lacked confidence. I knew, from the barking as I unlocked the door, that he was afraid. As your article so clearly says, there is always a reason. As professionals we need to pay very close attention to warning signs and our own instincts that stem from our knowledge of how does behave.

  6. doris easter says:

    I liked your article on dog aggression and for a large part agree with you. I have a rescue dog 4yrs old dobe and she is absolutley wanting to attackother dogs big small no matter.
    All the same. I think its fear aggression as all other problems have been resolved and if the dog is behind fence wire whatever she can walk past. My only argument with you is if I did not get her away or just control her in stationary position which needs real struggle with the leash she would in fact do injury and frighten the owners. I am also in danger of getting dragged too. At the moment I am trying clicker treat training but I feel it will not work because when she is in that zone not food not comfort not voice not pain she just does not respond and is focused only on the dog. Thank you for your helpful articles Doris

  7. deni-sue says:

    hi my dog has a problem with biting my feet when i get out of bed or if we are going for a walk & she thinks iam not headed to the door the worst times are if she has to go poo on the way to the door she growls bites my feet &not lightly &barks its allmost like she is going to full out atacke me but i know she would never do that but these things upset me &i would like it to stop so if you can recammend anything iam all ears thanks a bunch Deni-sue

  8. rick smith says:

    i also deal with what owners consider aggression and in many cases it is simply resource guarding…..not enough people know how to recognize this common problem and they need to learn all of the different “resources” a dog can start to guard…..some resources are people and some are empty spaces !!
    ….read “Mine” and you will understand this much better and learn how to deal with it

    and dogs certainly will BITE with NO warning and you have given a perfect example of how this can develop

  9. Gini Lamb says:

    OUTSTANDING article!! I felt so badly for Scar!! (and you!!) Fostered one GSD who had aggressive tendencies since we got him at 6 wks. We had the most trying 18 mts. of our life, before he became an outstanding K-9!! He was not cut out for guide dog work!!

  10. Jack Hodge says:

    My niece has a 12 months old tiny Chihuahua. It has two major faults. (1) It is overly aggressive, particularly towards all men; barking & attacking any entering any room where it is present. The owners pick it up to take it into another room. . On my first introduction to the dog I asked the owners not to intervene & that I was going to ignore the dog & would they do the same. I just went about as though the dog wasn’t there & the dog quickly quietened and tolerated my presence. Later, whilst sitting around I found it around my feet, sniffing & showing signs of acceptance. I have a calm, happy, dog that presents no problems. Even so I happily bought your course. What are your views on the problem pup?

    (2) It loves a walk, but after 200 yards or less stops and refuses to go further. The owner turns around and the dog becomes animated and pulls heading for home.
    Best regards, Jack Hodge.

  11. Benjamin says:

    Hello Eric

    I hope you are alright after your previous incident. I’m sure this article gave me a better understanding about dog agression and what triggers it, your article is amazing!
    I am anxious to know if you are going to continue helping Scar about his problem. Thank you for sharing your experiences and helpful information.

  12. Marilyn Gentile says:

    My dog is a small Parson Russell/Irish Terrier mix who was a shelter dog and I believe abused. She does show fear aggression and whines, barks, pulls on leash to try and get to other dog no matter how big or small. I use treats and praise to distract her. I do not speak to her if her aggression gets too out of control. I pull her on the leash and try to get her away from the situation. Sometimes food does nothing as she is so focused on the other dog. I am now going to try using the Gentle Leader to walk her as using the halter with the clip on part under her chest still does not stop the pulling. Any comments or help is appreciated?

  13. Maggie Hilton says:

    I have in the past rescued many troubled dogs but today have (from puppy) two delightful Golden Retrievers. But …. all my dogs, although trained well, have “been keen” when walking on a lead. A Gentle Leader has proven to be a great success – stops all pulling, does not aggravate the dogs and they see4m to realize when the Leader goes on, walking to heel is the order of the day. Can’t recommend them highly enough.

  14. Doris Quinn says:

    Hi Eric.
    I adopted a rescue puppy that was starved along with his 6 other siblings and dumped in a state forest and left to die. A forest ranger found the litter and saved them. When I got Linkin he was skin and bones and didn’t trust anyone but me. He finally excepted my husband and they have a good relationship. Linkin has come a long way in the year that we have him but he has one bad problem. He goes crazy when people knock on the door and he will bite especially men.Once that person is in the house then Linkin excepts them and he is fine. He is a perfect gentlemen anywhere I take him. Any suggestion? I read your articles all the time and find them very helpful. Thanks for any informations

  15. Barbara Hudson says:

    I’m sorry you got attacked. I got left hanging though to know what was Scar’s fate. Did the owner keep him and did you continue to work with him?

  16. This story has a very sad ending. Scar was the result of bad training and ended up paying for it. The owner decided to have Scar put to sleep the next day. Still makes me sad to think about the poor dog.

  17. Hey Eric,I am always inspired by your writings,you tell your stories in a way that really hits home. I love it! This story reminded me of the one and only time I got bit.I was 8 years old, and my Aunt Lulu had a Terrier named Jingles and he had a nasy streak. She would always say to us kids to not pay any attention to Jingles and he wouldn’t bite.One day I decided I was going to throw a stick for Jingles, I threw the stick, he ran off and got it,,but instead of bringing it back for another go, he ran to the shade of his tree and laid down and simply dropped the stick. I went over to get the stick, and when I reached down to get it,,he snapped me on the hand and really opened me up. I ran crying to the house and I can remember this like it was yesterday..Aunt Lu had heard the cries, and was standing on the step with her wooden cooking spoon in her hand..She said, “What happened”? ..and with tears still streaming down my cheeks,I said,”Jingles bit me!” Whack…she hit me on the head with the wooden spoon, and said in a stern voice that always made us pay attention, “Why did he bite you” I really didn’t understand it at the time, all I could think about was the wound on my hand which hurt like heck, and my slowly growing goose egg on my forehead. I am now 51 years old and have been training and handling dogs for over 40 years now, and it was that important lesson from my Aunt Lulu that has helped me avoid ever getting biten again. When ever I work with an aggressive dog, I always follow her advice, and I don’t pay any attention to the dog,ie, I don’t look them in the eyes, I give my back to them until I know they accept my presence as nothing to fear. I never talk to the dog, as you know they don’t understand one word any way and it only confuses the dog, I don’t focus on what they are doing,rather I focus on what I believe to be the key to having success in training or behaviour modification..and that is the question of why are they doing it.

    Just had to share that with you..

  18. Karen Wilson says:

    Sorry to hear about the sad ending. I recently adopted a dog (Norwich Terrier mix) in October 2010 from an animal shelter and was told before I took her home that she was aggressive towards other dogs and children. I had a Norwich Terrier at home but when I saw my “new” girl I fell in love. Upon meeting she was playful, very active, and very obedient. I was given some instruction on how to bring the two together but upon arriving home with the new family member both dogs tore at each other. She was also very aggressive towards my grand-children. With the help of my granddaughter and under my supervision, I decided that I would make this work. In March 2011 both dogs now sleep together, eat out of each others bowl and walk together with no problem. It took much patience and consistency. Since both dogs had their own beds I made sure to switch them each day so that one dog would be sleeping on the others bed. I used cages for evenings and moved the cages closer to each other until they were eventually side by side. I also switched the eating bowls daily. My “new” girl Ginger may not have been as aggressive as Star but this method worked for me. There were other things that I did but I used patience and no abuse. Instead of a clicker I used a bicycle horn for training and getting her attention. She is no longer aggressive towards children or other dogs. Max, Ginger & I are now one big happy family.

  19. [...] Letendre’s blog post about how he got bitten because of aversive training [...]

  20. [...] The puppy keeps on biting and many of these techniques can lead to aggression. [...]

  21. [...] worked as a private investigator, did security K9 for seven years and took the test for the Hartford Police. I was two steps away from getting the [...]

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Eric LetendreEric Letendre is a professional dog trainer from the United States. For more than 20 years, he has been developing dog training techniques that have worked for dog owners all over the world. Eric operates from a home office or a laptop while traveling and draws on his experience and passion for dog training to show others how to develop a dog that is truly “Man’s Best Friend”.

Eric is the author of numerous reports, the E-Book “101 Ways to Hack Your Dog’s Behavior,” “The Amazing Dog Training Man Book,” and produced and stars in his DVD “Secrets of a Professional Dog Trainer.”

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