- Behavior Problems
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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.
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.
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.
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.