Dealing With Aggressive Dogs

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Sam Basso
PHOENIX , AZ AREA: (602) 708-4531
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[PLEASE READ: Euthanasia Criteria ]

I occasionally come across a potential customer’s dog that is highly aggressive towards people. I am talking about highly dangerous and big (regardless of the breed or mix… what Cesar Millan would call a “red zone” dog). The question that the customer then must face is: “What should I do?”

An Example

I remember a large mixed breed I evaluated. I put a jute sleeve cover on a long line and teased the dog to do some tug. He pounced on it, purely in attack mode, and tore at it. There was no play in it at all, even though I was 20 feet away. He went at it as if he was biting me. When he bit the jute sleeve cover, he would pull and grip very hard, but as I pulled him in close to me, when he got about 6 feet from me, with me staring at him, he would release the bite and start barking and glaring at me. I had him tied out to a pole, so the owner wasn’t standing by him to back him up, so I knew this was all “him vs me.” I put a fake hand out and he just tore it out of my grip. If that had been my hand, he would have torn it off. If these folks were to take him into a crowd, I am sure he would have lunged at the nearest person walking towards him and torn their arm off. He was huge, at least 100 lbs. If I stomped my foot, he would come running at me, but then if I stood there, he would walk away. He wasn’t afraid. He didn’t lack proper socialization as a puppy. It wasn’t his fault: he was born this way. He was very aggressive, and these people were very well aware of what he was like and capable of. He could kill someone.

He had a very low threshold for being defensively aggressive. Unsupervised, this was a very dangerous dog. The owners told me that they had adopted him as a young puppy, and wanted a pet that would be friendly with everyone. Further complicating matters, they also didn’t have enough money to do any long term training. Because they didn’t really want and couldn’t really effectively manage a dog like this, it was a mixed breed, this was a very serious dog, and they couldn’t afford the training, I told them they had two choices: either supervise the dog intensely and not put people in harm’s way, or put the dog down. These are very troubling situations for me. I don’t ever like recommending euthanasia. This kind of dog can be trained, but the home situation wasn’t going to work out, and the likelihood of finding another suitable home was very low (I know, they had tried and failed).

The Training Option

Aggression isn’t an abnormal emotion for an animal, regardless of the species. Aggression plays an important survival role for all species. The real issue is how to deal with it when your pet dog is aggressive.

Almost all forms of aggression can be controlled through training and supervision. If this wasn’t so, then we couldn’t use dogs to do police work. However, some people won’t choose to own or control a pet that is aggressive. Almost all people want a “friendly with everyone and every animal” type of pet. They don’t want aggression of any sort, even barking at the door. Aggressive dogs, ones that could do violence and damage to people, require a great deal of supervision and training. They also increase the liability risk of the owner. Some people don’t want to enter into the kind of demanding, lifetime, costly training and supervision that is required to own an aggressive dog. This doesn’t make them bad dog owners. Not everyone wants or should own such a dog.

I have met and worked with a number of dogs that would NEVER warm up to or accept a person who wasn’t a family member — ever! I have known dogs that you could meet every day, give treats, work with, you name it… and the dog would still attack you if given the chance. They are socially aggressive, not accepting of anyone not part of their own pack. I once belonged to a Schutzhund club in British Columbia, Canada. One dog there was socially aggressive, not accepting strangers. I put on a full bite protection body suit, and the dog was sent on me to attack. I didn’t have to do anything to threaten the dog, or even to run away. All the owner had to do was point to me and give the attack commmand, and the dog was on me. If this hadn’t been a training set up, and it had just been me and the dog, it would have tried to kill me. THAT’S a socially aggressive dog, that’s a very aggressive dog. I worked with a couple of very large dogs last year that are socially aggressive, and they have tried to attack me a number of times in the training. Of course, precautions were taken and neither the dogs, or any people, were hurt. We did control work so the dogs can be taken in public. I do quite a bit of this kind of work every year.

I have also had a bite suit on and been attacked by a German Shepherd that wasn’t socially aggressive. So long as I flinched or ran away, the dog would bite me. And man, those bruises I got even with the padded suit on hurt. But, this was a friendly dog, and it wouldn’t attack me if I was just walking around in a friendly manner.

If you have such a dog, you have four choices:

1.) Keep the dog, don’t train it, but intensely supervise it. If you keep the dog “as is”, you must intensely supervise it and not let it ever make contact with strangers or strange animals;

2.) Put the dog down. If you put the dog down, you get rid of the problem, even though the dog is actually a normal dog. You would do it because you can’t handle the risk of owning such a dog, can’t find a new home for the dog, or you can’t afford the cost of supervision, containment and/or training;

3.) Find a suitable new home for the dog. You will typically find that it is impossible to find a new home for such a dog. You can attempt to do so, but most people won’t want such a dog. Even the police often won’t want such a dog, preferring to get pre-trained dogs from professional sources. You MUST warn the new owners about the dog’s aggressive propensities, and you must also make them aware of any biting incidents. I have found a home for a dog like this before, but it isn’t very easy. I placed a dog with a police officer in Louisana once. He lived alone, he was a K9 officer, and he wanted a guard dog for his home. I shipped him the dog, fully trained. He was very pleased with what he got. But, that’s usually the exception, not the rule. I am NOT a good resource for finding homes for dogs. I will refer you to a rescue group for that kind of thing.

4.) Keep the dog, train it, and intensely supervise it. Regardless of whether you train the dog or not, it is still going to be aggressive and will still bite people. The dog needs control work (ability to obey on command off leash even when threatened), and taught to let go of it’s bite on command. The reason to train the dog is to reduce the probability that the dog will bite someone. But you can’t eliminate the possibility of the dog biting someone. You have to view the dog as if you purchased a police dog. Police dogs are very aggressive, and if they are unsupervised, you should assume that they are not safe to approach. Supervised and trained, such a dog can still be a family dog. Such a dog will be safer trained than untrained. You will obtain more control, sometimes significant control, over the dog when under your supervision, but if you aren’t supervising the dog, then the dog is going to do what it would have done whether you trained the dog or not: it will attack. So, proper containment when unsupervised is an absolute must.

Bite Control and Prevention Training Program

The type of training you need to do with a dog like this is a type of modified protection training. You won’t go through some of the steps necessary to create a protection dog, because you are teaching the dog to withhold biting, but you will need to consider doing foundation bite work for the purpose of real world control. I don’t train dogs to attack people. I train dogs to teach them NOT to attack people. My focus is on pet dogs. If you are wanting to protection train your dog, then call me, and I will refer you to a person that specializes in this kind of work. I’m not here to provide you with a dog that will attack people or animals.

Just doing regular obedience training WON’T solve this kind of problem. Simple training, like at a pet store or local training facility, will leave you with a problem: s/he will remain aggressive and uncontrollable. You MUST do control work with the dog. You can’t solve this kind of aggression problem with typical obedience training. You can’t fix it with an electric collar, or treats, or being nice.

Proper training will focus on teaching control under command. You would do this in the following manner:

1.) Teaching the dog to bite a protection sleeve. This work will help relax the dog, give the dog and handler experience and comfort working together, and give them experience in biting and letting go. This isn’t done with all dogs, but it is necessary for some dogs. The trainer would let you know if this is the correct route for your situation.
2.) Teaching the dog to channel defense drive into prey drive. This is a complex topic, too involved to address here. And this is NOT something you can do on your own without help.
3.) Teaching the “Out” command, meaning letting go of the bite on command. The highly aggressive dog will bite, thrash, and re-grip. It can be very hard to get your dog to let go. You can’t just pull the dog off the person. You will either make the injuries worse, or the dog will quickly re-grip and thrash the person even more, causing more damage, as well. Highly aggressive dogs have a very hard time releasing their bite if the owner doesn’t know what to do and if the dog doesn’t have some bite training foundation! “Out” training is a must! It is WRONG to believe that if your dog will let go of a toy on command, it will also let go of a targeted person. Anyone that tells you otherwise doesn’t know a thing about aggression. In a full blown attack, it can be almost impossible to save a person unless control work has been practiced beforehand. I think of the Whipple case in San Francisco, where the 2 Presa Canarios killed that woman, and the owner wasn’t able to stop it from happening. The dogs were put to death and the owner went to prison.
4.) Teaching the dog to deal with strangers in a controlled manner. You have to work on teaching them to approach without biting or threatening. You also need a plan for controlling the people around you, to warn them away. It is also important to have such a dog muzzled when walking in crowds, and when guests are in the home. You might also do some modified protection obedience exercises.
5.) Teaching the owner how to prevent accidents, how to control their dog, and preparations for emergencies.
6.) Completion of Basic, Advanced Obedience and Protection Obedience. and  The dog MUST obey you. This means going through a LOT of lessons. Anyone who says they can do this in a handful of lessons is either lying to you, or the dogs they have worked with aren’t the type I’m describing here.

Thus, when the dog is trained, the dog will be more controllable under command and while supervised. YOU MUST NOT DO THIS WORK ON YOUR OWN!!! You need to work with a trainer. Even so, with all this work, you won’t eliminate the chance that your dog might seriously bite someone.

Also, if your dog is unsupervised, the dog will defend him/ herself naturally. This part of the aggression can’t be changed. The dog will still be who he/ she is if threatened and the handler isn’t around to give directions.

Reality Check

If you have an aggressive dog, yet decide to do this kind of work, you must realize
a.) it will still bite people if given the chance;
b.) it’s the same dog;
c.) you won’t be able to leave the dog unsupervised;
d.) you have to be a physically strong, and mentally alert adult;
e.) the kids must NEVER walk the dog or be left unsupervised;
f.). you must use a muzzle with guests and in public;
g.) Never go to an off leash park;
h.) you will still be 100% liable in the event of an attack.
i.) the training and the trainer can’t make your dog sociable and friendly to strangers;
j.) the training can only increase the probability that you have the skills to control your dog when you are around; and
k.) training has to be maintained, regularly, throughout the life of the dog. Ideally, you would do a weekly lesson with your dog for life to practice the control exercises.

I will do this kind of training on a case-by-case basis. I will charge you up front, for the first month of training, then per month for the remainder of the lessons. It is also important to note that once you begin this kind of training, you cannot stop. If you stop prematurely, before these exercises are mastered, your dog will be even more dangerous than if you hadn’t done the training. If you did stop early, then you would be better off putting the dog down than leaving the dog half trained. You must also do maintenance lessons of this sort for the rest of the life of the dog, otherwise the control will deteriorate and the dog will become dangerous again. It will take several months to reach a level of competency. Police dogs are trained on a regular, weekly, basis in order to be reliable and controllable. You will need to make this kind of commitment, as well. Taking time off isn’t an option, unless the dog is sick. You have to keep working on a regular basis.

Sam Basso is a professional dog trainer and behaviorist, in the Phoenix/ Scottsdale metropolitan area. He’s known for being fun, kind, intelligent, and humane. Sam Basso has a unique personal touch. He has appeared on his own TV show, been a guest radio expert, gives seminars, publishes a dog related blog, does rescue volunteering, and is active in promoting animal welfare and fair dog laws.