1 run with my dog 2 miles every morning,” the large man with the huge, powerful mixed-breed dog shared with me. It was hard for me to stop staring at this particular dog’s huge mouth because I had never seen such a wide smile on a dog. The smile was lovely, but I also understood that she had an intensely strong jaw powering that lovely canine smile.
“What time do you do these runs?” I asked him. I was curious because his dog was extremely reactive to other dogs—just hearing another dog would send her over threshold and into a barking, lunging fit. She loved humans, but dogs were her nemeses.
“Usually at 4 a.m. We aren’t likely to see other dogs and owners out at that time,” he replied.
Bless you, I thought to myself. Not many humans are that dedicated to their pets. He held down a tiring full-time job, yet he still got up that early every day in an attempt to avoid his dog’s triggers and to provide her with adequate exercise.
“How do you handle it when you do see other dogs on these early-morning runs?” I asked.
“Oh, I just hold my dog up in the air by her harness. She barks and lunges while she’s up there, but she can’t hurt anyone.”
What does work is creating a bond before training begins, as Annie did with a client’s dog, Beau.
I looked then at his well-muscled arms; his dog weighed more than 70 pounds. Most people would never be able to scoop up such a big dog, much less hang on to her as she did her best to get to another dog! It was a unique solution to the problem before him. I had to share with him that while he had found a creative solution that most humans could not physically pull off, his solution not only did nothing to change his dog’s opinion of what other dogs meant (a threat), but it permitted the dog to practice the unwanted behavior, albeit from the vantage point of hanging in the air by a harness held by a very strong man.
It was another week, and another client sat before me, explaining how she dealt with her new rescue dog that regularly attacked her other dog. The most recent attack had required a weekend emergency-vet trip, and both dogs had deep puncture wounds. The vet bill was enormous, as was the psychological wound that the owner suffered as she desperately tried to stop the fight. Dog fights can be terribly loud, and anyone witnessing one can become stressed and even pile on the heightened energy by screaming at the dogs to stop fighting, which usually serves to make a bad situation even worse. I understand why owners start yelling, though, because their beloved dogs might be getting seriously hurt—at least by the sounds of the dog fight.
“Every room has a baby gate at the door,” she told me. “I divided my backyard into two separately fenced yards. The dogs still fence-fought, so I had to tear out the chain-link fence and put a 6-foot wooden fence down the middle of my backyard.”
“How is that working?” I asked her, wondering how much the fencing solution cost not only in terms of money but also in terms of the emotional toll.
“They still fight at the fence even though they can’t see one another. And the new dog has figured out how to climb the baby gates, so now each doorway has two baby gates,” she said wearily.
This was putting into place a valuable training tool called “management.” She was doing her human best to manage these two fighting dogs by putting up barriers everywhere. The owner with the enormous mixed-breed dog was also utilizing management, albeit in a very creative manner. Management is a resourceful and solid tool that owners can employ to help with their dog troubles. The problem is, however, that management is never 100-percent reliable, as this owner learned firsthand when the new dog simply figured out how to scale the first baby gate. It takes only one human error (such as forgetting to secure a gate) or barrier breakdown, and the whole plan unravels, with the dogs put at risk of being seriously hurt or even killed. This is also an extremely exhausting way for everyone, dogs included, to live. Her warring dogs will not change their opinions of the enemy on the other side of the baby gates or thick wooden fence through management alone.
While these two clients chose creative approaches to their dog problems —approaches that did nothing to reduce their dogs’ stressors and reactions—there is a much worse method of confronting canine aggression, and that is with human aggression itself.
Flash’s Second Chance
One famous dog had a rough beginning in life handed to him first by a trainer. His name was Flash, and he ultimately landed in the home of a powerhouse in the dog world, veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall, DVM, MA, PhD Dr. Overall was the specialist who Flash’s owners consulted after he put his second person in intensive care. Flash had been in at least four homes and three animal shelters. While he loved other dogs, he had a serious problem with some humans, and he would end up putting a total of three people in the hospital.
Annie switched this dog to a harness (pictured) for fantastic results.
When Flash bit his owner’s mother-in-law, the family could no longer keep him, and they hoped for some resolution other than death. At the evaluation with Dr. Overall, he looked her in the eyes and put his paw on her hand. She accepted ownership of him that day, and when she did, her worldview of how to treat dogs like Flash began to expand to the point where she is now considered one of the world’s foremost experts in treating canine aggression and reactivity.
Flash was a male Australian Shepherd, a herding breed not from Australia, despite the name, but from the southwestern United States. Herding dogs often score the highest on human-derived intelligence tests, and Aussies (as they are often called) are no exception. Herding breeds can also have a reputation for nipping at humans.
The brown dog is clearly telling the white dog to back off. Never force dogs to meet if both dogs don’t have relaxed, happy demeanors.
Flash became violently aggressive because of human behavior toward him, particularly when a human took away his sense of control over his environment. He was first badly mishandled by an aversive trainer who presumably subscribed to dominance theory. During a training class, the trainer took the leash from Flash’s owner at the time and popped Flash hard with it when he wouldn’t focus his attention on her. He adored other dogs and was just trying his best to say hello to them.
When she popped his collar, Flash stiffened, and the trainer responded by digging her fingers into his shoulders. Flash growled. The trainer announced to the class that “no dog growls at me,” and she upped her punishment by hanging him from his chain choke collar. Such a move is, sadly, commonly used in the name of training by some trainers who are willing to use force on an animal; it’s a tactic I had witnessed dozens of times while at the Schutzhund training academy.
Flash passed out, but when he came to, he attacked the trainer. She was the first of the three humans who mistreated him to wind up in intensive care. Was Flash a bad dog, or was he defending himself when another animal used pain to “train” him? Are “good” dogs supposed to accept physical harm from a human without a whimper or any attempts to stop the pain? Flash’s pain was very real; his injuries included broken hyoid bones, a partially sheared-off vertebra, and two broken ribs. It’s worrisome to me that the American culture so values the iconic lone hero who stands for justice in movies, songs, and books, but, should an animal defend himself and take a stand for his own well-being, we are quick to punish that animal for his perceived defiance.
Flash recovered to the extent that he happily accompanied Dr. Overall and her husband to classes at the university where they worked. He stopped biting people. Dr. Overall’s decades of studying dogs combined with what Flash taught her led her to write the most comprehensive textbook available for veterinarians and trainers working in dog and cat behavior: The Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. The hefty book has 812 pages of fact-filled information and training protocols, including one with a and video—featuring Flash—that teaches dogs how to relax both their bodies and their minds.
Schutzhund training includes “bite work,” in which the dog learns to bite as well as release the bite on command.
Dr. Overall’s textbook, her research, her brilliant mind, and her life experience with Flash and many other troubled canine patients have led her to prove over and over again that pain in training is counterproductive, cruel, and completely unnecessary. She gave Flash what he needed, and that included the following:
• antianxiety medication (which he was eventually weaned off);
• a sense of control over his environment;
• six months of quiet recovery with no episodes of putting him in situations where he went over threshold;
• instruction in new behaviors for the times when he did experience stress, which included sitting, taking a deep breath, and looking at his humans for direction; and
• an understanding that his biting behavior was not a pathological brain disorder but one that came from a defensive state caused by mistreatment by humans.
She never put Flash in a position where he felt defensive, so he never had to go on the offense—Flash was never fearful, but he was never going to allow someone to abuse and hurt him or someone he cared about again.
Annie’s Border Collies and her mixed breed, Monster, sit as a default behavior and look to her for direction.
Factually, we know from countless studies that using aversives for behavior problems such as aggression will often eventually make that unwanted behavior worse. Some abused dogs completely shut down, afraid of making the wrong guess as to what the human wants, thus risking another harsh jolt to his neck. As a trainer, it breaks my heart that too many owners and trainers see a dog like this and marvel that they are looking at such a well-behaved dog. He is not a well-trained dog; he is a shut-down animal that we have robbed of spirit.
If Flash and his reaction to being physically assaulted during training were anomalies, we would be having an entirely different national discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) of using force in canine training. Flash is far from being alone in his reaction to harsh training methods, however. Many positive-reinforcement trainers, such as myself, are often the fourth or fifth professional trainer to work with the now-desperate and despairing owners of a reactive or aggressive dog. The owner keeps moving through trainers because they can see for themselves that what the trainers are teaching to their dog isn’t working. Often, their dog’s unwanted behaviors keep getting worse. Imagine what the poor dog has been through in the name of training and how confused and most likely scared he becomes. It’s shameful (at best) that this kind of “training” is permitted and legal.
Aversives, such as pinch or choke collars, can often serve to heighten a dog’s fear.
I want to share one more story that illustrates what doesn’t work to heal a reactive or aggressive dog. A huge Great Dane named Apollo and his charming owners, Lauren and Steve Thompson, came to me for help with their situation. At the time, they were newlyweds, and they both love really big dogs. They previously had shared their lives with a Mastiff, a Saint Bernard, and a large Husky. They are an athletic couple, and their dogs enjoyed long, active, and happy lives with their dog-loving people.
Enter Apollo. The Thompsons had decided to add a Great Dane puppy to their happy family. First, they were interviewed and approved by a rescue that focuses on saving large-breed dogs. The rescue approved the couple as an ideal home, but the wait proved long indeed. When a Great Dane-mix puppy did come up for adoption, they learned that they were sixteenth on the waiting list. At that point, Lauren started looking at breeders.
She began a dialogue with a breeder who owned a 150-pound champion show dog. The breeder just happened to have one puppy left: a four-month-old male. Lauren drove across two states to meet the puppy. She never had the opportunity to meet either parent or to find out why the cute pup was still available at four months old. Proper, positive socialization needs to be completed by the age of twelve to sixteen weeks, or you will be playing catch-up for the rest of the dog’s life—and the dog may never trust certain stimuli as an adult.
Lauren noticed on the drive back to her Rocky Mountain state that her new puppy appeared timid. He cowered in the backseat and didn’t want to get out of the car. When she got home with Apollo, she and Steve decided to kick the puppy’s socialization into high gear, especially after the puppy bit down hard on Steve’s ear when he first met him. They took Apollo everywhere with them, including on long stints at the police station, where Steve was a police officer. Apollo was timid now and again, but he seemed happy and well adjusted—at least, he did until he was attacked by a large mixed-breed dog on a mountain hike at eighteen months of age.
Lauren recalls, “I saw the dog coming up the mountain trail off leash, and I asked the owner if his dog was friendly. He said, ‘Yes, he loves other dogs.’ Apollo had been a regular at the dog park, and he loved dogs, too, so I unhooked his leash.” And then it happened: the older dog attacked Apollo. Each owner rushed in and tried to pull them apart, and, in the process, Lauren was badly bitten in the hand. The extensive surgery to repair her hand cost $8,000. As a popular photographer, the full use of her hands is critical to her job.
Steve and Lauren decided that they needed to find a good trainer right away to help them with Apollo. They live in a small mountain town, and they asked countless friends for recommendations. They ended up with a trainer who set Apollo so far back in his training that they wondered where their lovable dog had gone and if he would ever be safe in public. They stopped taking him places because he became so dangerous.
Annie fostered this German Shepherd, who had previously lived her life outdoors, and taught her how to relax in the house, be comfortable around other dogs, and respond to basic cues.
“We met with this trainer twice a week for three months. For that entire time, she kept telling us she needed to ‘break’ Apollo so that he would no longer be dangerous. She put small rocks into a plastic bottle and kept rattling the bottle in his face—over and over again—until he growled at her. Then she yanked him up by the pinch collar that she informed us he had to wear, and she choked him until he stopped struggling,” Lauren says. Even though this “training” happened a few years ago, she still cries every time she talks about the ordeal that she feels responsible for putting their dog through. “Apollo started cowering from anyone’s hands outstretched toward him, and, at the same time, his aggression kept escalating.”
A few weeks after they had stopped working with this trainer, they walked into my office. I passed them the Kleenex box as they explained their dog’s history. I needed a tissue to dab my eyes a little bit as well.
This caring couple did what we beg owners to do, and that is to find a professional trainer to help as soon as (or, better yet, before) they started having issues with their dog. They also asked many friends for recommendations. Steve and Lauren asked questions of the trainer before they began training, but it can be akin to a nonmechanic asking a mechanic questions about a car repair—they were at the mercy of the “expert” in the field.
As a professional force-free trainer, Annie has found that a squirt of Easy Cheese works wonders to reinforce good behavior.
Who Trains the Trainer?
No organization licenses or legally oversees dog trainers in the United States. At this moment in time, because there are no requirements to enter the field, anyone can claim to be a dog trainer or a behaviorist. What happened to this lovely couple and their once-sweet Apollo happens every day, and the results are tragic for both dogs and their owners. It is also bad news for the general public because bad trainers using aggressive training protocols put all of us at risk if and when such abused animals decide that they have had enough.
The Thompsons’ first trainer was an accomplished sport-dog trainer with many sport titles on her own dogs. That’s admirable, and many kudos to her. It proved detrimental to Apollo, however, that she had no formal training in canine behavior. The only thing currently stopping situations like this from happening (other than owner education on what constitutes experience and qualifications) is if the trainer has a conscience and is self-aware enough to know her limitations and strengths as a trainer.
I can even call myself a behaviorist, even though that term is usually reserved for those who have a PhD in applied animal behavior. I don’t call myself a behaviorist. I do call myself a canine behavior expert because I have two decades of hands-on experience and national training certifications and because of my high success rate in helping troubled dogs. I have also attended seminars, webinars, and expos with some of the top behaviorists in the world. I spend a minimum of $5,000 each year to further my education. It is terrifying to me—and should be equally as frightening to you, the dog owner—that I could do what I do without any of these credentials and without my years of experience.
Just as terrifying, untrained and untested canine “professionals” can make an aggressive dog even more aggressive by using antiquated techniques and beliefs, such as the debunked dominance theory. Dominance theory is an often-repeated myth that needs to die. It damages the human–canine bond. Modern scientific studies are proving that it’s the bond between the two species that makes dogs trainable and creates the space where dogs and humans can cohabitate. We should be doing everything we can with our human brains to make sure that the bond stays positive and healthy for the dog.
We can see clearly what doesn’t work, including:
• relying only on management of the situation;
• using fear, pain, force, or aggression in training;
• taking a troubled dog to an unqualified trainer or behavior consultant;
• not addressing the problem quickly enough or early enough;
• not ruling out a possible medical contributing factor; and
• not using proven scientifically backed methods to change or reduce a dog’s anxiety and fear about something that troubles him.
I have sat with countless owners over the years, and I have often reached for my own Kleenex on hearing what they and their dogs have been through, but I have many more joyful and uplifting experiences with owners who do make major breakthroughs with their difficult dogs. I’d like share some of these success stories with you and encourage you to keep moving forward—there are solutions.
When you have a solid bond with your dog, you can take him anyplace where dogs are allowed.
Before we get to the success stories, though, I have one more heartbreaking story to share that illustrates the level of pain and suffering that troubled dogs can create for the humans who love them. In the next chapter, I will tell you the story of a beautiful German Shepherd named Zemi. She was my dog.