My Viewpoint On Aggression

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Back to Blog

I have been pondering putting up this blog for quite some time for the simple reason that it will ruffle some feathers.

Dog bites hand

I would like to begin with my first seminar in Penns Creek, Pennsylvania in 2001. I had not done a public presentation on a seminar format in 8 years prior to this date. I arrived in Penns Creek and I had Ettra and Arctic with me. I was to speak  to a group of people just about behavior and genetics in general. As for behavior, the predominant topic was aggression prevention. The group I was speaking to were part of a specific breed of dog.

I arrived there on a Friday night, booked the motel room and decided to take my dogs for a walk. Outside, there was a group of people standing around with several of these dogs. They had no idea who I was. As I passed them, I got this weird feeling that they were looking at me like I was some kind of freak. You see, as I passed both of my dogs were off leash, the dogs that were with the people were lunging and barking at my dogs. I walked past the dogs, crossed the street, they did their business and I walked back to my room. My dogs did not even look or remotely acknowledge their dogs.

Once inside my hotel room I said to my wife, “I just saw the strangest thing...people outside with their dogs talking, the dogs were rubbing noses, and some of the dogs wanted to fight and the people let it happen.” Not intentionally of course, however they were very surprised that the dogs did fight. Why? Do people not understand that dogs are not people, accepting and polite? I always wonder why this belief exists.

What I want people to know is from 1995 to 2001 I never trained publicly, I stayed and worked around a group of persons who were professionals in the German Shepherd world, doing things like Schutzhund, protection, etc. and I only trained the puppies I produced who belonged to my clients.

The very essence of the dog training philosophy back then was simple: You and your dog keep to yourself, your dog does not go forward to meet or socialize unless given the okay to do so, and you were skilled enough to read the responses from the dogs - good or bad - prior to the outcome. Nor did you allow anything or anybody to enter your space with your dog unless you allowed it in. You walked with a dog that can be free, and if you couldn't cut your dog loose and it didn't stay close to you - regardless of circumstance - then you had nothing. You had no dog, no control which leads to absolute irrelevant leadership in the eyes of your dog.

For some reason the above statement (in quite a few cases of dog handling) seems to be the norm and those who have dogs that can be loose and free and stay close to their masters are abnormal or at the very least an impossibility to achieve. Why is this? Time and time again as I take my dogs for a walk or go to the park, the majority of dogs are overanxious, edgy, unable to cope with stress, reactive and mostly oblivious to their master’s presence. Could it be that these dogs do not trust or feel safe with their master’s decisions? Could it be that we allowed our dogs to have the decision making mentality with daily socialization that leads to the conflict when the master tries to make decisions based on control?

What I noticed in this seminar was the majority of dogs were unstable. I couldn't understand that. They were either anxious and walking on egg shells, fearful, aggressive, or insecure. I do not recall any dog who was completely focused, relaxed and confident. Not only were they uncomfortable with themselves, they weren’t even confident in the presence of their masters. In fact, when their masters spoke or reacted to the dog’s negative feelings, these reactions seemed to accelerate or bring to the surface the dog’s negative issue. When training and raising my dogs, to me it means stability first as well as understanding all the parameters of cause and effect. Obviously these dogs - and many dogs I have worked with - are volatile due to their master’s instability.

My Philosophy on Canine Aggression

Before I begin to tip the boat on the politically correct forum, I have a philosophy about aggression and here it is:

No dog is born aggressive, anxious or unstable; they are simply a product of an environment or relationship based on daily exposure to mistrust, betrayal and fear.

Regardless of genetics or breed heritage, no dog is born aggressive, anxious or unstable; they are simply a product of an environment or relationship based on a crass daily exposure to mistrust, betrayal and fear. The aggression is the outlet for this fundamental type of relationship.

Further, genetics only play a part as to breed heritage and outcome when the dog is in survival mode. For example:  

  • a mistrusting Lab will run off and get hit by a car; this is a retriever and chances are it was trying to retrieve the vehicle
  • A German Shepherd, who is predominantly a guardian-type dog, would charge and attack a person.
  • A Rottweiler, who by nature was bred to herd and posses items (i.e. the butchers dog of Rottweiler and the money pouch), will posses food or other objects in the home.
  • Border collies, who herd sheep, in survival or dominant mode would nip at the heels of their masters (could it be that the dog sees its master as a sheep themselves based on their conduct?)

Anything less than absolute leadership - with a solid foundation of understanding how a dog sees it and how your individual dog would translate your behavior - is based on the responses we receive from our dogs in the various avenues of socialization and/or management. The key word being daily management. 

Causes of Aggression

When I deal with aggression there seems to be a formula that makes this “cesspool cake of emotional sludge” take form.

Where does your dog run?

Loose in the backyard.

Is there another dog next door? 


Do the dogs run the fence? 


Do you go to the dog park?


Do you go to doggy day care? 


Have you gone to other trainers? 

Yes, tried 7 different trainers, none of them work.

Training methods used? 

Everything from peanut butter on a stick to remote control shock collar “therapy” (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest)  

Did they tell you that you were the cause? 

No, they focused on the dog.

Do you have an older dog in the house? 

Yes, I have two more.

Have you been told this is genetic? 

Yes, my dog is in the aggressive breed category.

Are you afraid of your dog’s aggression? 

Yes, I am afraid of what the dog will do.

Finally, I ask what the dog means to you and with all this trouble they say to me, “It means the world to me and I love it.” That is the most consistent response. My answer to that is simple: “How can you place high value and love on a dog that gives you all this grief?” Instead, take the dog for what it is worth (basically nothing at this point, from nature’s standpoint) and start from there. Low and behold the name of the game is to make it valuable. The only way a dog can be valued is if you as a person are equally valuable to the dog. After all, when we overly love something, then we fail to place boundaries and breed a higher degree of tolerance hoping to be acknowledged. When this happens, anger and resentment on both sides of the relationship equation becomes prevalent. This is the icing on the cesspool cake of sludge.

In many cases I have taken dogs in from owners to straighten out their aggressive issues. In the majority of cases, the dog goes back to the owner with the problem cured or at the very least manageable. However, people have a false sense of security and forget that solving aggression is a long-term commitment. The end result of this is normally within a few weeks the dog is back to its old ways. If that is the case then this leads me to believe that aggression in dogs is perpetuated by the master, and that the acceleration of the aggression itself is deemed by the master’s daily interaction with the dog. After all, how can a dog act one way with a certain person and a different way with another person?

Let’s categorize a few points:

The Genetic excuse

Time and time again I have heard or seen dogs being dismissed in a wasteful manner by the pathetic belief of this excuse. Could it be that aggression spreads so much fear in people (leading with the inability to cope with the problem) that the excuse is used to remove the guilt on our parts and place it on the dog? To me that is an absolute cowardly act. If genetics were the case then please refer to the "Success Stories" page and read about Cody.

The only Genetic excuse that I could see with this statement is complete unaccountability for the majority of owners to acknowledge they are at fault. Technically they are, yet when I read and see that dogs are morphed into the human child with fur and 4 legs, that they are forced to accept every dog, every person, and are made to be more tolerant of things more than their master...well, I think that is simply asinine and completely unfair. This puts the dog in a failed superiority complex. That is denying a dog of who and what it is and puts into the forum of what we humans want. Sorry, but if that were done to me then I would be just as upset and angry. (And I’m Italian, so what does “breed profiling” say about me? Haha.)

Instead, look at your dog’s real limitations, accept them and work within that realm to help it overcome its apprehensions. Forcing it to accept things will only cause it to shut you out and make you non-existent. When this happens, then the master(?) desperately seeks control through diversion by bribing - or on the other extreme correction through frustration or fear. Neither one of these have anything to do with establishing a trust. In fact, they compromise the relationship further.

The needy owner

This character is the one that is the biggest detriment to a dog’s stability. Through the years I have seen over-coddling owners believe in their minds that they are doing their dog a great justice. This is an injustice; these individuals seldom apply themselves in a management role and put expectations on their dog based on their overbearing need to coddle and give their dog everything for fear of the dog being unhappy or not loving them back. (In a less dramatic example, the noble act of rescuing a dog can turn into a desperate attempt to make the dog feel accepted since it wasn’t in the previous home. This situation, while heartfelt, can be just as compromising to the already frightened dog.)

These people seldom leave their dog alone, their voice is usually higher pitched, overly acknowledging of the dog and quite often worry about the dog being stressed; stressed for being home alone, when they go to work, worried about the dog being bored or being deprived, suffer from fear when their dog misbehaves in an aggressive manner, and act in an overly concerned manner of sadness when their dog is afraid.

On the flip-side, they tend to push their dog into being friendly with every dog, expecting it to be friendly and receptive of every person, and having every privilege of humanity just for breathing. They actually believe their dogs have human emotional intelligence and reasoning. In most cases, they act very surprised when the dog does not return to them, or act out in an aggressive manner. Of course they would. After all, human beings tend to return home regardless of feelings and seldom act overly aggressive towards something without cause.

When things go wrong, the mentality of this person is simply put, “that I have given this dog everything and made sure it was always happy.” Happy? According to whom, the dog or the human master who was not ready to put their needy feelings aside? This character is the most difficult to work with because they have to face themselves as the cause of the dog’s aggression. In reality, when we have given something everything, then we believe the creature is at fault for not being appreciative. Much like humans, when a parent spoils and coddles a child, aren’t the parents the last to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected?

The overkill master

This character, equally to the one above, has every intention of doing the right thing. However, it is on a spectrum of “the obedient dog is the best dog.” This is strictly superficial on the surface without understanding the realm of how the dog feels about it.

Obedience is a funny thing to me; it is a necessity, but a necessity for whom? You don't see dogs uttering heel, sit, stay, and down commands when they are together. Yet the behaved ones usually follow and focus without having very much to bark about. These people don't allow a dog to breathe, everything is about heel, sit, stay, down and at all costs. The ears on the dog seldom stand up when they are being worked.

The funny part about a dog that lives with this type of owner is, it is hardly a dog who adheres without a corrective argument or a barrage of commands. These are the prong collar, halti, alpha roll, condescending type owners who want to win at demeaning their dogs so they can mask their own uncontrollable insecurities. You see these types get angry or frustrated with their dogs and then usually apply some form of physical control without being in control themselves.

The dog usually ends up overly obsessive and volatile never knowing how to calm down or de-stress. The dog is reactive or in many cases anticipates what is coming next and reacts to the issue quite readily and with heightened adrenaline constituting a false sense of eagerness.

The benevolent master

This master understands the dog’s viewpoints (gets the concept of the four basic drives) and would not expect anything from their companion. They understand the difference between failed behavior and successful guidance based on their management of the dog.

They do not suffer from the human emotions of fear, frustration, anger, or anxiety only because they know they are not dealing with a human being or some devil that needs to be controlled. They have the independence within themselves and don't rely on their dog to give them a sense of purpose.

They follow through with feeling their dog’s emotions through all forms of socialization as opposed to socializing based on their lacking social skills. They become one with their dog just based on their own confidence and the dog follows through with having someone to look up to.

This type of master is rare in form. In the dog training equation, this person is someone a dog looks for so it can be equally calm and confident. This type of master bestows upon themselves extreme emotional self-discipline and sets the example for their dog to follow.

Recipes for Disaster

do you go to the dog park?

I never understood what a dog park was all about other than some social free-for-all for dogs to play tag and games like children would. In the few times I have gone to dog parks, I’ve gone primarily to look at average dog behavior and human interaction. I have never seen anything that was constructive. In a lot of cases, I witness dogs chasing and playing tag, knocking each other down, running each other over, or less confident dogs submitting to the stronger ones. All the while their masters(?) sit idly by. (Ironically, when children behave the same way, parents always step in to make sure the kids mind their P’s and Q’s.)

For some reason the one with the “bully dog” is happy to see how dominant his dog is without realizing that this learned dominance may transpire against this master in some form, at the very least less adherent to training and direction (especially when other dogs are involved.)

The softer or weaker dog goes through life being a target in its mind since - at the dog park - it is forced to submit to various degrees and while this is going on their masters allow it to happen.

During the turmoil these dogs are establishing some form of dog pack pecking order and the humans are huddled around talking while their dogs are circling them. In the wild predators circle their prey and their prey stands still all huddled together trying to appease the predators. Based on nature and the category of species a dog is, how would the dogs truly see these people? Definitely not someone who would have any authority.

For example, I am going to clearly describe the chain of events that happened when I took a student to a dog park.

A few years back I was retained by a client whose dog suffered from dog aggression. My first question was “did you go to a dog park?” and of course the answer was yes. The dog suffered from high anxiety in the presence of dogs on the initial introduction and then leading to the aggressive response as being a conclusion for this dog. We attended the dog park she frequented. I asked her to take her dog out and work with him in an obedience format 200 feet away. The dog performed within reason and was responsive to her commands. I took my dog out who did not pay any attention to her dog and her dog showed a relatively manageable form of anxiety. I put my dog away and we proceeded to work within 50 feet of the dog park fence. Once we approached that distance, the dog became incoherent and the first thing he did was get on his hind legs, coupled with barking in a frustrated, high-pitched bark. The minute she tried to work on an obedience routine the dog became aggressive towards the dogs he saw in the dog park area. I told her to put her dog away.

I in turn took my dog out and explained to her that I spent time with my dog in a training format and the parameters of socialization was with me getting the final word. This allowed me to introduce the dog to other dogs and further, when I sent my dog, it recalled in the presence of the other dogs. I demonstrated this. I did my obedience routine and the dog did not mind the dogs in the area. At that point 3 of the dogs in the dog park ran to the fence and began barking. My dog did not react and so I sent my dog forward to them. Shortly thereafter the owner walked up and low and behold the dogs in the fenced area increased their aggression higher. The owner came by and tried to stop the dogs, and at that point the dogs began to re-direct their aggression on themselves and started fighting. I called my dog back and put her in a down stay. After all of that wacky behavior, the owner of the dogs asked why don't I come in to the dog park area and let my dogs play with hers. I couldn't believe it! This is one of those needy owners who doesn't see what just transpired. My response to her was simple, “I don't go to dog parks.” She asked why and I told her. The she asked why I was there and I simply said I was demonstrating with my client who frequents this dog park on what not to do, and that she and her dogs set the fine example of why a person shouldn't attend a dog park. I also asked the woman if her dogs would behave in the same manner if they were to get loose outside of the dog park. Her response was simply “I come to this dog park because I can’t let my dogs loose anywhere else...they run off and chase dogs.” With that I ended my training session and we would re-convene at this dog park a week later. I left my client to analyze what she just saw.

We went back to the dog park a week later. As we pulled into the parking lot we observed dogs approaching the park. The majority of the dogs were on their hind legs pulling to get into the park, and no matter what the owners did to control the dogs, they didn't exist in the dog’s eyes. At that point, I also observed with my client a group of dogs allegedly playing. There was a male who possessed all the sticks and when he had the sticks the other dogs avoided entering his space. This dog was in control. At the same time, I pointed out how the owners of these dogs were huddled around a table and the dogs circled them. I noticed a woman with a young poodle-type puppy enter the dog park. I looked at my client and said this is going to be a very sad, harsh lesson in dog behavior. When the woman showed up all the dog owners gravitated to this puppy and huddled together speaking in high pitched “ooooh what a cutie” tones. At that point, the dog who possessed the stick pushed himself though the crowd and snatched the puppy and began to beat on it. The other dogs joined in (guess who owned the park), and amongst all the screaming, the people managed to get the puppy away from the dogs. Once again they gravitated to the injured puppy. The owner of the poodle began to scream at the owner of the bully dog. Once this happened the bully dog saw his opportunity, snatched the poodle from the table with his recruits and finished the job. The puppy was dead. I will leave everybody with that image.

Preventing Disaster at the Dog Park

The dogs should have been individually trained together as a group, some dogs playing ball and other training, teaching the dogs space respect and that the humans regulate the dog pack and the park. Further, playing should be monitored and stopped when these dogs get into their mode for trying to establish dominance amongst themselves. The owners should work as a team to solidify their dog’s social skills and that no dog interferes, grabs toys, or forces other dogs to submit (this includes humping.)  

In conclusion I believe that dog parks were formed to keep irresponsible owners and their incoherent dogs in a fenced area away from harming others in a public forum.  

Is your dog loose in the backyard?

Many people feel that a large backyard is a benefit for a dog and within good reason. However, I have found in many cases that dogs in large backyards are dogs whose owners use this backyard as a form of exercise. Problem is it also leads to dogs not being walked or trained. If you look around you’ll see the suburban backyard dogs often turn into aggressive animals that overly protect their property. This is simply because on the territorial fence boundaries stimuli is on the other side and in the dog’s viewpoint that is a challenge. The neighbor has a dog and both your dog and the neighbor’s dog are running the fence, breeding heightened anxiety and frustration. Moreover, you dog is back there and the neighbor comes out on the opposite side and tells your dog to shut up. This is also seen as a challenge to your dog’s territory. Finally, the neighbor that backs up to your yard has children. While the children are playing, your dog gets excited and bingo the aggression manifests itself towards the children. Nice recipe for raising and training the unfortunate junk yard dog or the tragedy of a news story (read 6-Yeas-Old Girl Attacked By Dog.) Note: In the many years before dog parks, this was the fundamental route for aggression in dogs.

Preventing Backyard Disasters

A kennel in the backyard away from the fence boundaries would allow your dog to experience the neighbors in an indirect way. Additionally, when the neighbor was out you could bring your dog for a safe, non-negative introduction through the fence guided by you. Ask the neighbor behind you with the children to help you with another opportunity to train the dog to be responsive around children while they are playing and then allowing the children to offer treats (as opposed to being afraid of the barking dog.) And finally, the dog next-door whose irresponsible owner leaves it in the backyard could be used as a training opportunity to teach your dog to ignore frustrated, unpredictable, volatile animals as opposed to becoming one himself.

Do you take your dog to doggie daycare?

I know I am going to upset quite few people on this one. I need to ask people why do we need doggy daycare? Aside from geriatric dogs and young puppies, is it needed out of guilt for leaving the dog at home, worried about the bathroom? Most people who work are gone up to 10 hours a day. What they don't realize is that when they sleep at night, it is 10 hours before the dog gets out the next morning (keeping in mind once the dog is trained, you can leave them out in the house. To make it clear, dogs should be walked/trained/played with in the morning before you leave them alone.)

The name Doggy Daycare to me is a humanization campaign just as if we were leaving our children at a daycare facility. There is nothing wrong with doggy daycare per say, as long as it is not a doggy free-for-all, and as long as the day care master has the ability to read and prevent tension and forced submission amongst the dogs. The dogs once again are forming packs and pack behavior without the master’s involvement. (Please read “Dog Kills New Puppy" and “Aggression Towards Old Dog.”) Nor does the dog have the ability to be independent and stay home alone while you are at work or have to go out to the store or to dinner.

These are just some of the points that lead to aggression. At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter whether we go to dog parks or doggy daycare, have older dogs in the home, etc., unless you have a fundamental understanding of the difference between social virtue or social disaster.  

Sometimes we seek trainers to help us and - due to personal experience - the majority of owners only take part of what they want to hear in training and don't apply the whole picture. This is not the trainer’s fault or the dog’s fault.

Furthermore, I am a firm believer in the handler being dominant or being an emotionally strong, benevolent leader. If you look at dogs, and as with any equation in life, leadership - strong and precise without demeaning or questionable connotations - balances function. Without it, we are all lost not just with our dog but in the very soul of life. 

I witness, hear and read sometimes how the physical, dominant move is detrimental to dogs. Of course it would be if the dominant move were to be perceived by a TV personality who flips dogs on their back, or in the case of another one who calls himself the head mafioso figure to the dogs. Then I hear about the positive reinforcement figures who say dominance doesn't exist. Well, if they have been governing dog behavior philosophy for the last 20 years, then why so much trouble? Both of these parties are detrimental in some form. The only thing that works is if your subject trusts you to lead them though life safely and assuredly by understanding and seeing what is required from you by your subject.

Consider This

What happened to the days when I was growing up where dogs played in the park where there were children present? People were intrigued by your dog and moms did not huddle their children when a dog arrived.

Could it be the variant training methods, the so-called “dogs are people, too” marketing scheme, the over-attention, and this incessant need to have a child with fur and 4 legs has put the dog in such a superiority complex that it looks to us as lessor beings? (Dogs are attacking/killing our children. Dogs are predators, aren’t they?)

Or have we just become lessor beings unknowingly by our own misconceived vision of what a dog really is? Have we infuriated our beloved pets by tipping the scale of serving them instead of us making them happy by teaching them how to serve us. After all isn't that why we were so blessed by them originally?

Let those who lead give opportunity to those trusting to be led to be understood without fear or betrayal.
Take a moment to look at your dogs and if you did right by them they should not suffer any form of emotional apprehensions.

- Sam

Back to Blog