A few weeks ago a distraught friend called to tell me that her dog just bit a visitor.  I have had biting dogs in the past and I know the pain, guilt and terror that comes with such an event.  She was very concerned and asked my opinion.

I have known this dog since a puppy and do not thing he is a danger. He is, however, a breed predisposed to guarding and that is something I had always wondered about as they don’t have much time for training. I suggested they find a really good trainer and work at teaching him that controlling who comes in and out of the house is not his job, at least not when they open the door and welcome someone in! This dog is generally very gentle and I suspect it wouldn’t take much to make that clear to him.

I of course also mentioned vaccinosis and homeopathy, feeling like a broken record. I often feel that I shouldn’t waste my breath, but *every* now and then, someone actually gives it a try.

I offered to put her in touch with some trainers I know, but she had her own contacts. One of them was a trainer who is quite well known around here for working with aggressive dogs. I have seen the results of this person’s methods gone wrong, and it’s not pretty. He is one who believes that you meet aggression with aggression, and that can lead to very serious problems. The most common outcome when this type of training fails is increased aggression, and then a recommendation to euthanize.

If a dog is behaving aggressively for dominant reasons, then meeting this with aggression can sometimes work. But most aggressive behaviour in fact stems from fear. If you then use aggression or dominating behaviour – such as physical corrections, alpha rolls and the like – you will heighten the dog’s fear and this can lead to an increase in the aggressive response.

To give a common example, consider a dog who is reactive to people. The dog starts to lunge and bark at an approaching person, and the owners correct him by yelling, yanking on the leash, collar pops or otherwise trying to subdue the dog.  This is hard not to want to do because you feel awful when your dog is lunging and barking at another person.  But the dog doesn’t understand that his behaviour is what is upsetting you, and by getting worked up, you confirm to the dog that there is something to be worried about. And if you punish the dog for what he is doing, you further confirm his fear: when a strange person shows up, bad things happen!

I won’t get into the details of how to work with this here. Suffice it to say I was concerned that my friend was going to go to this trainer and tried my best to emphasize important it would be not to go to him. I was worried because she said she had two friends who had worked with him in the past and had been happy with the results.

Fortunately, said trainer was not available and my friend went with someone else, who I have heard is quite good. When given the de-briefing, though, a few things alarmed me. For one, the person warned her in advance that she would be provoking the dog to see what it would take to get him to bite. Well, I have worked with biting dogs before, and the last thing I would ever do is push them. You can tell a dog is thinking about biting LONG before it will actually go ahead with it, and that is quite enough for me. Not only do I not want to get bit (it’s no fun, trust me!), but it’s not fair to the dog. Biting is a self-rewarding response and every time the dog bites, the chances of it doing it again increases.

The other thing that I found disconcerting was the use of the rubber arm. I have seen these used in videos and I am quite certain that dogs know the difference. It is insulting to conclude otherwise. Unfortunately, I suspect many dogs will bite the fake arm long before they will bite a real one, and that leads to a misinterpretation of the dog’s behaviour. My own dogs will happily chomp on my sleeves while wrestling, but instantly adjust their pressure the second their teeth hit skin. They are in far more control of their teeth and reactions than we give them credit for. I hate to think of all the dogs who have been euthanized after chomping on a piece of rubber.

It turns out that this trainer had the sense not to provoke this dog. Perhaps it was just her wording that was misleading. Overall I think she did a good job, and ended up advising my friend to do essentially the same thing that I had recommended. She then asked for an obscene amount of money for her one hour visit. I think I am in the wrong field!