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Take Care When Training Aggressive Dogs

2002: We read the following and were impressed with its well written reasoning and asked Ms. Brill for permission to reprint her comments here. She wrote back, "Of course.   Thanks for the compliment. I'm honored by your request." So, this cautionary article is reprinted here with permission of the author, Barbara D. Brill,   President of Collie Humane Care, Inc.

Many pet owners here are struggling with some questions and concerns about how to deal with a dog's aggressive behaviors. I will try once again very gently to explain that the use of pain on aggressive dogs is harmful. By pain I mean punishment through the use of choke collars, prong collars, electric training devices, etc. Many (but not all) trainers who use pain may have the very sincere belief that a dog that fails to respond instantly to a spoken command is being defiant, or some such thing -- you know, defying authoritylike a criminal.

The trainers who use such coercive methods are not basing their training upon knowledge about how dogs learn, nor -- for instance -- upon information from the board-certified veterinary behaviorists who specialize in dogs' behavior problems. Many of us have learned to understand aggressive behaviors. Very often the dogs that exhibit aggressive behavior are relinquished by their owners because they're unmanageable; thus, many of the aggressive dogs you'll hear about are rescue cases.

When we take any dog into our home, a young puppy or an adult dog, it's a prisoner in a way. People expect it to conform to human ways so that it may live with us and behave in a socially acceptable manner. What's sometimes missing in this equation is an understanding of the dog itself, as a species.

On the AB list we've been trying to help people understand that many trainers give dogs only a few choices: the dogs may comply with instruction to do something, or they may refuse. When an owner confronts a dog about the refusal (call if defiance if you want to), the dog has still fewer choices available to it.

Now we're getting into a dog's emotional state. When confronted with an angry owner: (1) the dog may do what is asked, if the dog understands how to do what is asked, if it has been taught first what to do; and if it has been taught sufficiently in many different locations so that the lesson has become very well generalized; (2.) it may attempt to leave, to run in the other direction, away from the angry owner (we call that the Flight Response); or (3.) it may Fight back (that's a defensive response) to protect itself from harm.

Fighting back may take several forms. First, the dog may curl a lip, and then it may give a little warning grr. Not really a growl. That's a message, "I'm uncomfortable. Please don't do that." If the owner persists, say with a harmful leash correction (pain to the dog), the dog may grrr again, or it may attempt to leave (flight response), to put distance between itself and the cause of the pain. Or it may growl (a firm warning to stop); it may even lunge and attempt to nip and give an inhibited bite (not with the full force of which the dog is capable) because the dog is reacting to protect itself, not to harm anyone. It is reacting in this way to stop the pain and abuse inflicted upon it. That's self-defense aggression.

The owner may realize that the dog is uncomfortable but not understand that the leash correction causes pain, however minor or severe the pain may be. The owner may repeat the command and give a small but sharp leash correction again. Or a more impatient owner may repeat the command and while doing so, yell the command and give a harsher leash correction -- punishment. At that point the dog may give up, slide to the ground and attempt to roll over on its back in the submissive posture. That posture in dog language means "I am not fighting you; I am not a threat to you." All canines honor that canine gesture, for they have a body language of communication. But the humans who do not understand the canine species may not honor that canine gesture/language.

The owner may ask the dog to sit, but instead the dog may lie down on the ground and roll over on its back. So the owner who wishes to enforce the command "Sit," may become insistent and angry. In response to his own anger, the owner receives an adrenaline rush and no longer responds rationally, but instead becomes out-of-control and reacts angrily and administers a large harsh punishment to the dog. (Some people are so accustomed to abusing dogs that they do so habitually, without even feeling rage.)

We have just seen such a post of the AB list, a news report about a dog day-care and training facility in which the trainer performed on videotape "an escalated leash correction." The trainer pulled tight on the leash attached to the dog's chain collar and swung the dog around angrily to the heel position, the dog howling for the full 18 seconds. Subsequently the trainer was arrested for cruelty to animals and the USDA has vacated the kennel license, so the facility has been closed down. A member on our list had previously taken her dog to that facility for day care. Her dog suffered a laceration to the throat and severe tracheal damage. Yet the escalated leash correction is performed very frequently in dog training classes.

Yes, people have been training this way for well over sixty years in America and in other countries as well. Possibly you saw Carol Whitney's post on the list about the history of dog training, from the military model. She provided an excellent summary. (I differed from her somewhat because I experienced more humane training in the traditional classes.)

Nonetheless, what I described above, about the dog suffering physical trauma and severe injury is just one example. What are the results from such training? Over time the human-canine bond of  trust and communication is broken; the dogs become more defensive-aggressive toward humans. To repair such dogs, we need a new model for understanding them and a new model for teaching them -- a model which understands dogs' aggressive behaviors.

We do not recommend use of physical punishment, use of chain collars, use of prong collars, and electronic correction devices when working with aggressive dogs, because pain and punishment cause an escalation of defensive-aggression. Pain and punishment do not serve to lessen dogs' tensions but to increase them. A dog cannot learn simple obedience commands if its brain is responding to pain, nor if the dog fears more pain and punishment. But such a dog can react; it can react in a more  dangerous way. Some dogs have been so abused that they have lost all trust in humans.

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