I was recently asked by a new friend to help his friends that have an aggressive dog. This person, who has military and current handling experience, was perplexed by how incredibly aggressive this dog is when he tried to help. The dog is about 2 years old and is being fostered (and hopefully eventually adopted by a forever owner) by a family that already have 4 other dogs and with one exception are all small breeds. This guy, Hamilton, was purported to be super human aggressive and the caller had already tried to help with this guy by being introduced and hopefully taking him on a walk. Apparently, this turned out disastrous as he was attacked and bitten several times and his description to me was, “I tried to take him on a walk but he was hanging off of my pant leg the whole time.”
Now, while that might sound a bit humorous (this guy is bigger than me) but it conjures a different picture if you start thinking about how to break that dangerous cycle of behavior. Adding to the misconception of some people is that fact that Hamilton is a Papillion, weighing in at about 9 pounds! So from that description (and kind of a challenge in a “we’ll see what happens when YOU try doing this” kind of way) I agreed to meet with the family and their friend who wanted to see the whole thing and how it might be done.
(A word of caution: when working with an aggressive dog, every dog is different and every situation has to be assessed without the story that comes with the dog becoming the reality because that is where mistakes are made. With aggressive dogs a mistake means you or someone else getting bitten. All techniques or training plans differ, also, dependent upon what the dog is showing at the time. One size does not fit all.)
My suggestion was to have the dog either outside or confined somewhere in the house at first because the family did not know how to control the aggression and would just let it happen when new people came to the house. That way, we could talk about how and why things happen and the introduction beyond that would be more controlled and less stressful for everyone involved. When I arrived the dog was outside and barking at the fence while the foster mom and I spoke briefly outside. She asked if I would like to come in and meet the rest of the family and we went into the house.
The problem was that none of the dogs were confined, including Hamilton, and all rushed the door when I came in. To be fair, all the others, while loud, were relatively respectful… except Hamilton. Hamilton rushed through everyone else at breakneck speed in an extremely aggressive manner (bared teeth and maintaining EYE CONTACT with me), latched onto my leg and began humping it furiously while keeping that eye contact and snapping his jaws. Had it not been so disrespectful in a pack world it would have been hilarious. But that type of behavior is absolute red zone aggressive and over the top dominant and in the real world would have resulted in his immediate death.
One hard corrective touch later and now he was in full blown aggression because this challenge was met with rules and this little guy hasn’t had any, because of his back story and his lack of socialization. His target, while he still went after my shoes and legs, was still my face even from so far down. So the ritual of staying calm and claiming his space little by little began, and this included having to block his rushes with my foot and leg. At one point I offered my shoe for him to go after, and when he did he got to find out that he could not get the outcome he was looking for – the shoe didn’t back away, in fact the shoe kept advancing. This actually went on for several minutes where I had to back him all the way down the hall and into the living room. I then asked the foster mom to put my leash on him because between the 4 other dogs and 5 extra people (and the fact I wanted to start the whole introduction with him on a leash to begin with), it was not going to progress without me changing his environment right away. She put on the leash and when she passed it to me Hamilton didn’t like having a slip lead on (Why? Because a slip lead controls the focus of the dog and you can more directly influence state of mind instead of the harness he usually wears… even by their admission, he will do this when walking and when he comes across people he will act the same way until he’s picked up by the harness and placed in another location).
My handler friend had already expressed concern with “damaging the throats of small dogs” by using a slip lead. I assured him that when placed correctly and using the self-control the pack leader is supposed to use in correcting, the risk is significantly reduced, especially since you should not be swinging the dog like a lasso, anyway.
Hamilton stopped his temper tantrum (because he was now REALLY tired) in about 15 seconds of realizing, “Oh, maybe this isn’t working,” and then I explained what was next. Completely out of the regular order of things the door exercise and the walk was going to be first. I heard my friend say, “Well, here we go,” because HIS attacks kept going at this point (by the way, different intro, different leash system, didn’t wait for submission and calm before the next step). But at this point, I knew the outcome because pack leaders live in the moment.
I walked to the front door, reminded Hamilton to wait, opened the door, stood for a second or 2, then walked out the door and into the yard, Hamilton walking just behind with a loose leash. I heard from behind me, “He was hanging off my pants at this point before,” which I reminded him that this whole introduction and leadership is different. The ritual had changed and the dog changed with it. The walk continued with my friend walking behind.
Two things at that point needed to change immediately. One, is that Hamilton was showing on the walk that he is a back of the pack guy, way too nervous and anxious for that previous behavior to be natural (aggression is a result of tension and his tension was a back of the pack guy thrusting – literally! – himself to the front of the pack and setting rules which even he couldn’t follow). Meaning, he has to be following. Second, my friend’s reality was that he was attacked viciously by Hamilton and that it was going to happen again. So we had to walk as a pack. To have a nice transition, Hamilton was on my left and my friend was on the right and he even remarked that it looked like Hamilton was enjoying this. I agreed and switched Hamilton to my right side, placing him in between both of us and while he was a little unsure, the dog left that behind after 20 feet. The rest of the walk was uneventful, including coming across other people and dogs and having him walk Hamilton most of the way back to the house.
Arriving back at the house, I knew the real work was about to begin with the family but I enlisted the aid of two pack leaders in training, the son and daughter. Doing the doorbell exercise, teaching the correct timing of the corrections and doing it all in a more calm and assertive way, these 2 blew most adults I work with out of the water with how attentive, proficient and committed they were to the whole process. The walk was no different with both of them preforming outstanding (assertive, loose leash, calm) with their respective dogs all the while doing it in front of a neighbor’s house with a dog laying in the front yard.
To end the session, I suggested they each walk 2 dogs at a time, something they never considered doing by their reaction because neither dog had been good on the walk before. I showed them that it could be done and then handed over the leashes to the son, who wanted to go first anyway. And it was a beautiful sight to see when both of them took leashes in hand and became true pack leaders immediately.
Does this “fix” Hamilton? Not by a long shot. He needs to be rehabilitated and socialized and his behavior is not uncommon for this breed when not socialized. But now they have the tools to move forward, along with the rest of the pack. Whether they keep Hamilton or not, they have the tools to help him get corrected and social but now the work really starts and it can get hard. Staying consistent and calm/assertive changes a dog’s behavior and state of mind and should become the new reality for the humans in their lives. The rest of the challenges that lie ahead should be fun for everyone.
Until the next time, stay calm/assertive and have fun challenging yourself and your dog!