Working with Aggressive dogs-risk reward equation.

agressive shepherd pic


Forty years of dog training and fourteen years of doing it all day every day are rolled into this post.  Proceed with caution.

There’s a dirty secret amongst dog trainers. None of us will ever admit to one another that we’ve ever been bitten by a dog. It’s a mark of pride,particularly prevalent amongst younger dog trainers who deal with aggressive dogs.We’re going to talk a bit about what happens when trainers work with aggressive dogs a bit…it won’t be pretty.

When you first begin as a dog trainer your skills are limited. You have to work in a fairly narrow channel dealing with dogs on basic behaviors, and basic training techniques. As your skills get better, your timing improves, and your knowledge of dog behavior gets more robust, you start branching out and looking for different challenges. One of the best and toughest challenges out there are dogs that are aggressive, and that have bitten people or have injured people in the past.

I’ve been dealing with aggressive dogs for MANY years now. I’ve dealt with some pretty bad cases, and through most of that I was young dog trainer and thought that I was pretty much invincible. I’m no longer young, and certainly not invincible nowadays. Dealing with aggressive dogs is a heartbreaking endeavor for most trainers and behaviorists. I simply do not believe that you can cure aggression, true aggression. I believe that you can manage it to a certain degree, set up scenarios where it is as controlled as possible, and avoid situations where it most likely will occur, but never out and out cure it.

Over all of my years of doing this type of work the number of absolute success stories that I’ve had is extremely small. The saying that I tend to use with clients is “something always falls through the cracks” and then I get called the dog has injured someone and things go downhill rapidly from there. It’s a pessimistic view I know, but it’s one that has repeated itself over and over and over for the past 14 years.

I’ve always been confident with these dogs, never been afraid of them, but the past two years have changed things for me. Late last year was injured by very large dog. We were working with this dog in a vet’s office trying to teach it to have good manners as the vet entered the exam room. When the vet appeared the dog lunged at her attempted to attack her and as I was grabbing the dog it twisted its head around in managed to break one of my fingers in a number of locations.  It was a serious and possibly career ending injury. Not a good day at the office.

The upshot of this sessions was that the client was charged an extra $20 as an aggression charge and I ended up with slightly over $50,000 worth of medical bills for all of the surgeries, rehab, and all the other craziness that goes along with an injury that could eliminate the use of your hand. It’s taken a little over a year now I can move my fingers, they more or less work, they hurt all the time, and all the pain and suffering that I went through for that extra $20 for an aggressive dog has caused me to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of working with such animals.

Then, last November happened. I was called out by client to evaluate an older German Shepherd that they had gotten from a high quality breeder. The dog been returned to the breeder for unspecified reasons which immediately set alarm bells off in my head. I went through the session with these people asking questions; what had the dog done, how had it behaved in the household, and they noticed any strange behavior from the dog… It was a fairly standard interview initially.

The client’s point of concern was that the dog had pinned their grandmother against the wall when she let it out of the crate. A serious occurrence for sure and one that I was concerned about, but I saw no aggressive behavior in my interactions with the dog initially. As I was preparing to leave and giving instructions to the owners of what I would be looking for from the dog over the next week or so, the clients housekeeper leaned over the dog and the shepherd immediately jumped up and took a large bite out of the housekeeper’s arm and pinned the housekeeper against the wall, standing on its hind legs and barking aggressively directly in her face. It was so violent and so sudden even I was scared. We got the dog under control, immediately snapped on a leash, and brought it over to stand by me. It never entered my head that something bad would happen next. As I was telling owners to get the housekeeper to a doctor I gently reached down to pet the dog’s head and he grabbed my arm and began slinging me around the room like a ragdoll. The whole time it was happening I kept thinking “I wonder how much this is going to cost”? I went limp and let the dog think it killed me and it backed away. The instant I moved to straighten up, it came back and got me in the hip with another bite. Another very bad day at the office. Luckily the November incident didn’t cause any lasting damage. I had some bone deep puncture wounds, and got an infection from the bite, and suffered Dr. bills. I walked away from the incident thinking I’m not sure this is worth doing any longer. In the last year I have been effectively put out of work for three months because of dog bites.

I’m not sure what’s going on in the dog world, but the incidence of aggression seems to be going up dramatically as are their intensity. This is a problem for the owners and all the dog trainers out there. It’s regrettable to me that I won’t be able to work with these types of dogs any longer. I simply cannot stand the injury level to my body and the effect it has on my family when I am unable to perform my duties at home because of work injuries.

These dogs need help, these owners need help, but I don’t see a clear safety net for the trainers that deal with these dogs. How can the average dog trainer be incapacitated for three months of the year and still earn a living doing what they do? Owners of these dogs need to realize the risks they bear when having them in their house. It’s a tough view, and goes against the grain of current belief that “all dogs can and must be saved”.

What brings my decision into ultimate clarity for me is that this dog in November was in a family home with a four-year-old daughter. What on earth would have happened if that four-year-old girl had come over and given that dog a Pat as it was standing by me. What would’ve happened to her? My stomach churns just just at the barest thought of it.

We will be referring aggressive dogs that have actually injured people out to other trainers that specialize in that work going forward. The risk reward equation is not in our favor.

Steve Haynes