Options for Severely Aggressive Dogs

August 6, 2014

Mechanics have weeks where they see a slew of brake jobs, or more carburetor issues than usual. There’s no rhyme or reason—it’s an odd universal phenomenon. Dog trainers too have weeks where they seem to hear about an awful lot of the same type of issues. This week, for me, it’s been life threatening, severe aggression issues.

When I say life threatening, I don’t mean the dog is mauling people; I mean solutions are being discussed that include ending the dog’s life. These can be the toughest types of issues trainers deal with both behaviorally and emotionally, but that emotional pain is multiplied exponentially for the owners.

No one gets a dog expecting it to behave aggressively. By the time a bite or multiple bites happen, the family is normally very attached to the dog. I have worked with a multitude of aggressive dogs over the years. Some had mild issues such as fear-based reactivity toward other dogs, or snapping at people. Some issues were more moderate, and the dog had already bitten someone. And there have been those who had multiply puncture-wounded multiple people.

For severe cases, before anything else, I recommend a veterinary exam that includes a full blood workup (including full thyroid panel conforming to Jean Dodd’s specifications) and thorough physical exam to rule out any type of physiological cause for the aggression. Assuming the dog is physically sound, for those dogs at the extreme end of the aggression spectrum, options are limited:

Training: Owners must be wholeheartedly committed to a behavior modification protocol. They must use careful management in the meantime so that no one is hurt. Even with owners who are completely committed, though, if there are children in the home, training might not be a viable option, as the children’s safety must come first.

Management: I have known people who have had severely aggressive dogs, who managed the dogs so carefully that no one was ever hurt. Those people did not have children. What they did have was a strong love of the dog, a boatload of patience, and a willingness to live in a way that causes chronic stress. The quality of life for the dog must also be considered in these situations.

Rescue: I list this as an option mostly because so many people think a rescue might be the answer. Having been involved in rescue for many years, I can tell you that no group wants to take in an aggressive dog. Think about it: how will they adopt the dog out? There would have to be months of behavioral rehabilitation, assuming the rescue even had a trainer on hand. Even then, should the dog be adopted out and bite someone, the organization could be liable. Besides, during those months of training, a number of other sweet, deserving dogs could have been occupying that space. Believe me, we all wish that magical ranch where dogs run free existed—but it doesn’t.

Euthanasia: This is the option no one wants to think about. Unfortunately, in some cases it does end up being the right alternative. That said, I have never in twenty years of behavior made the call as to whether someone should euthanize their dog after only having read an email or having a phone conversation, despite the fact that I have been asked to do so numerous times. No owner should ask for help with that type of decision without a thoroughly qualified behavior specialist seeing the dog in person.

One more thing: I have heard people discuss extracting a dog’s canine teeth as a solution for severe aggression. Seriously! Sure, the dog wouldn’t be able to cause as much damage, but this is not a solution. The dog would still experience the emotions that went along with the aggression, thereby not solving the underlying problem; another dog could attack and the dog would not be able to defend himself; and the chronic stress the dog was under would likely eventually cause the dog physical illness as well as emotional.

Of course, in the best of all worlds, a trainer would be consulted before the aggression issue gets to the severe stage For trainers, check out http://www.apdt.com. Interview trainers carefully to get a feel for their methods and experience. If you work with a trainer who does not seem to be a good fit, find another. A veterinary behaviorist is another good option. (Please note that many veterinarians do not have extensive training in behavior—an actual behaviorist is recommended.) My heart goes out to anyone who is dealing with this issue. Be sure to discuss options with a qualified professional who can help you to make the right decision.

You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com, and find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Your Dogs are Fighting: Step In or Step Off?

July 28, 2014

Bodhi growls at Sierra crop small copyYesterday afternoon, I gave Sierra and Bodhi a snack of stuffed, frozen Kongs. Bodhi, of course, finished his first—the boy inhales anything in front of him. Sierra likes to take her time, alternating between excavating treats and giving Bodhi her patented Look of Death any time he so much as looks in her direction. Bodhi, rather than taking the hint and leaving her alone, will walk past at a distance, sniffing for crumbs on the ground. If he gets too close, Sierra will launch at him with a “GRRRR!” that startles even me in the next room. I have no doubt it startles Bodhi as well, particularly when accompanied by Sierra’s fast, repetitive clacking of jaws. At that point, Bodhi normally backs off.

Yesterday, though, he didn’t. In a demonstration of misplaced machismo, he grabbed the Kong away from Sierra. From the next room, I suddenly heard the unmistakable sounds of fighting. I ran in to see Sierra driving Bodhi backward with what appeared to be mouthfuls of his fur between her teeth. Bodhi was carefully stepping backward while still facing her, attempting to defend himself while getting the hell out of Dodge. One sharp, “Hey!” from me and it was over. The two voluntarily separated, as I knew they would. My reaction had been instantaneous; when we’d first adopted Bodhi, he and Sierra had fought for 10 days. I’d quickly become adept at jumping in and separating them. But in this case, I wondered afterward, should I have interfered? After all, possession is 99% of the law in the animal kingdom, and Bodhi shouldn’t have tried stealing from the Queen. I should have let her tell him off.

Dog fights—even harmless skirmishes—sound very frightening. Male dogs in particular can sound like there’s a barroom brawl going on. It’s understandable that when we hear those sounds, for many of us, our first reaction is to jump in and break it up. And there are times when that is absolutely the right thing to do. But sometimes, interference, well…interferes. The dogs never straighten out the situation at hand, and so it arises again. Had I allowed Sierra to properly “instruct” Bodhi as to the house rules, chances are he would have been less likely to attempt the Great Kong Caper the next time.

This begs the obvious question, How do we know whether to interfere or not? I only wish there were an easy answer. If either dog is being injured, breaking things up right away is obviously necessary. But if not, should you let it go on or step in? Well, it depends: it depends on your particular dogs, their past history together, their relationship, their level of communication with each other, and the particular scenario. If skirmishes happen often, a trainer can assist with understanding body language and signaling, and sorting out what’s really going on between the dogs. In the meantime, consider whether stepping in—or stepping off—is the better choice.


You can check out my books, seminar DVDs, seminar schedule and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com and find me on Facebook and Twitter.

Who Comes First: You or Your Dog?

June 25, 2014

iStock Lab with woman.The woman on the phone sounded anxious. She needed a trainer to come to her house today. When asked about the urgency, she replied that she was bringing a four-month-old puppy home, and needed help introducing her to her other dog. The resident dog was a 10-year-old small breed who was dog-aggressive. When I questioned politely whether that might not be the best situation for either dog, she replied that she also had a two-foot-long lizard, and although the small dog had been aggressive toward the lizard at first, she’d taught him to turn away and not make eye contact. That had put a stop to the aggression, she said, and she planned to do the same when it came to the new puppy.

She went on to complain that two different rescue groups had brought dogs over for potential adoption, but when they’d let the dogs down on the ground together, the 10-year-old had gone after the other dog, and the rescue groups had refused the adoption. Oh, and by the way, the puppy she intended to bring home was a shy, fearful dog. I took a deep breath. Then I patiently explained why it was a terrible idea. First, bringing a dog who is already shy and afraid into a home with a dog who is dog-aggressive could only make things worse for the poor pup. Second, the resident dog has already demonstrated more than once that he does not like other dogs, and certainly does not appreciate them in his home. If you were a senior who didn’t particularly like the company of other people, how would you like it if a rambunctious child moved in? Even if the dog could be taught to ignore the puppy, think about the stress it would cause him. I listed the physical issues that chronic stress can cause in dogs (including suppression of the immune system, which opens the door for all sorts of disease); and this was not a young dog. There’s that plus the emotional and mental stress to consider, for both dogs and everyone living in the house. The woman listened, and by the end of the conversation, she said she could see my points, and would consider what I’d said.

I don’t know whether she ultimately decided to adopt the puppy. But the whole situation begs the question: when do we stand back and consider what’s best for our dogs, as opposed to our own wants and desires? I know people who do agility with their dogs, and the dogs absolutely love it. I know others who wanted to participate in agility so they got a specific breed—only the particular dog doesn’t seem to like it anywhere near as much as the person does. In fact, the dog seems not to enjoy it at all, and yet the pair continues to compete. I know people who bring their dogs to the dog park because they enjoy socializing with other owners. The dog, in the meantime, does her level best to stay away from other dogs, and becomes defensive if any come near. She clearly does not enjoy herself and seems perpetually stressed. And yet the park visits continue.

We all have an idea of what we’d like life to be like with our dogs. Depending on our own lifestyle, we might need a dog to be social around kids, be athletic, be dog-friendly, or any of a host of traits. But sometimes the dog we get is not the dog we want (hello, have you read Hit by a Flying Wolf?). And that’s okay. We can certainly do our best to train, socialize, countercondition, and habituate our dogs to the things we’d like them to be okay with. But in the end, sometimes it’s we who have to adjust our expectations and perhaps even our lifestyle. Because in the end, it’s not all about us—it’s about our dogs.

You can find my books, seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com.

A Near Death Experience

June 10, 2014

 When I take Sierra and Bodhi to the park, I allow them to run off-leash in the nether-regions of dirt trails and brush where we seldom encounter other people. The pair romp around the hillsides, just about levitating with joy, chasing bunnies and sniffing intently at bushes. They come when called, receive slices of hot dogs as rewards, and are then released to go explore some more. We all love it. When we traverse the more populated areas of the park, though, the two are on leash.

This morning, as we walked along the cement path that connects the front and back parts of the park, I visually scanned the area as I chatted with a park acquaintance. I spied a young man who we sometimes see on his skateboard, which is pulled by a huge, muscular pit bull who weighs at least 80 pounds. When these guys go flying by, it often sets other dogs off—but hey, the guy’s got a right to be there like everyone else. At the moment, he was speeding down the cement path we were on, moving in our direction. I got the dogs over to the side and had them sit. I wouldn’t say they were calm, but they were behaving, keeping it together in the face of something pretty exciting. As the pair approached, though, Bodhi completely lost it. He gave a sudden, mighty lunge and actually pulled the leash out of my hand. He bolted toward the man and his dog, who were just passing us. I called for Bodhi to come; the request started out in a calm training voice and quickly ended up escalating into a scream as Bodhi approached the pair.

The guy stopped, dismounted, and in a fast, fluid movement, grabbed his dog and placed his body in front of him. Although Bodhi isn’t aggressive, the pit bull, judging from his behavior, definitely was. The guy apparently knew this, as he said in a carefully controlled, edge-of-panic voice, “Please grab your dog.” He repeated it non-stop like a mantra. Of course, that’s exactly what I needed to do, and believe me, I was trying. If you’ve ever broken up a dog fight, you know how hard it is to grab one of the dogs. Bodhi was darting in and out, circling, stupidly excited, clueless of the danger he was in . I’ve never claimed that Bodhi is the brightest bulb in the string. Fortunately, I still have pretty good reflexes. That, along with a strong desire for Bodhi not to meet an untimely death, prompted me to throw myself bodily at Bodhi, concrete be damned. I grabbed hold of his collar, and came down hard on my wrist and rear. I was also holding Sierra, who, miraculously, was not reacting at all—I think the whole thing amused her. (The man I was walking with was of no use in this type of situation, which I knew in advance was the case, hence my not even handing Sierra off to him.) I apologized to Skateboard Guy, saying Bodhi had pulled the leash out of my hand. Shaken, he took off.

Normally I’d say this type of incident was prey drive related, but with Bodhi it probably was food related, since some of the morning dog walkers give treats to passing dogs, and Bodhi always takes advantage. (When we first got him, he was afraid of men and allowing him to take treats from these guys really helped.) The incident was frightening and upsetting, but luckily, that’s all it was. It could have ended up with Bodhi being badly injured or killed—and it wouldn’t have been the pit bull owner’s fault, either. He did exactly the right thing by shielding his dog with his body (or, more precisely, shielding Bodhi from his dog) and telling me to grab my dog. Had the pit bull attacked Bodhi, I really couldn’t say it was his fault, either. The dog was minding his own business, pulling his owner down the road when a dog lunged at him. He reacted. I’m also glad nothing happened for the pit bull’s sake, as the breed’s already got enough breed-specific prejudices to deal with. As for me, I normally have a solid hold on the leashes. If something had happened to either dog, I would have felt terrible, of course. But stuff happens, and I’m not one for beating myself up; besides, I’m pretty beat up already, with scrapes, a bruised wrist, and a serious ache that predicts a visit to the chiropractor. Still, that’s getting off easy. Clearly, if we see the dynamic duo again, we’ll make a point of going the other way. I can do without any more near death experiences, thank you very much.

You can find my books, including Hit by a Flying Wolf detailing my further adventures with Bodhi, Sierra, and wolves, along with seminar DVDs and seminar schedule at http://www.nicolewilde.com.

When a Two-Dog Home Turns Into Sophie’s Choice

May 28, 2014


Many of us whose family includes two dogs have set it up that way because we believe dogs enjoy canine companionship. When they’re left alone, they’re home together. And whether we’re there or not, each has a friend to wrestle and play with, to lay around with—a hang-out buddy. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, the dogs don’t get along. What begins as snarking over food or other resources (even the owner’s affection can be a resource) may eventually turn into serious fights where veterinary attention is required. Some situations even turn deadly.

In the movie Sophie’s Choice, Meryl Streep has an impossible decision to make. She must give up one of her children, knowing that it most likely means death for that child. While the owner of two fighting dogs’ situation is not quite that dire, it is an extremely difficult decision. First, a behavior specialist should be brought in to make an assessment. Very often an owner believes that one dog is attacking the other without provocation, when in reality, the dog being attacked started it with a hard stare, curl of the upper lip, or  other signal too subtle to notice unless one is looking for it. In some situations, it’s possible that the owner can be taught to notice signaling and body language, and the dogs can be taught solid obedience skills to the point that the situation is manageable. Sometimes a professional can modify the dogs’ behavior. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some homes turn into canine war zones. Some people will choose to “crate and rotate” or something similar, but it’s a personal decision, as it requires the utmost constant vigilance and care—and it is exhausting. Sometimes it’s more clear cut, where there is an unacceptable level of danger regardless, especially if there are young children involved.

Because giving up a dog is a highly emotional decision, many will put off even thinking about it until it’s too late and major damage—physical and possibly mental/emotional as well—has been done. I often tell owners in those situations two things: One, think of it from the point of view of the dog who is being attacked. How would you feel if you were living in a home with someone who you knew meant to cause you harm, and perhaps even kill you? You would be in a state of constant stress. A dog who experiences chronic stress is at risk for gastric ulcers, atrophy of the lymphatic glands, and a compromised immune system. The latter, of course, opens the door for all sorts of illness and disease. So, even if your other dog doesn’t cause major obvious physical injury, damage is still being done on a daily basis. The other thing I pose to owners is in the form of a question: How would you feel if you knew this situation was potentially very dangerous but did nothing, and then the worst happened? How would you live with yourself?

Often the owner wants to keep the “nice” dog. Who wouldn’t? But the last time I heard someone say, “I’m looking to adopt a dog who might injure my other dog” was…never. Rescues are constantly overflowing, and certainly don’t want to take in a dog who is potentially dog-aggressive. Now, in some cases where two dogs don’t get along (female littermates, anyone?), the dog might be perfectly fine in another home with a different dog. But in cases where the dog is seriously dog-aggressive, choices are very limited, and that dog’s best option is to stay in the home he has.

It’s hard to make the decision to rehome a dog who hasn’t done anything wrong, especially when there is a strong emotional attachment. Unfortunately, part of being a responsible owner is having to make the tough decisions that are for our dogs’ own good, even if it causes us pain. But in the end, the pain we feel now is nothing compared to the benefits of creating a safe, loving road for the rehomed dog’s life to take, and keeping everyone safe.


For my books, DVDs, and seminar schedule, visit http://www.nicolewilde.com.


Knowing When to Break the Rules

May 20, 2014

Bodhi middle hill croppedIn photography, there’s something called the Rule of Thirds. It has to do with composition. If you digitally overlay a tic-tac-toe grid on your photo, ideally, your subject should be positioned where lines intersect, or at least in the top, bottom, left, or right thirds. Placing a subject smack dab in the middle generally looks more like a snapshot than a work of art. The great thing, though, is that once you’re experienced with a rule, you can decide when to break it.

So what’s this got to do with dogs or training? Everything. Trainers learn early on about learning theory and how to teach basic obedience skills. As they progress, they get a feel for what to do when a dog doesn’t respond in typical fashion during a training exercise or when applying a behavior protocol. This is the when the hard science and skill begin to turn into an art form. A truly great trainer can fluidly move from one technique to another based on moment-by-moment observation of a dog’s body language and behavior, essentially customizing the interaction for that particular dog. A great trainer—or owner—also knows when to throw out the rules completely.

There are plenty of canine-related directives out there. Some of the older ones don’t have much logic in this day and age. For example, the one about the dog always walking on the person’s left harkens back to the military, where the soldier’s gun was carried on the right and the dog was on the left. As I’ve stated before, if you’re carrying a gun down the street, you’ve got bigger problems than which side your dog is walking on. Besides, I want to be able to ask my dog to walk on either side, depending on the environment and what suits me at the time.

A well-established rule is that once you give a dog an instructional cue, he absolutely must comply. Now, there’s a lot to be said for that, and in general, I agree. But the other morning on a walk with Bodhi, I wanted to take a photo of him against a backdrop of wildflowers. I pointed to a spot and asked him to sit, which, being the fabulous model that he is, he did. I then asked him to lie down. He just sat there looking at me. Trust me, the boy knows his down cue–but, as evidenced by his clear desire to remain sitting, he did not want to do it. Of course, I could have easily forced him. But instead, I looked around at the ground and saw that there were some of those horrible little stickers and bushy things that can attach themselves to dogs. Bodhi is quite aware of those things, as he’s gotten them stuck in his paw pads before. Clearly, he was apprehensive about lying down in them, and rightly so. In this case, it was good that I “broke the rule” and realized that I should have been more observant of the environment.

Certain rules persist, whether they make logical sense or not. Shouldn’t you always eat before your dog? That is the rule, after all. But in real life, isn’t it better to eat either before or after your dog, depending on what’s convenient for you? And believe me, if your relationship is well balanced, your dog is not going to infer from those times he doe eat first that he’s just been crowned Leader of the Pack. You have the opposable thumbs and make the decisions, after all, so you’re in charge. Hey, don’t get me wrong; rules are great, and they’re necessary. It’s best to establish them, but it’s also wise to take a step back and consider breaking them when the situation calls for it.
To check out my books, DVDs, and seminar schedule, visit http://www.nicolewilde. com. The next stop for seminars will be in England in June.

Come Together

May 12, 2014

living room lazing smallI recently taught a weekend seminar in the Dallas Fort Worth area. The hosts were great, the venue was nice, and it was a great experience all around. Before the presentations began, someone pulled me aside and asked whether I was aware that there was a contingency of trainers present who were known to use shock collars. During the first morning break, another person posed a similar question. My response to both of them could be best summed up by the not very eloquent, “I don’t know and I don’t care.”

First off, the fact that someone’s training methods are different than mine doesn’t bother me. This is the real world, and guess what, we’re all different in many ways. Does that mean that I advocate using those methods? Nope. It’s no secret that I would best be described as more of a “positive” trainer, whatever that means. (I mean, really, have you ever heard someone call themself a negative trainer?) I don’t use choke chains or shock collars. But as long as someone is not out there abusing dogs (helicoptering, hanging, etc.), they’re more than welcome at my seminars, whether they use those tools or not. (And, I give any host credit for reaching out to a community that might be a bit outside their own.)

Look, judgment is everywhere, and debates about things we’re passionate about are bound to get heated. But I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of us who train dogs are in it because we truly love dogs and want to help them. (It’s surely not a profession one goes into for the money!) I only wish we could treat each other with the same respect we afford dogs, and with the same professionalism with which we treat clients. Of course we’re not going to agree on everything. But snarky comments on Facebook or gossipy comments in person only reflect badly on the person making those comments. It’s easy to sit with a clique of friends and throw verbal stones; it’s harder to open one’s mind and let the negativity go, and possibly learn something.

Fortunately, the folks in the group that attended my seminar were respectful, asked good questions, and made valid, useful comments. I was happy to have them there, along with the rest of the awesome attendees. And I received a few private messages after I’d returned home from some in “that group” thanking me for the seminar. One person said it was appreciated that I didn’t get into the politics of dog training. (Actually tools didn’t even come up since the topics were separation anxiety and dog-dog play.) It was nice, positive feedback that confirmed that being negative and judgmental does nobody any good. Sure, we’re not likely to agree on training methods anytime soon. But couldn’t we start from the common ground that we’re here to help dogs, and be open to discussion, sharing knowledge, and treating each other respectfully? Come on, people, come together!


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