Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

It never fails—someone always says it. In an recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: “Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand.” Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.

I’ve heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: “They’re red zone dogs” (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is meant to indicate dogs who are severely aggressive, and often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I’ve worked with many of what would be termed “red zone” dogs. Lest you think I don’t fully comprehend the extreme aggresion the term is meant to denote, one example from my own clientele is the 140-pound Alsatian who had put a hole through his owner’s hand. His owner, a 6-foot-tall police officer, had adopted the dog as an adult. The first week, the man went to grab a toy on the carpet at the same time as the dog did, which resulted in the hole in the palm through which daylight was clearly visible. The dog was also very aggressive toward strangers, and had severe barrier frustration aggression. I’m happy to report that with a course of kind, gentle training and behavior modification, and some beautiful follow-through on the part of the clients, all lived carefully but happily ever after. I could go on about sucessful outcomes with dogs who multiply puncture-wounded multiple people, and how gentle methods were successful…but you get the idea. And plenty of other trainers could share similar stories.

Whenever I hear the argument for certain dogs needing a heavier hand, I think about the wolves I’ve worked with over the years. Wolves are incredibly intelligent, and they learn very quickly. They do not, however, respond to things in the same way dogs do. An attempt to physically overpower them would not go well for the human—so how could anyone possibly work with them? Gently, and with respect. It’s done at Wolf Park all the time.

It’s true that some dogs are naturally softer than others as far as temperament, and they’re more tractable when it comes to training and behavior modification. There are also some very pushy, obnoxious dogs out there (have you met my dog Bodhi?), and yes, even aggressive and severely aggressive dogs. But when we put those dogs in a box and slap a label on it (Red Zone! Beware!), we do them a disservice. That label implies, at least to some, that desperate situations call for desperate measures. Nothing could be further from the truth. Attempting to establish dominance over the dog is the first thing many trainers attempt when working with these high-risk types. I suppose the theory is that the dog will then be biddable; after all, how can you work with a dog who might go after you? But this theory misses the point. It’s not about force to begin with—it’s about gaining the dog’s trust. Think about it: Why is the dog behaving aggressively? In the vast majority of cases, it’s because he or she does not feel comfortable, and is taking the offence to keep the big, scary thing at bay. Sure, there are also dogs who are flat-out territorial or otherwise aggressive without it being fear-based, but even then, gaining trust in a non-confrontational way goes so much further than simply establishing dominance. And let’s say the trainer can “dominate” the dog. Where does that leave the family members who have to live with the dog every day? I’ve seen way too many clients who were advised to use harsh, punitive methods on aggressive dogs, and it backfired. One of my clients had been advised by a previous trainer to put her American Bulldog on his back and sit on him whenever he became aggressive. The woman had been bitten in the face, and as a result, was seeking a better way.

I don’t care if a dog is 150 pounds or 10 pounds, and whether the issue is leash manners or biting visitors. There are no dogs who need a heavier hand—there are only trainers who need more knowledge and a lighter touch.


32 Responses to Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

  1. Marni Fowler says:

    This is beautiful!!! Thank you for writing this. My favorite line:

    “There are no dogs who need a heavier hand—there are only trainers who need more knowledge and a lighter touch.”

  2. Excellent post Nicole, I’m on a mastiff forum and I hear this argument a lot

  3. Reblogged this on glasgowdogtrainer and commented:
    Nicole says it all, excellent blog

  4. Eloquently put as ever Nicole. The other side of the coin is people who take liberties with little dogs because they aren’t afraid of getting hurt by them. I always say to my clients “if you wouldn’t do it to a 140 pound rottie / mastiff, don’t do it to your terrier / chihuahua”.

  5. Another great blog. I hear this being applied to Akitas all the time which is unfortunate because I feel the Northern breeds do very poorly with aversive and physically coercive training methods.

  6. Pat Engel says:

    Excellent post, as usual. Another argument against heavy-handed training is that is only ‘works’ for the person doing it- the dog can allow a given person to control them through force, but that control doesn’t generalize to other people.
    Nicole, I have a question. You state that ther are dogs who are “flat-out territorial or otherwise aggressive without it being fear-based…” Is this literally true? Or does most aggression (excepting those very rare idiopathic cases) begin as a fear response which progresses to aggression, which then becomes the go to response?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Pat,
      Thanks! I don’t know the actual statistics about fear-based aggression versus non-fear-based (or whether any even exist), but IMO yes, there are most definitely dogs who are aggressive without a component of fear involved. I do think it could originate in fear. Aggressive displays certainly work, and with age and experience the dog could become more and more confident. But I also wonder about dogs who don’t have much inhibition and, like a psychopathic, violent person, just seem to be wired that way. (Although perhaps those fall into the “idiopathic” category.)
      Take care,

  7. Erika says:

    Very, very well said. Thank you!

    • JerryI says:

      Just the opposite I think. These dogs need an even softer hand. I only use a heavier hand to decrease the reward enough that attention can be redirected to the behavior I prefer.

      I find this is normally only necessary when a dog has been unintentionally trained an unwanted behavior. Say like jumping is way out of hand to the point that extinction is beyond a persons ability ignore. Then it only needs to reduce it enough to cause focus to the wanted behavior. Once we get a few rewards in, the punishment can normally cease quickly. I have not found the punishment needs to be severe, only annoying.

      Still there are ways to not use the punishment at all, this just reduces the time it takes. So, we have to be very vigilant about how the subject is reacting to the punishment to ensure we are only annoying and not causing any emotional anxiety.

  8. Kari says:

    I love hearing about dogs like the Alsatian, who not only are helped by positive training methods, but whose owners didn’t give up on them!

  9. JerryI says:

    Did not intend to reply to Erika. Don’t know how that happened.

  10. Great post – that last sentence says it all. I sometimes want to shake people who make this argument. It’s the science of learning, plain and simple, and mammalian brains are all capable of learning through operant and respondent learning!

  11. Great article. I opine on this topic often on my blog as well Russell Hartstein CPDT

  12. Adogtrainerandrescuer says:

    All this shows is that their training abilities are very limited, to mainly crank and yank. So because they’re not able to achieve results with anything besides a puppy or small dog, the whole system is faulty, not them. Never them!

    I’m so tired of this. The lengths people to go to justify anything in dog training. These punishment based trainers are notorious for not having any kind of formal education and often, as a result, their knowledge base is very limited and many problems are just beyond their skill-set and they shouldn’t be working with dogs with any real problems. The right tool for the right dog. Please. The “right” tool for the dog that you don’t know how to deal with so you resort to harsh handling to universally suppress.

  13. Matthew says:

    Great post Nichole, and that last sentence…that’s quote worthy material right there 😉

    I am becoming more and more convinced we need to break out working with aggressive dogs regardless of why as it’s own skill set. We need to get the word out that just being a dog train in it’s self does not qualify one to work with these type dog. Just like you had to learn to train or teach agility or herding etc, you need to put in the time to learn about aggression, what causes it, how to address it etc.

    Just because you can train a world class obedience champ or title in agility etc does not automatically translate to working with aggression. Fear based or otherwise.

    I have taken to challenging people who claim “X breed is SOOOO “dominant” it needs a heavy hand, or shock collar etc, etc” to try their methods on wolves…since many like to claim their reasoning is based on wolf behavior. I promise to send flowers to them in the hospital and to not say “I told you so”. While I also make it clear I am not serious…it does tend to take a whole lot of wind out of their sails and cause some sputtering and back peddling.

    • Adogtrainerandrescuer says:

      I would love to find out how every individual of a certain breed is “dominant” and how dominant is a personality trait. (Insert eye roll here.)

  14. Sam Tatters says:

    One of my biggest bugbears with a local rescue is that they frequently have dogs in their care who “need a firm owner”. Most notable are the collies, who have likely been too wily for their previous owners, as they are the most likely to wilt from a “firm look”, let alone anything more than that.

  15. surely all training,weather with agressive dogs (any type of agression) working or pet it simply boils down to understanding by both parties, a respect of differences and clear guide lines, this takes time and there is no short cut. Quick fixes are never stable, weather you use heavy handed or modern methods the training and understanding must be complete.
    Respect is not a dog cowering before an over domineering handler, neither is it a dog demanding attention and getting what it wants .
    Wolves have it right within their packs.
    We are not training wolves, lets take time to find out about the breed and what trigers its behaviour, and why we are getting our training so wrong ?
    I am not a dog trainer and I am sure some of my thinking may not be correct or over simplistic, please tell me I am right –or wrong !

  16. It’s great to get the opportunity to read this. Respect!

  17. Janet Parker says:

    What a great post Nicole! Very well argued. I am surprised though….the American Bulldog owner got bit in the face, and not the a**?? She was trying to sit on him afterall…. :))

  18. Reblogged this on Time To Train Your Dog and commented:
    Some aggressive dogs got that way because of those with a heavier hand. Do everyone a favor and choose a dog trainer who uses positive reinforcement.

  19. Another awesome post. To put the human spin on things, I’ve had some “red zone” bosses and I’ll tell you that dominating me never got the results out of me as well as a kind boss’s efforts! I always try to view things from the dog’s view. Well done!

  20. Jessica says:

    I dislike labels for dog behavior in general. Some kind of vocabulary is necessary, but I don’t think “red zone” is the only label that works like you say. Dominant, aggressive, stupid, “red zone,” they all keep people from being able to see what the real issue is.

    I do think some dogs need more rules than others do, but that’s more about managing intelligence and craftiness than about “firmness.”

  21. Susan says:

    Perfect Post and so true! I went against my instincts with a mal cross that was having fear agression issues and placed him in board and train. They did everything they said they wouldn’t be doing! It has taken 3 years to regain a solid trusting relationship with him and he is a joy in our lives – even though it is not a traditional person/dog relationship. We have learned to live together. Why do humans feel we have to be master?

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Susan,
      That’s awful about the board and train trainers. It’s a tough situation because you never can see what really goes on (although of course there are some gentle, positive trainers doing B&T as well). I’m glad you were able to regain your boy’s trust. I think your last line sums up the problem nicely!
      Take care,

  22. Malamute Mom says:

    Dear Nicole,

    Again, a spot-on post that is particularly near and dear to my heart. I have 2 Alaskan Malamutes. In my opinion, the breed clubs need to get with the times and stop labeling certain breeds with descriptors such as “needs a firm pack leader” or “has an independent spirit” or is “strong-willed”. This leads people to believe that they’d better lord it over the dog the minute it enters their home.

    Many new owners/guardians look to breed organizations (whether Show organizations or specific breed rescue) for information on how to live with the breed they’ve chosen. Breed organizations very often can be a great help for a lot of things. For example, you’ll need more than a 4 foot fence to contain your Malamute or Husky and if you love a perfectly manicured, golf course-type lawn… you might want to consider another breed ;).

    In the last few years I’ve moved several times and I’ve encountered new Veterinarians in each area for my dog’s needs. I found myself struck by the number of comments by different Vets on my dogs. Comments are always along the lines of… “I can’t believe how sweet these dogs are” or “I’ve seen a lot of Malamutes and these dogs were such a pleasure in regards to handling vs. others” or “they aren’t aggressive!!” (thinking in my mind, “well, yeah, of course they are great with handling. I’ve trained and treated them with gentleness and respect”).

    I sincerely hope that these labels that put dog’s lives on the line will change and move toward what we know the science tells us.

    Malamute WOOOOS :),

    • wildewmn says:

      Hi Pat,
      As someone who is very partial to the northern breeds and whose dogs always seem to have a mix of malamute and/or husky in them, I feel your pain. It seems the term “stubborn” has also been around forever for malamutes. I’m thinking stubborn really means “You can’t figure out the right way to motivate me” and in some cases “Quit trying to dominate me and maybe I’d cooperate.” It’s sad that so many who are on the front lines of teaching others about a breed are so misinformed. On the other hand, I’m grateful for all of those rescue folks and professionals (trainers, vets) who ARE getting the word out there about using kinder, gentler methods with ALL breeds.
      Take care,

      • Natasha says:

        My first apartment was across the street from a fenced yard with a malamute and Airedale . I LOVED that malamute! Always a smile and so cheerful and friendly. The airedale always barked aggressively. And once, at night, he was out of the yard and came after me, one of the only times I have been terrified of a dog. I wanted a mal or husky so bad, but finally my first dog is an Eskie, plenty for me to handle! I SO appreciate your work and your book.

  23. Penny Miller says:

    I love this post Nicole. Whenever we rehabilitate an aggressive dog here at the ranch, I always ask the question ” does this come from pain or from fear?”
    The aggression will always stem from one or the other, and in my experience and understanding, there’s not one living creature on God’s earth, who, if he’s suffering from either, would learn or diffuse while having the living crap kicked out of him, being sat upon by some moron, or by some idiot with a prong collar or choke chain helicoptering him into ‘submission’.
    I’ve picked up the pieces many times from a local trainer who uses these techniques, and in every case, the dogs fear of pain has put everyone in its path at huge risk.
    None of us that work hands on with dogs is perfect, and none of us has all the answers but there’s no place for bullies in this business, because it just doesn’t work.

  24. Al Magaw says:

    the last 35 years of racing alaskan huskies has given me the opportunity to learn from my dogs, and to realize what is in the heart of every dog – I’ve had dogs brought to me that ranged from the 120# american bulldog who’e eyes would instantly go so blood shot that you couldn’t see his pupils when he saw another dog – the 2 year old 100# black lab, the worst of them all, that would hit the chain link fence with his chest as high as the person’s face that was looking at him, all the while letting out a roar and flashing white teeth – I had to use a 1/4 sheet of plywood as a shield to feed, water, or clean his pen at first, and the only dog I’ve ever put a muzzle on ( “Ebony” is now my dog and is one of the dogs I use as a therapy dog to help other troubled dogs ) – I’ve had sneaky dogs that want to grab you from behind, dogs with severe separation anxiety and dogs with bizarre obsessive behaviors – and I use basically the same process to rehab them all ( with a few twists for special cases ) #1) controlled exercise, #2) exposure to the problem, #3) setting boundaries and #4) affection for a job well done – I don’t use treats to bribe them, I don’t use prong collars or even choke collars – I don’t use “easy leads” or harnesses, I use martingale collars almost exclusively – I’m able to exercise dogs in the company of a pack of well balanced, happy, safe dogs, and what I do with the dogs has them wagging their tails and barking in excitement – they learn they can be safely with other dogs having fun – they learn confidence in themselves and how to be a dog – they learn to respond to their handler when they are asked to do something, and they learn that behaving in a socially acceptable way earns pets and words of praise – I know my methods are unconventional, but they work well

    • JerryI says:

      I would love to meet you and spend some time with you. Unconventional? I think maybe you get it. I’d like to know more. The more we know and the more experience we have the less we are tempted to use +Punishment.


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