Pretenders Who Claim to Treat Aggressive Dogs, Buyer Beware

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©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

The following is an email I recently received:

“Scott,

We have a Border Collie mix named Brutus that was starting to show signs of aggression around people. We hired a highly recommended dog training company who taught us to show dominance to Brutus by using a prong collar and correcting him [note: “correcting” in this instance means forcefully snapping or yanking the collar and causing pain to the dog’s neck] when he even thinks about showing aggression.

Initially when we started using her methods things got a lot better. We were very impressed. But after about 2 weeks of this, Brutus is actually much worse now and barks and lunges when he just sees people - even a block away. We are getting very worried. I think he even wants to bite my dad and others in my family now.

We called the training company about this and they said we need to jerk the leash harder when we are correcting. We don’t feel good about doing that anymore because things keep getting worse for Brutus and us instead of better.

Can you help us? I’m afraid that we are going to have to put Brutus to sleep if we can’t do something about this and that thought breaks all of our hearts more than you can know.

Sue Smith [not her real name]”

I get this kind of message in one form or another far too often. As you can imagine, it is upsetting to me for a number of reasons. This scenario is causing unneeded pain for both the dog and the family. The kinds of “training” techniques being used are making the dog’s behavioral issues worse rather than better.

"When someone says, 'The dog bit out of nowhere' this is what causes it."

No one is intentionally trying to make things worse for this dog or this family, but a series of mistakes and misinformation created the perfect storm.

Brutus’ issues are really behavior issues, not training issues. From the owner’s message, it appears that this dog training company is most likely in over its head with Brutus’ aggression issues. Sadly, many dog owners unknowingly select companies and individuals to help with their dog’s behavior issues who are unqualified and have no certifications whatsoever from an independent certifying organization.  

There are no legal requirements to be a dog trainer or dog behavior consultant in the U.S. other than printing business cards. Buyer beware. For more information on what to look for in a dog trainer or dog behavior consultant, see the following article written by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers: Dog Training and Behavior Certifications and Certificates: What's the Difference?

"Using punishing techniques to address a dog in this condition would be ill-advised to anyone who’s read even one scientifically sound book on dog aggression."

Aggressive behavior in dogs is always a symptom of a bigger problem – not the root cause. Simply punishing the presenting behaviors (e.g., barking, growling, lunging) only teaches the dog to mask (i.e., hide) those behaviors. The underlying problem only festers and gets worse; the warning system the dog is providing by growling or barking is removed. When someone says, “The dog bit out of nowhere” this is what causes it. And by pairing a painful punishment with the dog’s aggressive behaviors, the dog becomes even worse in the presence of the trigger. Dr. Ian Dunbar (world renowned veterinarian, animal behaviorist, and dog trainer) calls these dogs “ticking time bombs” and I couldn’t agree more.

It makes me quite melancholy when I encounter dogs like Brutus after they have been manhandled by people who identify themselves as legitimate dog trainers or behaviorists. These dogs have learned to become increasingly fearful of their world and frequently their owner. Their body language screams, “I’m afraid”. Using punishing techniques to address a dog in this condition would be ill-advised to anyone who’s read even one scientifically sound book on dog aggression.

Much of my business is built on reviewing and addressing the mess some of these techniques cause. Unfortunately for all involved, the damage done by these contraindicated techniques can be so pervasive in some cases that undoing it becomes an extremely challenging and long-term project for all involved.

If you have a dog that is presenting with any form of aggression, please engage an independently certified and qualified dog behavior consultant, behavior specialist or behaviorist to guide you through the process of improving you and your dog’s life.