Aggression issues with dogs and their families seem to be on the rise, or at least we are being asked about them more. The number of so-called “experts” out there is growing as well. Although each expert will swear by their own methods of solving aggression problems, their techniques may not be the best for each individual family or dog. Anyone dealing with a serious problem like a biting dog should carefully investigate the person or school they choose to help them deal with the problem. Most of the time, these students will ask their obedience instructor for help first.
As instructors, we are many times going to be most trusted authority on any and all doggy problems, from the most benign of house-training difficulties to the dog that has bitten and injured a child. Many obedience instructors do not feel comfortable working with aggressive dogs, and will refer them out to another trainer they have faith in, or to a veterinary behaviorist. Some instructors don’t have the necessary experience to work with these problems. This can be a wise decision for the instructor for many reasons. Their insurance premium may not cover working with known biting dogs, or they simply may not be willing to accept the liability of working with dogs that injure people. Some instructors, although competent to work with aggressive dogs, have a difficult time recommending euthanasia if that is the only answer.
One thing most experienced instructors can do is tell if the problem dog is simply an out-of-control adolescent who needs a leader and some boundaries, or a true danger. Often, the pet owner will view any “rowdy” behavior as aggression, and panic. We are in a good position to help this person with the appropriate training, whether it is a private session or two, or a group class.
If an instructor does handle aggression issues herself, she must be willing to look at the whole picture. Although we have all encountered dogs that would challenge anyone, aggression problems rarely spring forth on their own. Most are created or certainly made worse by the humans in the dog’s environment, and the instructor must be able to work with an entire family before a solution is reached. While most of us are not formally trained social workers, instructors who work with aggressive dogs may find themselves acting as one. Family dynamics are almost always going to be a big part of the problem and the solution.
Instructors who choose to work with aggression issues must also be good history-takers, and have an evaluation form and procedure that is proven to be able to uncover the reasons and path of the problem. Aggression in dogs doesn’t usually exist in a vacuum, and the good evaluator will be able to pinpoint the many other problems existing as well.
Compassion, not only for the dog, but for the family is a crucial characteristic of the instructor who works with aggression issues. It is very easy to blame the owner for this problem, but we must also be sure to give them credit for at least wanting to try to solve it. Many, if not most dogs are mishandled into the kind of stress that gives them the idea of using their teeth as a solution. By the same token, many owners make mistakes that they are able to recognize only in hindsight, and are able to come to some understanding of how they have contributed to the problem.
Instructors who work with aggressive dogs and their families should understand that most remedial work will take time, motivation, money and much patience on the part of the owners. Problems of long standing will not be cured overnight, and the sad truth is that many people-aggressive dogs will never be able to be made safe. Re-homing is usually not going to be an option in serious cases, and sadly, euthanasia sometimes will be.
Aggression is a fascinating area of work for many instructors. It is complex and confusing, and requires much experience and the ability to recover from heartbreak many times over. As dog lovers, it is perhaps the most difficult kind of work we can do.