Tell the truth about your dog’s aggression problems when registering for a dog training course

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Author: Dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele (The Hague)
Written on: September 2018 – re-editted in May 2023.
Privacy: Identifying details may have been changed to prevent the owners from being recognized.
Illustration credits: See end of the post

Something was bothering me about that dog’s form

I was reading a client’s form the other day. This was a client registering for our obedience course. Something wasn’t quite right. She answered all aggression questions negatively but, reading between the lines, her dog’s priorities definitely went beyond a solid sit/stay.

So I picked up the phone and called the client. Sure enough, the dog had a flurry of underlying behaviour issues (including growling at other dogs without provocation). Allowing that dog to participate in group classes would have made his time at the school a living hell; not only for him but also for the rest of the students who would constantly walk on eggshells, hoping not to provoke him.

Luckily, the client was open to our advice – many get defensive – and we were able to help through a combination of behaviour therapy and private lessons. They are not comfortable conversations, but I’ll choose for that dog’s mental health and for our students’ safety any day.

The 3 dog aggression screening questions

We screen for aggression on our form not once, not twice, but THREE times.

We ask:

  1. Whether there is an aggression issue (explicitly listing growling)
  2. About issues the owner finds problematic, and
  3. About the owner’s objectives.

You would think that one question is enough, right? Actually, we most often only find out about an aggression issue by question 3 – and sometimes only once the dog is already in class.

So why do people under-report aggression when registering for a dog training course? Because:

  • Aggression means different things to different people. Is growling aggression? What about a hard stare? Do you need a bite to label it as aggression? A depressingly high number of people think it’s not aggression until we’re talking stitches.
  • Not everyone finds it a problem. Many believe it’s normal that their dog growls and lunges at other dogs unprovoked. Their priority with this issue tends to be ‘pulling on the leash’.
  • People worry about incriminating their dog in writing: Should their dog be involved in a serious incident, people worry this could be used against them, to indicate there was fore-knowledge of the aggression and not all necessary prevention measures were taken.
  • People worry the dog training school will not take their dog on if they admit to an aggression problem

But the biggest reason BY FAR is… profound denial.

Let me share a few choice cases from over the years.

The pup who cowered and growled when anyone approached

As soon as the pup walked into the puppy class, we knew there was a problem. He was crawling sooner than walking. If anyone approached closer than four-five meters, he’d stare, stiffen and growl. Same response if anyone looked at him for longer than a second.

I tried to tactfully broach the topic with their owners discreetly but was getting nowhere. They didn’t seem to grasp the seriousness of what I was saying.

I got in touch with them several times after that again, only to be met with the same answer: ‘He’s only young’ and ‘All puppies are like that at first.’ A professional taking time out of her day to assure them of the contrary did not seem to make a dent in that idea.

I advised they contact a veterinary behaviourist (this went beyond what even a good behaviourist could do), but it fell on deaf ears. Week after week, they would report great successes and declare the problem over, despite no evidence of improvement whatsoever.

If a puppy looks like that during puppy class, talk to the owners

What we had to do to accommodate: So our staff took every possible measure to protect him from his (many) triggers, making sure no one would approach him & giving him a special corner with a screen to hide behind. The staff was also instructed to privilege ‘behavioural first aid’ exercises over the regular puppy schedule.

Extra tests revealed that… I even arranged for a temperament test at the Vet Faculty at the University. Their findings matched ours and the University were very concerned about the behavioural health of that pup, but, here again, the owners felt the test had gone well and there was no issue.

What’s happened to that pup? We don’t know. The owners’ attendance at puppy class was spotty at best, and we have never heard from them ever again. My (sad) bet is that the aggression issues reached a head around 5-6 months of age. One might hope that the owners contacted a veterinary behaviourist, but I do not think so.

The ones who thought: it’s not aggression, it’s fear

This client had registered their dog for an obedience course. The only issue they’d mentioned on the form was: the dog was ‘a bit reserved’. We screened this client and asked very specific questions but the client took the decision to trivialise the situation in their answers.

We had a feeling about this one, so we first recommended a trial lesson. Boy was that the right call. That dog was indeed very nervous and fearful – of other dogs and unfamiliar people. As soon as someone would move, bend over, speak, carry an object, you name it, the dog would lunge and growl.

This dog was not able to relax, no matter the distance to other dogs and other students.

The owner’s explanation? “That? Oh no, that’s not aggression, that’s fear”

It’s not aggression, it’s fear

They didn’t seem to know that 99% of aggression problems are rooted in fear. Framing your dog’s aggression problem as ‘fear therefore not aggression’ is not helping anyone, most definitely not your dog. When assessing whether a dog is showing normal behaviour and presents a potential bite risk, push the underlying reasons aside. The only thing that matters is: “Could my dog be triggered in an everyday situation?”

The shepherd cross with a serious bite history

The form: According to the form, the dog would have deserved the Nobel Prize for Peace. There wasn’t a hint of aggression reported.

Reality: This dog had many serious bites (to humans) to their name.

On the field: We were struck by how shutdown this dog appeared on the field. The untrained eye would have labelled that dog ‘very calm’ and ‘obedient’. Our suspicions were confirmed during question time at a theory evening, when all the owner’s questions revolved around aggression. She shared with the class a huge list of aggression incidents (many including stitches), not seeming to realise how incongruous this was with her form answers – and with her presence in a group course with an unmuzzled dog.

This owner was hoping against all hope that this group dog training course would solve all of her problems. It didn’t seem to occur to her that, in not sharing a known bite history, she put our staff and other course participants in danger.

What happened to that dog? That dog got put into behaviour therapy with me, and no longer group classes. I did a thorough evaluation of the number of behaviour problems, the number of triggers, the severity of the incidents and the prognosis and gave support and management advice (e.g. safety lead, safety harness, muzzle, avoid triggers, avoid stress, privilege stress-busting playful activities) and referred the dog to a veterinary behaviourist. After months of serious management, medication and a behavioural plan, the dog continued to show very concerning behaviour. This dog ended up being put down as the risks had become unmanageable.

The dog who wanted his fellow student-dog… dead

This dog arrived as a 6 month-old at the school.

The form: The form was, again, all blue skies and sunny days.

On the field: What we immediately spotted on the field is that he would single out another dog and cold-stare at him during the entire lesson, every muscle coiled up and ready for action.

We explained to the owners that this behaviour (hyperfocus) was a huge red flag for unprovoked, uninhibited aggression and agreed they would adopt safety precautions (which the owners seem to find terminally silly).

The staff was instructed to check several times per lesson that the handler was holding the dog in the safety position (a specific leash hold), and requesting that the owner’s teenage child not be in charge of the leash.

A cold stare can be a sign of the most severe form of aggression

These measures left the owners feeling singled out and discriminated against, not to mention the drain on the instructor’s attention but the course was able to go on without further incidents. We allowed the owners to complete the group course, but their follow-up was through private training.

It later transpired that that dog had actually already severely attacked anoother dog in the neighbourhood (inflicting serious injuries, being triggered at a distance and without any provocation).

These owners had obtained the dog from a malafide breeder who:

  • Sold them another breed than the one they’d gone to pick up. The breed they got sold happened to be on the Dutch dangerous dog list at the time, but the breeder did not think it relevant to inform the owners. A breed that is associated with an increased tendency for sudden-onset unprovoked aggression to strangers and dogs.
  • Sold them a dog bang in the middle of his stranger-danger stage (5 month), whilst the owners had come to pick up an 8-week-old pup. This was better because “Then you don’t have to toilet-train them”
My thoughts on the breeder

The family themselves saw their dog as a teddy bear (which he was, just to them). They also thought that dog-dog aggression was normal for all dogs and that he might grow out of it. They didn’t know that behaviourally sound dogs engage in just symbolic aggression, and this only when provoked and definitely without inflicting injury.

What happened to that dog?

I held a behaviour evaluation consult with them, focusing on risk assessment. I did my best to help open their eyes to the risks (he had already started to aggress towards visitors), the guarded prognosis on the dog-dog aggression, and the safety measures required.

They were concerned about the information, but it did not rouse them into further action, as far as I know. They disappeared off the radar. My prognosis is this: I would be surprised if the dog hasn’t been involved in more bite incidents yet, including to people.

The protective shepherd

Imagine the form:

  • Aggression? ‘No’
  • Behaviour problem? ‘No’
  • Objectives? ‘He can be a little protective when strangers approach us and we’d like to address that’ (in an obedience course…).
“Don’t mind him. He’s just being a little protective”

What happened? I asked for more details. It turns out he had always showed stranger-directed aggression, and that it was getting (significantly) worse. Thankfully, the dog didn’t have a bite history to his name (yet), but he was becoming more and more easily triggered.

I treated the dog in behaviour therapy and he is now doing much better. This success story is in great parts because the owners gained insight about the problem and were extremely compliant with our therapy and management advice.

What does a dog trainer mean with ‘aggression’?

Every dog can snap and bite. We all have our limits. A dog who was highly provoked and ended up biting would not worry us so much.

What we look at, when considering whether your dog is a good candidate for a group course, is:

  • Can he be triggered by something on the field? e.g. overstimulation + strangers + other dogs + being on the lead + sometimes it’s dark + people will walk past their owner + there are high-value resources involved (e.g. Kong)
  • Will the dog benefit from the group lessons? Sure, we sharpen up your handling and training skills during group training, but it’s not group behaviour therapy. We don’t work on aggression, fear, nervousness, hyperactivity, etc. in a group setting. That requires one-on-one work. Why would a solid Sit be your priority if your dog lunges at everything that moves?
  • Will the dog be able to relax and have a good time during the group lessons? We don’t really care if your dog conducts the exercises perfectly. We want them to be comfortable. If they are constantly on the look-out for other dogs/people and feel they must growl to protect their personal space, chance is they are having a horrible time during group lessons.

Safety is an important factor in group class, and having to constantly be on the look-out for potential triggers for a reactive dog will take its toll on the instructor’s attention, not to mention on the atmosphere during class. It will also shift the focus from the course’s programme to behavioural first aid.

Obedience is bugger all to do with aggression

If your dog stiffens, stares, snarls, growls, barks aggressively or bites at people or dogs in everyday, low-provocation situations, then falling to disclose this problem when registering for a group course is akin to failing to reveal your child has profound behavioural issues before signing them up to a new school, hoping the school will ‘fix’ it.

There is an important distinction between raising a dog (‘opvoeden’ in Dutch) – e.g. teaching a solid sit and teaching the dog how to greet visitors politely – and rehabilitating a dog/treating their behaviour problems – i.e. helping the dog experience a situation less with less intense fear &/or anger.

A dog training school helps you raise your dog, not rehabilitate them. In general, issues requiring a bit of analysis and a tailored approach are tackled by a behaviourist or a very good private trainer, not in in a group setting.

So why won’t the dog training school help me with my dog’s behaviour problem in class?

It’s about:

  • Sensitisation: Putting dogs who are already showing aggression in the problem situation often makes them more sensitive, not less.
  • Safety: You could be putting our staff and your fellow students at the risk of a bite incident just in the name of “Maybe it will be OK”.
  • Liability: By putting your dog in a triggering situation, you could add a bite incident to his rap sheet, which all the consequences that go with it.
  • Effectiveness: The goal of a group course is pre-set (and not related to your dog’s behaviour problems). The instructor will, at most, devote a few minutes here and there to your specific problem, which is not likely to help much.

So a good dog training school will have a stringent screening process so that you get the right help.

Illustration credits

(in order of appearance)

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