An Aggressive German Shepherd’s Owner Learns to Lead

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 21, 2015

Kodi Shepherd

Kodi is a one and a half year old German Shepherd who’s owner was concerned about his increasingly aggressive behavior; getting over excited, barking and lunging at people, dogs and even cars.

Before letting Kodi out of his kennel, I sat down with his owner to discuss his past and what she wanted to get out of the session. I learned that while his owner had attempted to provide some structure with a few basic rules, there were a number of small things that they were doing that had been giving the dog the impression that he was in a leadership position.

His owner has been reading my posts and had attempted to a apply several of the techniques and structure I like to recommend, but due to some minor differences, she wasn’t getting he same effect I usually do. One example is how she petted him. I often recommend my clients adopt the No Free Lunch method. This involves not petting the dog when it uses its nose to nudge under our arm, paw at us or bark for attention. Instead I recommend that people make their dog do something; follow some command and then pet it for doing so.

Now there is an operative way of training a dog where you reward and repeat a command word within 15 seconds of a dog assuming a position like sit or lay down. Usually this is a great way of conditioning a dog to repeat an action, but in Kodi’s case, he would come and sit in front of his owner, leaning on her, and staring directly at her to ask for attention. He was giving her an order of sorts and the leaning was a way of attempting to dominate her somewhat.

Kodi’s owner thought, well the dog is giving me what I want so I will pet him for it. The key component when you apply the no free lunch method is that you must give the dog a command first, then reward it for following the command. Consistent repetition of this command and complying ritual is essential in redefining the leader follower dynamic.

So instead of proving affection for the dog sitting in front of us and staring us down (the staring and direct eye contact this way is not a very polite thing in the dog world), I told her owner to constantly ask the dog to come, sit or lay down and only after it does to provide the affection.

I went over some new non verbal communication methods for her owner to use. Whenever a dog sees itself as responsible or in charge of humans, a key part of the rehabilitation process is the attitude, confidence and energy of the dog’s owner. While Kodi’s owner is no pushover, she is a new mom who’s husband is deployed. She has the assistance of her parents, but Kodi’s occasional defiance and refusal to follow their commands had obviously added some tension to the situation.

We discussed how to react when Kodi throws a temper tantrum or is defiant. But I made sure to stress how important it is to practice repeating the actions and commands they want the dog to do. I learned  one problem was Kodi’s refusal to come in from the back yard when called. To remedy this I went over a recall exercise that his owner can practice inside to help condition Kodi to react to a specific hand movement.

The next step is to practice calling Kodi to come to them when he is outside, but then allow him to go back to playing. Because his owners only called the dog when it was time to come in, that command was starting to represent the end of play time. By practicing the recall inside and calling him over then letting him go back to playing outside, his owners will quickly eliminate his resistance to the recall.

Next I went to go meet Kodi. He reacted as soon as he saw me. His energy spiked and he started barking while lowering his head, baring his teeth and making some intense eye contact. I went over to his kennel and sat down with my back to it. As soon as I did this, he calmed down and stopped most of the barking, but only for as long as I remained sitting with my back to him. Each time I got up, his energy and intensity rose as well.

Because Kodi’s owner’s grandparents were there minding the baby, I decided to bring in my mixed breed Cali to help. Cali is a dog I took from one of my clients who just didn’t have the lifestyle for her. While she is very sweet and loving, she is also very high energy and used to be excitable.

I walked Kodi’s owner through a few leadership exercises that she will need to practice daily for the next few weeks until they become second nature to the dog. As I had described the exercise in previous posts, Kodi’s owner had been practicing one of the exercises before our session. While she got most of it right, a few small deviations were negating a core component of the exercise; the dog’s learning to self restrain. Once Kodi’s owner starts to disagree sooner and apply the appropriate actions and reactions, the dog will begin to learn to hesitate and look to his owner for guidance.

One big problem in this case was Kodi’s size and strength. His owner had adopted a harness to better control him after a failed attempt at a gentle leader. While any tool can be effective, when you have a dog that pulls and an owner who isn’t projecting a calm assertive energy, a harness wouldn’t be my first choice.

Instead I showed Kodi’s owner how to use a Martingale collar with my special twist of the leash. This leash collar use stops most dogs from pulling immediately. But I have found the more important impact it has is on the owner’s confidence level. Because the leash position provides a different sensation, it pulls the dog a little off center. This usually settles a dog down and makes it more susceptible to following your lead. So you have an owner who now feels more confident as they have the dog doing what they want; walking beside them and not pulling.

We finished the session by going over the list of changes I wanted Kodi’s owner to adopt and practice the next day.

When I called to speak with Kodi’s owner today, she was full of good news. Some of the small structural changes had helped with Kodi’s meal time, practicing the recall exercise had resulted in a much more responsive dog, adding rules to meal time had helped him eat better and best of all, the walk was a huge success. Kodi didn’t lunge at cars as he normally did and only needed minimal corrections by his owner. I am certain that this experience added an unconscious confidence to his owner and this confident energy remained with her after the walk.

She reported that Kodi had kept nice boundaries around people and parts of the home. When they cooked dinner, Kodi moved away on his own and kept a respectable distance from the kitchen rather than lying at their feet per his usual.

Kodi’s owner almost seemed put off a bit by all these changes. I don’t think she had yet realized that the walk had given her confidence that they dog was picking up and responding to. The new rules and exercises were already starting to change his perception of his place in the family.  But combined with her projecting a more confident leader like energy, Kodi has already made big improvements in 24 hours.

He isn’t out of the woods yet. His owner will need to continue to practice these new rules, boundaries and exercises until they become second nature and the new calmer more responsive an respectful dog will be all that remains.

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