Training a Possessive Aggressive Dog to Be a Follower

By: David Codr

Published Date: April 26, 2016


Before we scheduled this session, Jax had bitten his guardian a few times when food was present, he was guarding a toy or startled awake out of sleep. Fortunately these were small bites. I say fortunately because when a dog bites as a warning, its usually with the same force each time. Obviously we don’t want a dog to bite at all, but the really concerning dog bite is one where the dog bites hard and shakes its heard or doesnt let go. Those are not “warning bites.”

His guardians had reached out to a professional for help, but unfortunately the person that claimed to be a dog behaviorist was actually a local “dog trainer” ( I use that term very loosely with this particular trainer) who practices something called Dominance Theory. This is an old way of working with dogs that has been abandoned by every reputable behaviorist and trainer because we have determined there are other ways that are more effective and don’t come with the baggage.

With Dominance Theory, you punish the dog any time that it does not give you the results you are looking for,t hen reward it when it does the thing you want. Because the emphasis is on the negative, this is unpleasant for the dog at best and does little to make it look forward to learning and training. This is about the worst thing you could possibly do to a dog with any aggressive tendencies.

Unfortunately this is not the first time that I’ve had to clean up the mess created by this particular trainer. It’s extremely frustrating for me to see someone who claims to be a professional using such antiquated and harsh methods that are not necessary and often create more problems than the dog had in the first place.

I started out the session by sitting down with Jax’s guardians to discuss his day-to-day routine as well as the problems that they had noticed. I always start my sessions this way as it gives me an opportunity to observe the dog and see how the guardians interact with him.

In the course of my observation I noticed that the guardians were rewarding the dog in a way that could potentially confuse him into thinking he had more authority than he actually did. And through our conversation, I learned that they were not providing him with a very structured daily life. Plenty of love for sure, but for some dogs, too much love without leadership and structure can be interpreted as weakness rather than a positive attribute.

Dogs will naturally identify a leadership structure when they live with others. One of the ways that a dog identifies as being a follower position is if they have rules and limits they are expected to follow and corrected when they fail to do so. In this case, the dog really did not have much structure which is almost assuredly part of the reason that he was interacting with his humans the way that he was.

Having rules and structure give us an opportunity to correct the dog as well as provide it with boundaries. Each time that we correct the dog for crossing the threshold, it’s a little training exercise helps establish a healthy leader follower dynamic. Additionally, when a dog thinks its our equal or has more authority than we do, and we don’t act like a follower, this can cause the dog to get stressed out. Certainly another contributing factor for Jax.

To help the guardians start to change how Jax perceives his authority in conjunction with theirs, I advised his guardians to incorporate some simple rules, one of which was to make all furniture off-limits for 30 days if not longer.

Dogs often relate their authority to the height that they sit at amongst their peers. The top dog sits on the highest place because he / she is in charge of security and needs to be able to see the area clearly. Because Jax guardians were allowing him to sit at the same height as they did, the dog had gotten the impression that they were all equals.

I started out by showing Jax’s guardians how they could train their dog to use a dog bed instead of the furniture.

In the course of training the dog to use the dog bed, Jax did something very unusual. He took the first few treats the way that every other dog does, but when I threw a third one down, a tension filled the air. Jax movements slowed, his head lowered and he started to stare at me. When this happened I turned my focus away from him so that I was facing his guardians as I did not want to offer him any direct eye contact at that moment. That could easily be interpreted as a challenge and could trigger a reaction.

When I threw down another treat, the tension got a little bit thicker and instead of taking a treat, Jax moved out of the room into the bedroom in which his kennel is kept. His guardians told me that this was a normal behavior for him to engage in any time he started to get that weird vibe.

This was actually a very beneficial behavior for Jax to engage in. Normally I don’t want to a dog to self isolate, but anytime a dog is about to engage in an aggressive behavior and instead decides to move away, that’s a much more desirable action. Its actually something we often tory to train a dog to do.

Because of Jax’s reaction whenever food was presented, I knew that his guardians were going to really have to emphasize positive reinforcement through tactile contact. To help his guardians motivate the dog this way, I went over a technique that I’ve developed called Petting with a purpose.

While this technique seems overly simplistic, it pays big dividends if applied consistently. Not only does it put the dog into a more subordinate position, it conditions them to the concept that they have to earn their praise which makes it more desirable. It will take the humans a couple of days before this new behavior becomes second nature to them. But once they do, they will gradually adjust Jax’s perception of authority each time they pet him.

After I finished explaining the Petting with a Purpose technique, Jax was still in the back bedroom. I wanted to bring him back out and started calling him to no avail. His guardians started to call for me but after a few failed calls, I stopped them so we could use another method.

One of the primary things I do with many of my clients is help them get their dog to adopt a followers role. There are many ways to achieve this, and some of them are very literal. That was the case here. I had everyone get up and without saying a word, we headed out the front door. We left the inside door open so that we would be visible from inside the house.

As we were walking to the door, I heard Jax get up, but I had everyone continue as I wanted to create a feeling of longing to be with the group. Jax stood at the door watching us as we chatted in the front lawn for a few moments.

I suggested that the guardians apply this same technique any time that Jax started to emit that tension vibe or if he failed to respond to a command or correction the first time. If we keep asking a dog to do something over and over, it tells the dog we aren’t all that serious. When a leader dog wants something, it stays with it until the subordinate dog gives them what they want.

Over time, leaving without Jax will help build up a longing to be a part of the group and give him an incentive to obey right away rather than when he feels like it. The fear of being left behind is a powerful motivator for most dogs. This simple action, when done IMMEDIATELY, will be a big part of Jax’s rehabilitation.

To make sure that the guardians can identify Jax whenever he is feeling showing signs of stress or possible aggression, I spent the next few minutes going over some warning signs and signals that they should watch out for.

Dogs often show these warning signs very quickly so I would be very important for his guardians to pay close attention to him and listen to their gut any time they start to feel tension in the air. I recommended that they apply the moving outside technique anytime they encounter this unbalanced or tension filled energy.

A great way to help a dog snap out of unbalanced behaviors is to change the environment. In Jax case, this is just what this doctor ordered.

The “Trainer” the guardians had previously used had recommended that the guardians utilize a prong collar on Jax. I am not a fan of using these tools as I find there are many other options that achieve the same result with out the baggage that comes with prongs; creating tension and anxiety in a dog. These are exactly the things that you would want to avoid with a dog with Jax’s issues.

Instead, I pulled out a Martingale collar and showed his guardian how to apply a special twist of the lease to give her the same amount of control but without any of the negative side effects.

As we headed out for the walk, you could feel the tension drain away from Jax and his guardians. As I mentioned earlier sometimes a change in environment can go a long way. It certainly did for Jax. The open environment offers plenty of distractions and being outside is obviously something dogs enjoy.

By the end of the session, Jax’s guardian’s felt that I had given them enough tools to start his rehabilitation. They were very frustrated with the way the previous “trainer” handled the situation. A reputable trainer would recognize the warning signs that were pretty clearly emanating from the dog and avoided using any confrontational or aggressive tactics training methods.

If you end up hiring a trainer, don’t be afraid to speak up if they ask you to do something that makes you uncomfortable. Remember you are your dog’s advocate.

If possible, you want to reach out to a dog behaviorist whenever you have a dog that engages in extreme behavior issues like Jax Trainers are great and can help your enrich your dog’s life in many ways. And there are a ton of great trainers out there. But many of the techniques utilized to train a dog can cause problems when you direct them towards a dog with real behavior problems like Jax’s.

Fortunately Jax’s guardians are very committed to helping him learn to become a balanced and adjusted dog. Many people would give up and surrender a dog who has bitten the. Jax is fortunate to have found such great guardians.

The good news is Jack is not a red zone case so adjusting the leader follower dynamic in the house should help him shift into more of a followers mindset. Once this is the case, we can schedule a follow up session to address his resource guarding if it continues.

I recommended that the guardians contact me in a couple weeks to a month and give me a progress report on his rehabilitation process. It will likely take an additional session or two to completely eliminate all of Jax’s unwanted behaviors. It’s going to be important for the guardians to go at their dog’s speed as they rehabilitate him. But if they are patient and provide him with the leadership and structure he needs, Jax can learn to become the model dog they want him to be.

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This post was written by: David Codr