A Conversation with Steve Diller – Aggression – Part 3

Making Things Happen for Clients



Bonnie:  Have you had a case that you can think of where the dog was aggressive, you got your client to successfully manage it by following your advice and the dog’s behavior changed?

Steve:  I’ll tell you about one of my recent cases, a spayed 3 year old female German Shepherd who is a second dog in a home with a black Lab.  She’s really tough on the leash with other dogs, doesn’t discern if it’s a male or female, her hackles go up.  The owner’s family just moved to Manhattan where she’ll be spending a lot more time.  I picked her up and drove the woman and her brother to Riverside Park where a dog park is.

When she came into my car with the dog, the dog was wearing a remote collar, a pinch collar and a plain buckle collar.  On the way to the park I asked her if the dog was trained with the remote and she said yes.  I asked if she used the remote when her dog sparks up at other dogs and she said yes.  Then I said what about the pinch collar?  She said that if the shock collar isn’t on she uses the pinch.  We get to the park I take the remote off, I take the pinch off, I put a Gentle Leader on and a fur saver so that I can connect my leash to both – this way if she pulls the head halter off I still have her by the fur saver.  I take her in the park and sure enough she sees a dog about 75 feet away, she looks like a porcupine hairs all up, very over stimulated so I start talking to her, “knock it off” and “uh-uh” and I take her near the dog and I don’t put up with it, I said, “let’s go it’s not happening” and I get her past it and praise her.  We stayed in the park for about 2 ½ hours and it got to a point where we sat on a bench and she laid down and while clearly she had increased respiration when dogs walked by, there were no hackles, no display, no barking, no charging, nothing.

I got a text message the next day from the brother who took her out in midtown Manhattan, 48th Street & Eighth Avenue he said that the dog never walked so well, she walked past dogs and she didn’t even look.  All I really did was to take away pain.  They applied pain to a dog that was already uncomfortable with the presence of other dogs.  That doesn’t make any sense to me.  No punishment.  I just had to talk to this dog a little bit.  Did I have to get a little stiff with the leash a couple of times, I did.  But you can’t get too stiff with a leash when it’s attached to a Gentle Leader because you have to be careful of the neck and I’m very sensitive to that.  But I touched her if you understand and she got it – she was like “Okay, okay” and I said “that-a-girl, let’s go.”  It was really so easy.  And these people are going to do it.  The brother’s walking the streets with the dog on the Gentle Leader.  The remote is off, the prong is off.  It’s a beautiful thing, that’s a rewarding job; it went the way it’s supposed to go.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean I wouldn’t tell somebody to put a shock collar on a dog because I could go that way under certain circumstances.  It’s a question of what’s going on and what do we need.  You take it case by case I would hope.

Bonnie:  Speaking of the shock collar, where does one go to learn how to use it thoughtfully?  I know a lot of people are against them, but you’ve always said there are uses for it if you know what you’re doing.

Steve:  I think that people who use it well have taken numerous training courses on appropriate use.  Because let’s face it, the whole principle of how to use it changed over the years from punishment to really much more of a negative reinforcement.  A person who uses it well is typically not using a whole lot of stimulation but the stimulation disappears when the dog is appropriate, that’s negative reinforcement.  They learn pretty quickly if they’re sensitive with the tool and you have the right dog.  But with the wrong dog even a little stimulation…and the dog is done!  We all do the best we can and sometimes we make mistakes ourselves in character judgments.  I’ve made mistakes this way – where I look at a dog and say well this seems to be more fear related than let’s call it stubbornness or non-compliance, and I’ve been wrong.

An example was I spent weeks with a guy whose wife was pregnant and they had a Bloodhound.  She was a nice dog, she was very motivated by the food and I worked like the devil to try to get this dog to do a down.  Week after week I was luring and luring and this dog wasn’t doing it.  I tried just waiting for the dog to lie down and giving it food, I sent them home with that exercise – every time the dog lies down by itself give it food and say “down.”  But I had a pregnant owner and what it turns out to be, a real stubborn dog because I pushed her.  After being weeks into this, I said “give me the leash” I got her into a sit, I put my hands on her shoulder blades said “down” and I applied pressure to her back until she lay down.  Then I praised her like crazy and she wouldn’t take food.  I did it a few times said “down” – dog laid down – end of story.  Within a few minutes after I physically helped her down.  So I tried to do the work that we thought of as the right thing, hands off, all of that.  But you get paid for a job and you want to give them something.  And sometimes you have to say “maybe I’m wrong about this dog.”  So I said let me try the other thing, look at it from a different perspective.  This dog is being stubborn, willful, and non-compliant – let me help her, so I fixed it.


(More of our conversation with Steve coming soon!)


  1. Steve, your last paragraph illustrates to me the main “divide” between the training “camps.” I have to admit that I don’t understand why so many “positive” trainers are reluctant to use touch to get compliance from dogs who are practically crying out for guidance. “So I tried to do the work that we thought of as the right thing, hands off, all of that.” Why is hands-off considered the standard for the “right thing”? Is it because most of them (Dr. Dunbar included) view hands as instruments of inhumane force? I don’t see pressure that way at all; I guess it’s about perspectives. I use food in training because I work with pet owners, but I also teach them how to use gentle guidance to get compliance, and I don’t consider this a last resort. People are going to touch their dogs to make them do things, so I want them to know how to do it, and when they might need to, and why this way works (doesn’t trigger opposition reflex) and that way doesn’t (triggers opposition/resistance).

    I appreciate that you were willing, in both the Bloodhound situation and the dog in Manhattan, to fit the training to the dog, rather than the dog to the training. I use pinch collars and electronic collars when they are the right tools, but it’s clear that in that dog’s situation, they were not being used effectively, and a different approach was needed. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful comment on our conversation with Steve Diller, pointing out what you feel is the “main divide between the training camps.” Excellent food for thought! We’ll forward your comment to Steve.

      • Definitely food for thought especially about the “touch and gentle pressure” issue. I have a new dog in the household and while I’ve always been a big positive reinforcement trainer I realize that with this dog touch may be needed in some situations and now won’t feel guilty if I have to use it

        • Glad the article helped you out Sheryl! We’ll pass it on to Steve!

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