A Conversation With Steve Diller – Aggression – Part 1

Aggression Cases, Biting Dogs and Owner Compliance

Bonnie: What are your thoughts on aggression in dogs and is biting always a bad thing?

Steve: There are so many cases so there are the dogs that are going to bite and contextually they’re going to bite at times they really shouldn’t be. That means there are times that biting is appropriate – such as self protection – I mean dogs bite. Often times they have some conflict and that’s how they work it out. It’s nothing unusual for them. They usually don’t harm one another too badly unless there’s a size differential, big dog little dog. But most of the time it’s a lot of noise and hair, but every now and then you see a dog terribly punctured really ripped up and you have to wonder how did it get to this. But if the dog is giving up in a fight scenario usually the bite wounds are on the rump, but if the bites are around the head, neck, chest forelegs then you’re talking about two dogs that are really fighting nobody’s giving up, that’s inter-dog.

But when it’s about people – just this week alone I’ve had more than two phone calls from people complaining that their dogs are growling and showing their teeth and when I asked them under what conditions would this happen, they said “when I go to grab the collar.” The collar grab is statistically the number one reason folks get bitten. Somehow folks don’t give up on that. So if they go to grab it and the dog growls rather than not do it again, they can’t seem to think their way through another way to gain control. So when I simply say to them, leave the leash on, don’t grab the collar, don’t yell at the dog and then try to grab the collar – you’re going to be bitten. They create defense and what are you going to do.

I’ve had a couple of dogs that are not reliable around children. They want reliability and I don’t blame them, if I had small children I’d want reliability too. The dog trainer answer often times is “don’t leave the kid alone with the dog” and that’s terrific advice. I don’t know about in your practice but I can tell you in the practice I have, I have tremendous trouble getting my clients to comply – I work and work and tell and tell them. But how many of them do not have the lead on the dog when I show up to a lesson, have not used their crate sufficiently, still yell at the dog like crazy, and don’t reward the dog enough. You can try to get compliance, I don’t know what it is – maybe it’s human nature, it’s very hard to get people to put in the right effort into raising their dog appropriately.

So now, if you take a case and the dog bites, and you go there with all good intention and you tell these people, “look you may have to separate out the dog, you may need a gate, a crate, a muzzle, you may change the time in which each are around the family living area, so when the kids are available the dog is not, when the dog is available the kids are napping or out playing, at school, you can fool around with that stuff, but if you want reliability then you got to get a canary because you can’t say for sure that whatever conditioning you’ve provided is going to give the dog the skills to walk away from a threat rather than bite its way through. We all want to do it but it’s not always possible.

Bonnie: Can you tell us about some of your aggression cases.

Steve: One case is a French Bulldog 6 ½ years old, and the guy had the dog since he was a puppy. The dog just bit the couple’s 22 month old girl in the hand. She fell on the dog and he bit her. Dogs will do that. They also have a 6 week old infant in the house now. The dog belonged to the husband before he met his wife. So it was these two guys together for a while, and then first comes the wife, then comes the daughter, now comes a little son, also a move. All kinds of things are going on that make this dog uncomfortable and as he gets older it seems that his ability to cope becomes less and less. Tough stuff. I told the couple that I’d be happy to come out and talk to them. The husband seems to be somewhat in denial that “his boy” would do something like this. I said “look if you can get past the idea that you’re going to get reliability, I can come out and teach him something like to run to his bed, teach him to do something that he can do successfully. Let’s see if we can get him to do that under many conditions, including, here comes the baby you send him to his bed. I’d be happy to do that – which is not fixing the aggression but it’s teaching the dog what it can do correctly.” It’s sort of like training an incompatible behavior.

I took an Akita aggression case for next week. The dog is snarling at the husband. I’ve seen at least 9 Akita cases in court in the past and I know the Akita can be a real damaging dog if it gets to it. I thought to myself, “I must be insane” but it sounds like the kind of case where I might be able to do some good – because they’re grabbing his collar, they’re getting angry at him, they’re making him defensive. He’s 1 year old and the owner said he’s been nothing but social and wonderful up until now. I’m hoping I can get to him and back him off a little bit because they’re going to create a real ugly event and I told her until I get there – stop!

Bonnie: Is it usual for Akitas to be dominant with their owners?

Steve: Not really, usually with the family Akitas are stellar – really good dogs, very devoted to the family. But I have a feeling that they’re treating him in a way that is scaring him. They’re making him feel that he has to do something that he probably really doesn’t want to do. She told me that he jumps up when people walk in because he wants to greet them. I said to her, “I hear you but in my own caseload I never had an Akita bite anybody below the waist. So even when the aggression starts with all fours on the ground, they come up and bite,” so in this dog’s case I really don’t like that he’s jumping up on visitors when they come in. Her perception of his “social behavior” could be wrong. The dog may be saying overall “don’t make me chew you because I will!” Part of the reason I don’t see too many aggression cases any more is because the consequences can be severe.

  1. I’m sorry. Maybe I’m dense or just missing something here. I read this entire review and I still don’t get what one should do to deal with a biting dog. Determining the cause of the biting seems pretty obvious but I must be pretty dense, because I really didn’t find anything particularly helpful when dealing with these arts of cases.I do like the idea of getting a canary!

  2. Bonnie – you don’t really buy into the “dominant” construct, do you? For some reason that question surprised me.

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