What Does Training an Aggressive Dog Look Like?
Dogs have always been part of our lives and we find joy in advocating for them and educating ourselves about them. We have fostered dogs for over five years now, and a lot of the times we are asked to do more than just open up our home for a dog before they are adopted to their forever family. You become a dog trainer and chauffeur when you foster a dog; they come with varying levels of traumas or bad habits that need work and they need to be taken to the vet to be fully assessed. Some of them are easy, meaning that they have not been abused or neglected, but most of them are difficult. Rescues like OC Pom Rescue exist to do actual rescue work, which means taking in dogs at their worst, working with them for as long as they need, and finding the right adopter for the dog.
We thought that we would share one of Emily’s foster experiences, where she welcomed a young dog that had experienced severe neglect from owners that were unaware of the dog’s breed characteristics and training needs. Read further to learn more about her experience fostering Scout.
Scout was given up by his owners, due to his energy level and their unwillingness to train a young dog. Upon taking him into my care, he was sweet and energetic; however, this changed for the worse when Karley tried to approach his exercise pen. He became extremely aggressive and territorial, to the point where he was staring us down, baring his teeth, incessantly barking and growling, lunging at the gate of his exercise pen, and stiffly wagging his tail. This was the first time that I had encountered a dog of this aggressive nature and it terrified me. I remember thinking that I am not a dog trainer and that I am just a foster. This thinking quickly grew into impatience with myself because I put myself in a situation where I was not equipped to care for a dog that was so obviously not taken care of in the way that he needed. I also knew that a dog like him would be euthanized in a shelter. This compelled me to go on the internet and search up everything that I could find about training dogs with the behaviors that he was exhibiting. Within my research, I was also looking up breed characteristics, because I had a feeling that he was not Pomeranian, or at least fully Pomeranian.
In the initial stages of my research, I had to figure out how to narrow down the information from training websites in order to best approach Scout’s behaviors. He was highly reactive, anxious, and would switch from excited to aggressive in a matter of minutes. Scout was always on high alert, curious, and energetic; and based on these attributes, I deduced that he was a Schipperke, or at least a Schipperke Pomeranian mix. This breed is known for their alertness and curiosity, which can make for an aggressive dog if they are not properly trained.
What I had to figure out was the origin of his aggression and whether it was fear-based or dominance-based. Scout seemed to have two modes of temperament: excitement and aggression. These emotions are very closely related, so it makes sense that he would switch to aggression very quickly. Dogs do not have a wide range of emotions like humans do, so any time that they exhibit the extreme of any emotion is not good. When a dog exhibits an extreme emotion, even if that is being super happy, a dog can switch to being an extreme of another emotion, like aggression. The best condition that a dog can be in is in a calm state, which can be reinforced through consistent training. His aggression seemed to stem from fear and extreme behavior, like overexcitement, which required dominance training and learning appropriate reactions to stimulus. It took me a few days and some research to figure out the origin of his fear and aggression, but I figured it out when one of my dogs barked at him and he ran between my legs for protection. In the initial days of him coming to my home, he would duck whenever I went near his head and he stiffened whenever I pet his back. Dominance training helped make up for his insecurities and gave him an alpha to feel safe enough to be comfortable.
I also called the founders of Paw Prints in the Sand and The Ranch Rescue, as I have worked with them for years and they have extensive experience working with aggressive dogs. They lent me a muzzle and a prong collar to use and gave me advice on how to approach training Scout. Google is great, but I was specifically working with people who had experience with highly aggressive dogs. There are great resources out there and I highly recommend reaching out to people who have experience with the approach to training that you are looking for.
The first step in beginning the training process was putting a muzzle on him. Unfortunately, I could not possibly approach him without him becoming extremely excited and then aggressive. After getting the muzzle on him, I dominated him by getting him on his back and releasing him when he calmed down. The key being that he had to be calm before he got anything that he wanted, whether that was attention, food, or going for a walk. I even ate in front of him before giving him his food to establish myself as the controller of his food. I needed him to understand that I was the source of gratification and that came through establishing my dominance and relying on a feeding and walking schedule. He went on walks three times a day to get his energy out, expose him to controlled stimulation (outdoor noises and smells), and mark myself as the person to look to for guidance. I trained him to heel, sit, walk, run, and look. Any time that he became overexcited, I paused and waited for him to become calm before moving on with the walk. It took about a week and a half for him to fully understand my commands and to remain calm. I slowly introduced him to my dogs as we learned to trust each other. Scout would get very excited when he came in contact with another dog, so his full introduction to my dogs did not happen for a few days as he learned to remain calm.
After a few weeks of using the prong collar on walks, his reactivity turned around completely. He was able to walk with just a harness and leash, slightly behind my hip. If he ever went into a reactive episode, all I would have to do was snap and gently tug at the leash for him to continue unbothered on his walk.
The best thing to do with training is to remain consistent, even if they are making progress or they seem to know all of your commands. Dogs will always need commands to be reinforced and for expectations to be clear in all situations. Training takes time, but it is one thousand percent worth it.
As a foster for OC Pom Rescue, we give our social media and website volunteers the full run-down on our dog so that they can be as honest as possible about the dog’s personality, needs, and training experience. We fully believe that adopters should know what they are getting themselves into when they apply for a rescue dog. Also, I need to be able to trust that the adopter is responsible and experienced enough to take care of the specific dog that they are applying for.
For Scout, his adoptive parents needed to be experienced, dominant dog owners. Because of his history and the training schedule I had him on, I was looking for an individual who knew how to handle reactive dogs, would continue his training, and did not have young children. He was not aggressive towards other dogs, so I was happy to accept applications from people who had a friendly dog in the home. Scout was very young and energetic when I had him, so I was also looking for applicants that could give him opportunities to exercise and play.
Scout ended up being adopted to a couple with years of dog and behavior training experience. They had a large backyard for Scout to run in and were looking to adopt a second dog. The dog that they currently owned was actually OC Pom alum, Sadie! Sadie was very docile and friendly, which made her a nice companion for Scout. He has been an official member of the family since May 2020 and he is thriving. Scout was a reactive and aggressive dog when I first met him, but now he has grown into a trusting and playful dog that even runs around with his adopter’s nieces and nephews. He is proof that there are many reasons why a dog may be aggressive and it takes training and patience to prevent a dog from getting to that point. Don’t be afraid to check in on your ol’ pal Google! There are many resources online that can help you be the best dog owner to your pup. And if Google doesn’t give you an answer, a professional dog trainer is a great resource for you to reach out to through their website or social media account.