Preparing for Canine Aggression. It Begins With You
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By Sam Heigh

Training dogs for any purpose can be an enjoyable and rewarding activity whether you are just training your own personal pet or working your way into something specific such as search and rescue, therapy or police work. Regardless of the reason an individual needs to have a fundamental understanding of reading and managing K9 aggression.  Aggression is not specific to any one breed nor is it specific to the size of the dog.  Yes, even the cute little peek-a-poo can be aggressive.  They have teeth, they have attitude and they are capable of inflicting pain.

            The first thing to know is that if you train dogs for any length of time it is not a matter of if you will experience an aggressive dog just a matter of time.  However, if you prepare yourself in advance and clearly understand canine language you can avert a serious situation.  Training canines is not just about teaching the dog obedience or correcting behaviors; training begins with the handler.  It is absolutely critical that you understand the various body postures and facial expressions of the canine and know how to deal with them before you can be successful.

            For this discussion, we are focusing on the reading and managing of canine aggression.  Before you can read it, you need to know what it looks like.  Aggression can be seen long before an event occurs if you know what you are looking for.  Various clues include a stiff, erect body posture with the tail carried high (for those dogs that have tails). The ears are erect and forward, and facial expressions include wide, staring eyes, a well-defined stop on the forehead and the lips are forward (Abrantes, 1997).  These signs are all indicative of dominance and could lead to aggression in the right situation. 

            In contrast, the signs that are indicative of submission are a low tail, sometimes tucked all the way between the legs.  The canine may assume a low crouching position or may even roll over on its back revealing its belly.  Its ears are pinned back flat against the head, the head is carried low and the lips are drawn back.  The eyes are narrow and in some extreme cases, the eyes may be completely closed.  While these are signs of submission it is imperative to know that these dogs can become aggressive if they feel threatened and flight is not an option for them.  Active defense will take place and they will bite (Abrantes, 1997).

            While all of these behaviors mean something, it is extremely important to take them into context with the surroundings and the situation.  Each individual sign may mean something or it may not.  It is the combination of those signs that is important to understand.  The best way to learn about the various components of dog language is to take the time to observe many dogs during various activities and learn to recognize the various combinations during the different situations.  A single canine can show dominance over some dogs and total submission to others.  A solid handler will be able to recognize these signs instantaneously without hesitation.

Once you fully understand canine language and the meaning of the various behaviors you need to utilize your cognitive behaviors to prevent the behavior in the first place.  Reading facial expressions and body language, the handler can divert the handling method and change the pattern which distracts the canine and refocuses him elsewhere.  This is where timing becomes critical.  The trainer’s focus for canine action should always be precisely at intervals: 30 seconds before the event, 10 seconds before the event, and 10 seconds after the event (Aycock, n/d). 

For example, you are walking your dog and as another dog walks by, your dog lunges out, straining on the lead and snapping aggressively at the other dog.  What actually happened is that physical changes in your canine’s behavior were occurring well before the actual event.  Thirty seconds prior, your dog noticed the other dog and his head came up, his eyes got wide, ears forward, tail up, fur may be starting to rise around his neck or back.  Ten seconds before your dog emits a low growl and you can see his lips curling.  You jerk the dog back, yell at him and drag him off.  Ten seconds after, the dog is still in a dominate state probably pulling on the lead to get back to the other dog.

An experienced trainer would have recognized the signs before ever getting to the other dog and corrected that behavior without waiting for it to escalate.  By paying attention and recognizing those behaviors, the handler can give a quick snap on the lead, tell the dog to “leave it” and keep walking.  If that does not seem to be correcting the behavior, repeat a little stronger, maybe snap your fingers in front of the dogs face to distract him and then lead the dog in a different direction away from the other dog to put distance between them.  Keep walking and keep the dogs attention focused on you, not the other dog.

For this type of undesirable behavior, or any other bad behavior for that matter training needs to become front and center for both handler and canine.  The timing of recognizing the behaviors and the timing of the correction are critical to any successful training event.  There are two categories of canine timing and both must be addressed on a constant and consistent basis.  The first is called augmented timing and simply means that the trainer is pre-planning for a specific training purpose (Aycock, n/d).  This phase is critical for the imprinting and training of young dogs so it is crucial to get it right.  This means thinking about the desired end result, any potential problems and how the handler will deal with those problems.  All training sessions should be well thought out with intent and with a specific purpose in mind. 

In the example given above, you know that your canine reacts aggressively to other dogs so this is something you want to plan for and set up so you can act accordingly.  Write down the behaviors that you have seen in the past and when they occur.  Set up a specific training event to address this specific issue.  Utilize another handler who has a calm confident dog who can handle the aggressiveness without getting aggressive himself.  Plan out with that other handler exactly what you want to do, the timing of it and the other handlers responsibility in the training event.  Also plan for the area you are going to work in, what other distractions may be there that you need to address or at least prepare for?  This represents the augmented timing category.

The second category is called Rote Rehearsal and is utilized in conjunction with augmented timing.  This is the actual hands-on piece of the training process.  This is the split decisions and action the handler takes in the moment of the situation to correct a problem (Aycock, n/d).  Once you enter the above training event, be very aware of what the dog is doing at all times.  As soon as you see the dog begin to react to seeing the other dog, make the correction immediately.  Have the other handler stop their dog at some point and put them in a sit.  Walk your dog by at a distance until you do not have to correct them any longer.  When your dog’s behavior returns to a calm state, decrease the distance between the two dogs and start the process over.  Continue this process until you are able to walk the dog by at close range without any reaction.  This process can take a long time depending on how dominate the dog is but once you start you cannot give up.   

It may be that in this situation your dog will not stop lunging out at the other dog in which case you may have to take more aggressive action such as putting him on the ground and laying on him until he submits.  This is a dangerous move and you should get professional training before attempting this move as you could get seriously injured.  Some canines need this level of correction because they have not recognized that the handler is the dominate member of this pack. For any training to work, the canine needs to recognize the handler as the leader of the pack or your efforts will be futile and very frustrating for both you and the dog.

As a trainer, especially in training police canines, you need to realize that these dogs are very dominate and aggressive.  They were selected for those qualities because of the nature of work they are expected to do.  However, that does not mean that they can get away with biting just anyone and they need to be responsive to the handlers commands.  This may mean that some corrections need to be severe to prevent them from becoming a normal behavior pattern.  The timing of these corrections is critical and the canine cannot be allowed to get away with any negative behavior.  Doing so just reinforces that the bad behavior is ok and makes it extremely difficult if not impossible to correct.  This is not to give the impression that all training is a negative experience as generally, canine training is a lot of fun and very rewarding.  But as with anything you choose to do in life, if you take on the role of canine trainer you take the bad with the good.

The important thing to remember is training canines is about training yourself as well.  To be successful, you have to be aware of what you are doing as well as what the dog is doing.  Your body posture and tone of voice can have a significant impact on the dog’s behavior.  When training your own dog or training someone else, remember that you are solving an issue that involves both the human and the animal.  Listen to the story but keep two separate views in your mind; one for the canine and one for the human.  Get your thoughts together and the investigatory questions lined up in an effort to make an accurate and effective decision.  Take your time.  Don’t be too quick to judge the event and jump to what seems obvious.  Solve the issues from the inside position of the animal view and the human view (Aycock, 2014).  Remember there are always two sides to every story and this is no different.  Many times, it is not the canine that has the problem.  It is the human that has the problem which is in turn causing the behavior issue with the canine.

The exciting part of canine training is that you can be the difference in solving a serious issue.  By becoming an expert on reading canine behavior, planning your training sessions in advance with a specific purpose in mind and becoming competent in the timing of your actions in a situation you can create a successful and rewarding training event.  Training should be fun for both the handler and the canine.  Fun and reward is the canine’s paycheck and just like humans, without a paycheck the effort will soon diminish.  Make the training an exciting event, always focus on a positive outcome and enjoy yourself. 



Abrantes, R. (1997) Dog Language, An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior.  Wenatchee, WA:

        Wakan Tanka Publishers

Aycock, C. (n/d) Timing Read Actions – Week 4 Supplemental Handout

Aycock, C. (2014) Response to Week 6 Assignment – Choosing likely signs of dog behavior and  

        human action.  Retrieved May 10, 2014.


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