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By Master Trainer Tracy Lenhardt

  I have been fortunate in my career as a police K9 handler.  I love what I do for a living.  Not so much on the law enforcement side of it, but definitely on the K9 side. A big part of becoming a handler out of necessity for me was learning to be a trainer.  There was no one around me for almost two hundred miles at the time that had any experience in dealing with police K9’s.  I ended up traveling once a week for the first couple of years just to work with someone that was willing to help me with my K9.      


My first two K9’s had short careers due to their age when I acquired them.  Both of them brought challenges and taught me something that I have been able to carry forward.  All of my K9 partner’s have been European imports that were selected for having the desired qualities and traits suitable for police work.  


My K9 experience has been limited when it comes to problem solving behavior issues and I think sometimes people assume that because a K9 has been trained for a special job or it has received any training at all that it is void of behavior issues.  Sometimes the complete opposite is true.  The bottom line is a dog is still a dog no matter how it is packaged.  


When troubleshooting aggression issues, a trainer needs to be able to identify the type of aggression the dog is displaying.  Dogs can display many types of aggression including but not limited to;


  1. 1. Fear-based or Defensive Aggression– prompted by fear, from being threatened, from punishment and or pain. These dogs may display submissive behavior like tucking their tail, little to no eye contact, cowering and exposing their bellies and licking.  

  2. 2. Dominant Aggression—this type of aggression can be characterized by postering, being generally overbearing and sometimes possessive(over food, toys people etc).  


    3. Dog on Dog Aggression


    4. Play Aggression


    5. Territorial Aggression


There are many ways a dog my display this behavior as well.  These are some of the behaviors that may be observed, individually or in combination;


       1.  Excessive barking

       2.  Over-protectiveness to toys, treats, bed or food.

       3.  A tendency to snap, growl or snarl while eating

       4.  A tendency to snap, snarl, or growl when picked up, groomed, pet, or otherwise handled.

       5.  Marked fear when meeting new people or situations

       6.  Staring

       7.  Full on Biting

       8.  Lunging

       9.  Body held in a manner to make itself look bigger


Dealing with dog aggression isn’t something most people deal with on a daily basis.  It can be a bit intimidating if you have never encountered it before and can have you asking yourself, “What do I do now”?  As a trainer you will encounter various aggression issues and need a variety of techniques to deal with it.  My approach when encountering a problem is to break it down into 4 steps; Observe, Identify, Act, and Consistency.  


One of the first things as trainer you will need to develop is your powers of observation.  Recognizing the aggression and defining the cause of what is triggering it is the first important step.  It can be anything from a simple growl at feeding time to a dog snapping at one of its siblings to a neighborhood dog barking and charging the fence every time it sees another person or animal.  


The reasons are countless as to why K9’s may develop an aggression issue.  Many well established trainers point to pent up energy as an underlying cause of K9 aggression.  Neil Sattin from his blog at in his article “What Dog Aggression Really Is”, writes the summary to that article as;


 “Dog aggression is a symptom of your dog experiencing TOO MUCH ENERGY in any given situation.  That’s it.  The solution to doggy aggression is “simple” – if you want your dog to not be aggressive in that kind of situation, then you need to teach your dog HOW TO RELAX at higher and higher levels of energy, and get rid of the stored stress within them that’s contributing to their tension. You also need to give your dog a positive outlet for what to do with their energy when they’re feeling it start to rev up.  And finally, you need to be vigilant, practicing with your dog at gradually higher and higher levels of energy, in situations more and more similar to their “trigger” situation, until your dog is relaxed and no longer triggered in that situation.  The entire time you need to stay non-judgmental, relaxed, and willing to sign up for the long haul of truly fixing the problem”.


After identifying the cause of the aggression, understanding the importance of timing and how it relates to changing the focus of the dog at the precise moment is the next step.  Timing is a critical part of a trainer’s plan in order to redirect the aggression(negative energy) to something positive that both you and the K9 accept.


 Most people have heard of Cesar Millan and have seen his television show.  Cesar is a master at determining the cause of a K9’s aggression and knows exactly how to redirect the dog’s and owners energy if need be, that changes the dogs behavior positively.


That doesn’t mean we can’t have the same success.  To be successful a trainer needs to have a plan or template he can apply when dealing with an aggression issue.  Knowing what you’re going to do before the K9 display’s the aggression is a very important step.  Trying to change the behavior after you see it means you are only chasing your tail when trying to fix the problem.


 Consistency in the action taken is the next step and just as important if a trainer is going to successfully change the K9’s behavior.  If you allow the dog to get away with a behavior every once in a while, you run the risk of it occurring at a time when things could get much further out of hand and dangerous for you and or the public.


A basic example of a behavior problem could be something like this;


While working a 2 ½  year old mixed breed that the a handler has had for little less than a year in narcotics work, the dog started to avoid the searches and would attempt to the take the reward out of the handler’s pocket.  Initially the handler thought this was a bit funny and smart on the dog’s part and ignored it.  Soon he realized his dog was doing this more often than not and by ignoring the behavior as mild as it was, had created a larger problem for himself.  Now every time the dog completed a  search and earned his reward, the dog was reluctant to release it when told and would growl at the handler.


After speaking with the handler I learned he had been doing extended searches to build the stamina of his dog.  Not only were his searches longer but he was placing finds on every 10th car he was searching.  


So by speaking with him I was able to;


 1. Observe through description from the handler the problem.- He was working the dog well past its ability and the dog was attempting to self reward and refused to give up the reward when he did earn it.


2.  Identified the behavior issue and it’s source-  The dog had become possessive if it’s reward and warned the handler by growling at him when he attempted to get it.  


3.  The plan of action was to shorten his searches and plant more hides so the dog earned his reward quicker.  This was the timing aspect critical to behavior change only on a larger scale.    


4.  From there I suggested he maintain consistency by continuing to train and progressively work on increasing the length of his searches and to lower the number of hides.  This should keep the balance in the dog’s interest in working with minimal behavior change.    


Another example comes from my current K9 partner that recently started to snap at me in the middle of our tracking training.  He tracks for his beloved Kong and I use two or three on a training track depending on distance. After locating his first or second kong he is outed within 30 seconds of finding it and then given the track command. Titan has started to jump up and snap at my hands as I am trying to place the kong in my pocket.  The point of the first kong is a quick reward for focus and not to detract from the primary goal of tracking.  He is a young dog and he has started to expect a heavy reward in the middle of a track along with the reward at end.


So from my situation I;


1.  Observed the aggressive behavior from my dog- Snapping at my hands

2.  Identify- His snapping at my hands is an attempt to bully me for his kong

3.  Plan- My immediate plan is to get him moving and back on the track with little to no hesitation

     after he releases his kong.  The timing issue here is to refocus his mind away from his

     aggressive behavior back onto the initial task of tracking.  That way he doesn’t have time to

     think about wanting his kong and how to go about getting it.

4.  Consistency- To stop this behavior, I as a handler will need to hesitate less on putting away

     the kong when it is released and get him back to tracking sooner on every track until that

     behavior subsides.    


Another example I observed today  was my friend Jason who had 5, 3 month old pups in his field.  To give the pup’s dad some exercise, Jason let him in the field to run around. he pup’s joined in chasing dad and were also attempting to play tug with the puppy sleeve he had picked up and was running around with. After about ten minutes Jason noticed the adult male growled at the pups twice as they played tug and chased him around.  On the third time the growl was a bit deeper with more intention behind it.  Jason immediately gave the adult male a verbal correction and took him off the field.


With this situation you could see;


1.  Jason observed the adult dog start to reach his tolerance level with the pup’s the first two

      times he growled.

2.  The third growl confirmed to him the adult dog was going to get physical with the pups if they

     didn’t give him some space.

3.  Jason gave the adult a verbal correction to change his focus and removed the dog from

     the source of irritation before it became a larger problem.

4.  Jason because he is a trainer himself, was aware of the tolerance level of the adult dog and

     knew to solve the problem he could only let them be together for a short period of time.  He

     had witnessed this behavior before and knew ahead of time to remove the dog at the proper  

     time to avoid conflict.


Applying these steps is merely a suggested starting point. Nothing replaces experience.  Find someone you trust that you can talk to when encountering an issue you are unsure about.  You could find yourself dealing with a bigger problem than what you started with if you attempt something on your own and you know you are in over your head.  For myself recognizing the problem before it starts has been the most difficult area for me to to learn and understand.


There have been numerous books written on the subject of K9 body language and aggression that can help shed light on what the dog is thinking and why he is acting the way he does.  Roger Abrantes “Dog Language; An Encyclopedia of Canine Behavior” and “How Dogs Learn” by Mary R. Church PH.D. and Jon S. Bailey Ph. D. have provided valuable insight on what I have seen in the past and what to look for in the future when training a dog.  Learning and understanding K9 behavior is never ending so talk with as many trainers as you can and watch them train.  See how they approach a problem and sometimes you will pick up things they were not aware they were doing that can be of benefit to you.      

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