If You Call That Winning

I am a balanced trainer. I use a wide range of tools and approaches as I see fit, and have no moral or ethical qualms with using punishment skillfully and responsibly to meet training goals. I view dog training pragmatically, as a matter of choosing the optimal path for each dog/client team, respectful of individual needs and preferences, but not bound up in specious notions of self-perfection or personal growth.

I do not see dog training as a contest between me and the dog, and have come to bitterly resent the appropriation of the term “balanced” by trainers whose attitude toward dogs is essentially combative.

Forcing unnecessary confrontations is no more “balanced” than a head halter is “positive”. It’s also nothing like genuine leadership, which involves inspiring trust and respect, providing guidance when needed, setting fair boundaries, and creating stability.

Nowhere is this more important than in the context of working with aggression, yet one still hears trainers refer to gloving up and doing battle in such cases, as if resolving aggression issues was simply a matter of going mano a mano.

I tend to attribute this mindset to the combined influence of dog training as television drama, our natural fascination with aggression and its traditional role as a professional proving ground, and the old school myth that one need bring aggression out in order to address it.

Of course, most balanced trainers are not actively looking for a fight. But some are clearly a little too eager to prove they can win a confrontation, or maybe just too comfortable in that arena to bother avoiding one. I would have to put Cesar Milan in the latter category, as his obvious confidence in his physical prowess seems to tempt him into triggering aggression fairly casually.  And in balanced trainer circles, one frequently encounters those who seem to be courting aggression unnecessarily, and, in some cases, suffering the consequences.

Now, for the record, I’m not suggesting that every trainer who’s ever been bitten was asking for it.

I’ve been bitten a number of times, once trying to get a tennis ball away from a
bull mastiff at a dog park before she swallowed it, once breaking up a fight,
once leashing up a kennel-crazy dogo-mix, once in the leg (redirected
aggression), and once because I reflexively reached for the collar of an
aggressive Rottweiler in a moment of confusion (he’d just gotten loose from
another handler). Those were all legit bites requiring medical attention. The
last one was probably four years ago. But none occurred in a training context.

The only time I’ve been bitten while training a dog was around two years ago, when I was nipped by a year-old cattle dog with zero bite inhibition. (Before anyone starts an argument over the meaning of bite inhibition, let me note that this cattle dog was not protesting anything, just executing a Touch command.) I honestly don’t remember if I needed a band aid, but I know I didn’t take it personally.

Again, good trainers can occasionally get bitten in the course of training. But good trainers are damn careful. They not only aren’t looking for a fight, but know how to avoid stumbling into one. As to how that’s accomplished, there are clearly more ways than one. I can only speak for myself, and don’t consider myself an expert, despite a reasonably good track record.

First, I don’t generally use muzzles in training contexts. I own a bunch and use them occasionally while socializing an aggressive dog. I’m not saying it’s wrong to use muzzles while training, just saying I don’t. They interfere with the dog’s demonstration of natural body language, and cause most to feel nervous and/or compromised, potentially inhibiting normal behavior. They can also embolden the handler to take greater risks, as with pushing a dog too close to–or over–threshold. As a friend who worked as a motorcycle messenger once expounded, “I ride a lot more carefully when not wearing a helmet.” Personally, I don’t find helmets to be an issue. But a muzzle is a game changer, and it’s a game I don’t care to play.

Now I will employ a second line, either in conjunction with a second handler, or a tethered to a wall or post. That’s kept me safe in cases where I suspected the dog might come up the leash. And at least in the colder months, I’ve been known to strategically don my trusty pair of Carhartt overalls, just in case.

I don’t train aggressive dogs on psychotropic meds, and I don’t train aggressive
dogs I can’t read, or feel genuinely uncomfortable with. In at least two cases,
that’s meant instructing the client without handling the dog myself at all. In
one case, it meant referring the client out. That dog should probably have been
euthanized (and maybe has been).

I’m not suggesting I read all dogs with ease, by the way, only that I happen to be able to read most of the ones that present to me as clients. There are frankly certain breeds I see so infrequently, that I would hesitate to work with a genuinely aggressive one. (Akitas come to mind.) Bully breeds, on the other hand, are my bread and butter, so I’ve had a lot more practice reading them (and they’re just easier, too, I suspect).

Mostly, I train the dog at whatever pace he needs, in order to keep him
fundamentally on board with the project. That means keeping a sharp eye on the
threshold for a bite at any given moment, and maintaining a keen awareness of
the dog’s overall stress level. Sometimes, it means breaking lessons down into
very tiny steps, so as not to risk confusion or frustration. Sometimes (not
often) it means backing out of an exercise as gracefully as possible, and
revisiting it more carefully or intelligently just a little later on.

I still remember one session with a two-year-old American bulldog mix, newly enrolled in a board/train program. He’d been impressively responsive to a number of introductory exercises, seemed quite enthusiastic, and took the occasional correction totally in stride…until I decided to review his down command. He visibly tensed and braced himself. I went slowly, knowing I had unwittingly trespassed onto precarious ground. I’d given the cue, and felt obliged to enforce it. But just as he averted his gaze in the manner of a dog preparing to bite, I made the call to abort the exercise, returning briefly to something less stressful and ending on a high note, rather than a trip to the emergency room.

Not so long after that, I found myself listening to a young enthusiastic trainer explaining how she’d been bitten in the course of demonstrating an exercise with a client dog. She’d gotten herself into an intractable situation in the course of enforcing a command, and wound up the story with the words, “But you know, you can’t back down. You gotta win, right?”

Sure, if you call that winning.

I acknowledge skillful training can include conflict between dog and handler. But I’m against courting such conflicts
(whether intentionally or carelessly) or rushing headlong into them.

Training should be a collaboration, not between equals, but between parties that
share mutual respect. Sometimes, I think that respect is expressed by a trainer
backing off, and coming back with a better strategy, rather than coming back
with more gear.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

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  1. PBurns’s avatar

    Very nice piece. Well said and well thought.


  2. Shaun Albright’s avatar

    What a great piece.


  3. Renee’s avatar

    Why do you choose not to train that are taking meds?


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      I’ll train dogs on meds, just not genuinely aggressive ones, and just not psychotropics. I find it screws up the feedback loop, for one thing. And as a general rule, I’m not crazy about treating aggression with anything that lowers inhibition.

      But in the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t had very many such cases present, so my sample is smallish.


      1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

        As a side note, my husband just asked me if what I meant was that I stop taking meds before training aggressive dogs. I’m not on meds, by the way. But I thought that was funny.


  4. Donna Soderstrom’s avatar

    Nice explanation of the kind of balanced trainer many of us try to be. Balanced does not mean confrontational.

    PS saw the photo (with the nice lighting) of the black and white pit in the current issue of The Bark.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      Yeah, I just saw that myself. Very Proud Am I.


  5. Katie’s avatar

    It makes me sad when trainers seem to work against dogs rather than with them. I don’t like the combatant attitude I see in some people- the people who must win at all costs, and, sometimes, set that fight up to happen.

    I’m not a professional trainer, just someone who is an active sport-dog owner. My first dog came to me fairly dog-aggressive and reactive, and I am so fortunate that I sought help quickly and with somebody who could teach me about thresholds and self-control exercises and desensitization rather than someone who would try to dominate or punish her responses out of her. She is a hard dog. A soft approach was the right answer.


  6. Ruth’s avatar

    Re: an aggressive Akita, or other primitive breed, if you get the chance to work with a trainer who knows primitives, take it. Working with my two primitive breed dogs has given me a very different take on dogs in general.

    There seems to have been an upswing in the number of primitive breeds, and Livestock Guardian Breeds, going into pet homes lately, at least in my corner of the States. And with that an upswing in “my puppy is aggressive!” complaints with those dogs as the owners aren’t prepared to deal with their instincts.


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      I would love to work with someone who really gets primitive breeds. I have worked with a handful, including some very extensive work with a pair of littermate potcakes with some non-trivial issues. It was challenging, but very rewarding.


      1. Ruth’s avatar

        If you ever get bored…there are, within a state or two radius of you, a bunch of folks with New Guinea Singing Dogs. I don’t believe any of them are trainers per-se, but some of them have been involved with Singers, or other primitives, for a long time. Including rescues. Most Singer folks are always delighted to find someone who wants to learn about them.


        1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

          Well, I’m rarely bored exactly, what with two young kids and a kennel to run, but… tell me more about the New Guinea folks.


      2. Ruth’s avatar

        Lets see, Tom Wendt founded New Guinea Singing Dogs International, he’s in IL though I’m not sure how close to Chicago he is, he’s always got Singers on site, often some of the less socialized ones he’s working with. Denise Wetzel is in Wisconsin, she’s got a less than socialized adult rescue Singer, and is currently housing another who’s much more people social while his housemate is in heat.

        Those are the two closest to you who I know personally and who I know are always delighted to show off their Singers, I would be delighted to put you in contact with one or both. Not via the comments here though, my email is ruthcatrin @ scaryyankeechick.com if you want.


  7. Kathy Kail’s avatar

    If you don’t stress potentially aggressive dogs, and back off if you think the dog is going to bite, what happens when these dogs go out in a world full of people who cannot read a dog? Did the American bulldog mix learn he needed to down when told to?


    1. ruthcrisler’s avatar

      I’m not against stressing dogs productively when appropriate. As for the American bulldog mix, he surely learned to down on command, promptly and reliably.



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