When Trust is Broken - How to Respond to Your Aggressive Dog | The Collared Scholar


December 10, 2015Meagan Karnes12 CommentsGeneral Training

She sobbed in front of me, not able to contain her tears as she emotionally recalled the events of the past week.

She had been bitten by her dog, and as a result, she had landed herself in the ER with a serious wound. Now she was left to deal with her complete lack of trust in the dog she shared her home with. 

Her physical wounds would heal. But the emotional scars ran deep. 

As terribly challenging as her situation was, her story is not an uncommon one. In fact, she is just one of the dozens upon dozens I meet each year who come to me with a similar narrative. 

The story usually sounds something like this:

There is a tormented owner who really loved their pet, and who gave their dog everything. The dog enjoyed a peaceful existence and wanted for nothing. But still, something had gone very wrong. 

Out of the blue, the dog had unleashed on their owner, biting down with force over something seemingly benign. Moving a dog bed perhaps. Or rolling over in bed. Maybe the dog was lounging comfortably on the doting owners lap and was startled from sleep when the owner stood. Or perhaps the owner simply wanted to vacuum. 

The aggression isn’t limited to owners, although that tends to be the most emotionally painful. Maybe the dog was lounging lazily near a house guest when the owner decided it was time to lead the dog outside. Perhaps the owner grabbed the dog’s collar and triggered something he didn’t even know existed, causing the dog to unload on the unsuspecting guest. Perhaps owners were having a BBQ and they dropped food, the begging dog rushing to claim it, putting someone in the hospital in its wake. Or perhaps a friend was snuggling a dog she’s met a thousand times, kissing his head as she always had. But this time her affection is not returned. This time, it’s met with teeth.

Whatever the story, the results are the same. I am faced with a baffled owner with nothing but love in their heart, who now feels betrayed and nervous. And in their sadness and feelings of betrayal, they begin questioning themselves. 

“What could I have done differently?”

“Why did this happen?” 

“I thought my dog loved me. Why would she bite me?”

While they have given nothing but love, warm beds to sleep on, a lovely home to live in, and meals and treats in plenty, they have still suffered an inexplicable betrayal. They are left feeling broken, baffled, and confused.

I’ll often hear things like:

“I’ve never hit her.” or “I don’t even punish her!” or “I’ve never abused him.” or “He gets whatever he wants.”

The answers seem unattainable, but one thing is for sure – this feels personal. And as the emotional spiral continues and confusion wells up, the pain of it all can be crippling.

I’ve been there

As I hear these stories week after week, my thoughts return to Koby, my first dog way back when I was a biologist and knew nothing about dogs except that I loved them. I can relate to these stories because I’ve got one of my own. The why’s and how’s once filled my head as I tried desperately to understand how my cherished dog could have bitten someone in the face. The feelings of hopelessness and anxiety haunting me long after the fact.

As I look at these troubled owners in tears, struggling in sheer bewilderment, I see my younger self. A naive dog owner that was absolutely convinced that “Love is all you need.”

Here’s the honest truth

I am committed to supporting dog owners. I am here to offer guidance, to help them work through their problems, and to give them an unbiased opinion about the events and challenges they are facing with their dog. But in my head, I’m always recalling my past. I remember what I went through and think about the fact that I hired 12 different trainers and spent thousands of dollars attempting to resolve Koby’s problems. That I tried everything I knew to try. That my dog was a liability until the day he died. And while I loved him more than anything, his aggression had an impact on me for the rest of his life.

Here is what I want to say to every dog owner who is dealing with this kind of predicament:

  1. This isn’t your fault – Overzealous dog trainers and owners often want to make this about you. They love dogs and, while they may have managed things differently, you can’t be expected to understand behavior at their level. If you’re like me, you rescued a dog with an unknown background. If you’re like me, you did your research. And if you’re like me, you did do everything right….  at least everything you could have possibly known to do right. But no one ever told you the honest to goodness truth about the breed and background of the dog you adopted and the potential for behavioral issues that you could face. People providing information gloss over things like aggression, because, let’s face it, you probably wouldn’t have brought the dog home if you had all the facts.  But you did bring the dog home, and now you’re having a difficult time managing the situation – and believe it or not, that’s okay.
  2. This isn’t personal – A bite to you or a bite to one of your friends isn’t a personal attack. I know it feels incredibly personal. I know you’ve lost trust. And I know it hurts. But your dog doesn’t perceive the world and relationships in the same way you do. Aggression is a normal part of dog communication. And although it feels personal to you, because you’ve given your dog everything and now they’ve betrayed you, your dog isn’t being deliberately malicious. 
  3. Love isn’t all you need – I see about 2-3 severely aggressive dogs every week. And I see dog owner after dog owner do everything by the book. The dog has an incredible home with them – a warm bed, meals and treats like crazy, and experiences nothing but love from their human family. But all of the love in the world isn’t going to change aggression. Aggression isn’t about abuse or lack of love. Aggression comes from reinforcement history. It is a tool in a dog’s tool box, used to get what he wants. Perhaps he wants people to go away. Perhaps he is fearful. Perhaps he wants people to stay away from his bowl. Whatever the desired goal, more often than not, aggression persists because, plainly stated, it works. And whether you believe it or not, aggression, or better yet, the propensity for aggression, can be a genetically inherited trait. Place a dog with a genetic predisposition for aggression into a home with love to give, but where the behavior isn’t understood or is mismanaged, and you’ll quickly have a perfect storm.

Rebuilding isn’t easy

For those owners who have either been bitten by their dog or have witnessed their dog biting someone else, I’ll be honest – your confidence, whether you’ll admit it or not, has been affected. And regardless of what other trainers might tell you, if you can’t trust your dog, you can’t help your dog. 

Sure, this is a rebuilding process, but I can tell you first hand from my own experiences with rehabilitating hundreds of aggressive dogs – trust is the hardest thing to redeem. Although most dog owners in this situation are able to train their dog, often they themselves never fully recover from the trust that was broken. And if you’re not able to trust your dog, it’s not possible for the relationship to be fully restored. You’ll need to instead trust yourself and your ability to read and manage your dog… and I can say without a doubt, that is easier said than done.

There’s no way around it – working through serious aggression is extremely hard. It requires you to be consistent, to take great precaution, and to simultaneously let go of fear. And sometimes your best intentions to rehabilitate your dog and to remain committed to the grueling process just aren’t enough.

I won’t judge you

I won’t judge you for making a very hard decision about your dog. It’s okay to say, “I can’t do this anymore”, and it’s okay to put your safety and the safety of your loved ones first. I love dogs more than most, and I want nothing more than for them to be happy and cared for. That being said, it’s not fair to let your emotions, whether love or guilt, get in the way of doing what is best for your home.

If you can’t follow through with rehabilitation training, it is not alright for your dog to live “managed” in a crate. And it isn’t okay for you to put other people at risk. If you need to make a tough decision, I will support you. Because your safety and because the happiness of your dog are my top priorities. 

I’m frustrated

Every time I see a dog owner broken down into tears in front of me, I vow to myself to quit dogs. I think, “I just can’t take the heartache anymore,” and I feel frustrated. 

Of course, I’m frustrated for the dogs. I never want to see a dog uncomfortable in its surroundings or suffering from fear and anxiety. And I’m frustrated because I’m afraid you won’t follow through when things get hard. 

But more than anything, I’m frustrated at the way overzealous dog lovers repeatedly treat owners who are faced with these very difficult behaviors. 

I’m frustrated because the people that are passing along these aggressive dogs, are regularly pulling the wool over new dog owners’ eyes and putting the dog’s needs in front of the safety and well being of their new owners. 

I’m frustrated that dog lovers are quick to blame the owner, becoming judgmental and at times, downright mean. “You should have done this…,” or “If you’d only done that…,” or “This is your fault…,” But in actuality, dealing with aggression is hard – sometimes unresolvable. Maybe an owner didn’t do everything right,  but perhaps they simply didn’t know any better. And perhaps, this dog isn’t suited for them. 

And I’m frustrated with trainers. I’m frustrated with big promises and no results. I’m frustrated with doggy bootcamps that bundle what should take months to train into two short weeks, returning a push button dog that only listens because he is forced with training collars and intimidation. And I’m frustrated with uneducated trainers taking people’s money because they can get mild mannered dogs to do flashy obedience. Rehabilitating aggression requires a very in depth understanding of dog behavior and can’t be fixed with basic sits, stays, and downs.

And as I look upon my customers, sitting in front of me in tears, I tell them the truth. It’s the only thing I know how to do. 

Love isn’t all you need when it comes to finding a solution regarding your aggressive dog. In fact, it’s only a very small fraction in a very large equation. You’ll need an expert you trust – someone who is going to get to the root of your problem, not cover it up with basic commands. You need resilience, strength, perseverance, and courage. You must separate your emotions from the work you are about to do, and you must stop anthropomorphizing your dog’s behavior. You need time and energy as this won’t be fixed in a 30 minute training session once per week. And you need a willingness to change your lifestyle, change the way you interact with your dog daily, and change your management techniques. And most importantly, you need to listen to and do what your behaviorist says. Get consistent, buckle down, and prepare for a tough journey as this will regularly test your willpower. Because you can’t love aggression out of your dog. But with enough determination, and the right expert, you can get through it.

Chelsey Montgomery