Working with Aggressive Dogs

Podcast - Working with Aggressive Dogs

Podcast Episode 42: Working with Aggressive Dogs

Living with an aggressive dog is stressful. Never being sure what will happen on your daily walk, potential injuries, vet bills, legal consequences, etc. You don’t have to live like this. This episode discusses our training approach to working with aggressive dogs. We are specialized in resolving dog aggression of all types and will do all we can to give you the dog you always wanted. We have over 18 years of experience resolving aggression in dogs.

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Podcast Transcript: Working with Aggressive Dogs

Hello, This is Ralf from Happy Dog Training, and welcome to another episode of Dog Talk. Today, we will discuss how we deal with aggressive dogs and our Resolve Aggression program. This is a high-level overview of how we approach dealing with aggression.

Not A Self-Help Guide

This is not a self-help guide for you to embark on this journey alone. I strongly recommend hiring a professional dog trainer to help you with any aggressive dog case, and do not attempt anything with aggressive dogs by yourself. That is usually a bad idea unless you understand dogs well and have a good amount of experience.

I personally recommend Training Without Conflict certified dog trainers or dog trainers from the dog trainer school of Michael Ellis in Northern California. Those are my two top recommendations for hiring trainers in general and definitely when it comes to aggression cases.

Understanding Aggression

Here’s what this landscape looks like. The first thing to understand about aggression is that when a dog displays aggressive behaviors, it doesn’t automatically mean that you have a vicious dog on your hands.

Most of the aggressive behaviors that come to me in the form of clients with their dogs are rooted in fear. Aggression based on fearful reaction is the number one cause of aggression resolution that we get. A dog that is fearful and expresses aggressive behaviors because they’re uncomfortable in certain situations and don’t know what else to do is different from dealing with a dog who uses aggression to get its way.

You have to deal with a dog who is super confident and tries to get its way using aggressive strategies differently than a dog who is afraid and uses it because he’s emotionally challenged in the situation and doesn’t know what other options there are. So, he acts aggressively, and ultimately that gets people to back off, and the dog gets what he wants; from his perspective, it worked. So, understand the likelihood that you have truly an aggressive dog whose aggressive behavior is not rooted in fear is rather small.

I know that certain dog trainers will disagree with me on that, but I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I’ve dealt with a lot of dogs, and it is, most of the time—nine out of ten times—the root is fear. And that is something that requires building trust, confidence, and other things.

So, understand that the likelihood [is small] of you having a truly aggressive dog that’s just trying to get its way and bully you and push you around versus a fearful dog. You’re probably on the fear side in most scenarios.

Dealing with Aggression

The second thing is when it comes to aggressive behaviors, especially on the fearful side. Going straight into that behavior, trying to suppress it, and addressing it head-on is not the best of ideas. You can easily get into a war with a dog over something like that.

A dog that won’t back down is never a good place to be. So, any approach and strategy that you take in dealing with a behavioral challenge involving aggression that results in you getting into a war with a dog is a failure. That should never happen. That is not a viable path to help the dog and to help you. You want to try to avoid a full confrontation—caveat on that.

Never, Say Never

There will be scenarios, and there will be cases where there is no other option. But hopefully, those are few and far between. That shouldn’t be the go-to, and it shouldn’t be the standard prescription. So, never say never, right? Absolutes are always a tricky thing. There’s always going to be a time when you just have to tackle something first so you can actually get through to the dog. But it’s not the preferred way, especially with a fearful dog.

Fearful Dogs

Actually, with a fearful dog, it’s never…it’s never—I mean, never say never—but it’s like I have a really hard time even making that caveat because you should always try to show the dog first that you’re not trying to harm him before you do anything else. But just to understand that a full frontal confrontation, if that’s the approach that somebody comes at you with or suggests—I don’t recommend you walk down this road. This can be very, very tricky, and it can damage; there can be some damage in this process to your relationship, to your dog, there are problems approaching it this way. So here is what we do. And obviously, that’s the approach that I generally think is the better approach.

Our Approach

Obviously, we work with play-based approaches in general. So, play-based training is ultimately what it comes down to. When you work with me, that’s always the goal, and that’s usually possible. So, the first thing I always tell my clients when they come with an aggressive dog is, “We’re going to spend some time together, and I mean me and the dog, for me and the dog to become friends.”

I will show that dog, even if he’s aggressive, that I’m no danger to him, that I’m friendly, and that I have no ill intentions. And that sometimes, that involves simply protecting myself until I can show him that I’m not meaning anything bad. And you don’t need to be doing some of the things that you may be used to doing to people.

Step One: Protective Equipment and Making Friends

So, in the initial stages of working with a dog who just has a hard time not biting, I may wear protective equipment, like a bite suit or so, and can act completely calm around him because now, if he bites me, it doesn’t matter. He can’t get anywhere with it. He will then see that that hasn’t really any benefit to him. It has no necessity because I’m not doing anything bad, and it is not resulting in any outcome because I’m not reacting to it either. It just becomes a pointless exercise for him to bite my legs or something at this moment. And that’s all part of becoming friends.

I want to show the dog that I’m not an enemy or there to get him. I’m not there to do anything bad to him. I just want to get to know him. It also allows me to get to know the dog better. So. So the first step is making friends.

Step Two: Activity

The second step is finding an activity we can do together. And now it gets into play. I will probably still have to protect myself with some protective equipment initially, but we will start playing a game, and I will show the dog I want to have fun with him.

Maybe he wants to participate. So, we’re going into the second stage—Let’s try to play together. Let’s try to have some fun together. And then, once we have accomplished that, we will start teaching some rules as part of this interaction. We’re going to teach our dog that there are certain things you just have to do in this game that we play together.

Dogs Learn Rules

If you don’t do those things, you may be penalized. It could be as simple as a pop on a collar or something like that. But it’s going to learn the concept of rules. He’s going to learn the concept of consequences.

And it all happens inside an activity, a fun activity, that at this point, we have built up enough. So the dog really enjoys it a lot. It’s happening in a completely friendly environment with someone he has learned to appreciate in a non-confrontational manner. And there’s just like, dude, there are rules here. You’ve got to follow those. I’m following them. You have to follow them.

So, we’ll show him clearly those rules, and everybody has to follow them, including myself. And taking this route, I can introduce all the concepts I need to deal with aggressive behaviors under the scenarios that the dog comes in for more successfully later.

Starting Outside the Context

I’m taking the issue completely outside the context of the problem, like going after dogs or visitors or people or whatever. And I’m introducing these ideas of rules, consequences, and penalties in a fun game. We do that with our children. Let’s say you have a troubled child and want to teach the kids some rules. A common approach is to enroll him in martial arts or enroll him in some other sports. If martial arts is something you’re uncomfortable with or the kid has no interest in, enroll him in some kind of sports activity where he gets to engage in something fun with other people.

But you have to learn to behave yourself inside that group of people because if you don’t, there’s going to be a foul and an out, and you have to go and sit on a bench and get a red card or whatever the rules of the game are you’re engaging in is.

But now we’re teaching the kid consequences as part of a fun activity he has learned to appreciate and wants to participate in.

Same Goes For Dogs

It’s the same concept just applied to dog—building, a fun activity. Our dog loves doing it, and we’re teaching some rules. And then, because dogs are great generalizers, we can then take those rules and apply them to other scenarios. So, we then have to deal with whatever aggressive behavior is ultimately the cause the trainer was called for. We can now apply all these understandings to the scenarios. Obviously, it will somewhat change how this is executed because it will be more intense, and there will be emotional involvement if it’s a fear-based behavior.

But hopefully, we have more confidence in our dog at this point or have a more confident dog. Not us having confidence. We have a more confident dog because we helped him get more comfortable in general before we applied it to the real-world scenarios that the person called us for. Now, the dog understands his choices.

He can act like an idiot, and there will be a consequence that he has to deal with, or he can not, and we go back and play. So, it becomes all contingent upon its own behavior. The dog is in total control of his own experience.

These aspects are a key ingredient for success around helping him understand that his aggressive behaviors are unacceptable to us and will not be tolerated. Obviously, we can’t have that. We can’t have a dog bite people. We can’t have a dog attack other dogs.

The Dog Doesn’t Have to Be Friends With Everybody

That doesn’t mean he’s going to love everybody now. That doesn’t mean he’s going to play with every dog. If or if not, that will happen depends on so many other factors that may or may not happen.

In many cases, it won’t. He may just be uncomfortable around other dogs or doesn’t care for other dogs all that much. And that’s not necessary. It’s not that he has to be friends with everybody, but we can reach a point where he understands that his aggressive behavior is not something we will tolerate. We can’t have that.

Rules and Consequences

It’s consequences, rules, and consequences. So easy for a dog to get there because that’s how it works for them in their packs. That’s how it works for them in nature. They only grab a porcupine one time. And then nature taught them that grabbing porcupines with your mouth is a really bad idea.

So, they understand these concepts based on their nature. It’s all good, if we teach them correctly and ensure our dog understands he controls his own experience. The parameters of interaction are clearly understood, and he understands nothing unpredictable is happening to him.

The Dog’s Choice

He can totally control which way that’s going. His behavior will drive [from the dog’s point of view] if we’re going to go into a consequence or if we’re going to play. And it is vitally important to ensure your dog understands he is in control. [You are telling the dog that ] Nobody is doing anything to you. It’s your choice. You decide which road we will walk down whenever we meet a dog. Every time we meet a person, you get to decide. You understand your options. Pick.

Sooner or later, your dog will pick door number two, which is, let’s just ignore that and go back to playing because there is no point. A: It’s not necessary. B: It doesn’t do anything. C: I’m getting a penalty. I don’t care for that. Let’s just play. And then the behavior stops.

The End Result

And voila, we have accomplished what we set out to do. We have curbed the aggressive behavior in the scenarios we needed to address. That doesn’t mean the dog couldn’t display aggressive behaviors in other scenarios under new novel stimuli we’ve never encountered before.

We could take a vacation, and there are suddenly water skiers. And he’s never seen that. We may have to teach him you can’t bark at water skiers.

So, we may have to go through our process again for water skiers, or we just ignore it because we’re going back home and there are no water skiers. It is a choice if it’s worth doing or not. It depends on the individual circumstances and a lot of different factors. But there is a general process of explaining to a dog what your options are, and it’s done in the least confrontational way possible while still showing him the consequences of this behavior. The consequences don’t have to be drastic. They don’t have to be drastic at all. Simple training collars will do the job.

Avoid Extremist Thinking

It’s not that you have to go overboard and do intense stuff you don’t want to do—none of that. People always tend to imagine the most extreme things because the dog is aggressive, so we must also be aggressive. The dog is doing something dangerous, so we have to take extreme measures.

No, we have to take clear measures. We have to be clear in our teaching and show our dog these are your choices. We don’t have to go overboard and do things we shouldn’t do. This is not the time. We don’t want to hurt or injure dogs. We don’t want to go overboard and do all kinds of shocking stuff you see on YouTube. None of that’s necessary.

Don’t Start a War

We don’t want to go into a war with the dog. We just want to present clear choices, and we want to teach clear lessons, and then let the dog decide which path he wants to walk on today. He will have enough of door number one at some point and always goes through door number two. Because door number one never works. It’s not necessary. It doesn’t result in anything. There is no point.

Okay. Let’s just not do that anymore. And that goes back to the general understanding or general desire of every being to have the best possible day. Nobody, including your dog, wakes up thinking, “Well, let me figure out how to have the crappiest day possible today. How can I really mess up my routine?” Nobody does that, right? Everybody hopes to get through the day decently and have a good time.

Some Things Are Not Optional

Generally speaking, we must go to work and do things we may not want. But we all want the best experience possible given the parameters of our lives. And your dogs are no different. They want to have the best possible day. And when they realize, “Well, that’s a good choice, and that’s a bad choice. I’m going to stop making bad choices. I will stop grabbing the porcupine (metaphorically speaking) because that’s not a good idea.”

We talked about rattlesnake avoidance training recently—the same concept. We teach the dog that approaching rattlesnakes is a really bad idea. Don’t do that. And the dog: “Okay, I got it. Don’t go near that scent. That’s not a good scent. That scent is something we want to stay away from. Bad scent.” And then we stay safe from rattlesnakes. It’s the same principle, but the process in rattlesnake avoidance training is different from what I’m talking about right now, but it’s the same concept of choices.


That’s the overall outline of how we approach aggression—making friends, doing something fun together, teaching rules and consequences as part of a fun game. And only then, after we’ve done all of that, do we apply that to the real world. That way, we keep the conflict to an absolute minimum and never go into a war or a fight with a dog. That is not the goal. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen if a dog is super intense and blows up beyond anything you can control.

You have to deal with it at some point, which is why you shouldn’t do it yourself and hire a professional. But it’s not the goal. It should never be the goal and should not be part of the general process. We [don’t] have to hammer the dog with an e-collar at the highest level to show him who the boss is. That’s a bad idea. That’s not the goal.

The Goal is Cooperation

The goal is as I outlined. It’s a very cooperative approach. It’s fair to the dog because, basically, the dog is the master of his domain. He controls his decisions, consequences, and life experiences during this process. It’s never thrust upon him. He decides which way he wants to go. We just present clear choices and consequences along the way, which is a good path to stopping aggression. And, we avoid confrontation as much as possible.

We can’t avoid it completely. Obviously, if your dog’s reacting inappropriately, that has to be addressed, but we want to keep it to a minimum. We want to keep it light on the dog and us.

It’s not fun to go into battle with the dogs. Not fun at all. Unfortunately, I found myself in these situations a few times, which I do not want to be in. So, I avoid them as much as I can. They are not good situations. I never seek to produce them intentionally.

So that’s the overall outline. I hope that makes sense. I hope that gives you a little bit of an overview of how this can be approached differently than you probably see when you start looking around for aggressive dog behavior and treatment online. It also gives you something to think about on how to go about it in general.

Want More?

There are tons of other videos in our podcast that go along with some of the concepts. But again, this is a high-level outline. This is not a step-by-step anything. So, hire a professional trainer, and again, I recommend Training Without Conflict certified trainers for problems like these because then you know you’re getting someone who understands all the aspects of this quite well.

I hope this was helpful. You found it informative. You got something out of it, and I’ll see you again next time. Bye.


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We are located in Southern California and train dogs nationwide. Happy Dog Training currently offers local dog training services in the following counties. Riverside County, Orange County, San Bernardino County, Los Angeles County, and San Diego County. In addition, we offer our board-and-train program nationwide and all virtual training services worldwide.

Do you want your new puppy trained right from the start? Are you looking for help for your fearful dog? Do you need to resolve a severe aggression problem? You came to the right place! We are experienced, professional dog trainers. Ralf has trained over 1500 dogs in over 18 years, and Sarah has trained over 1200 dogs in over 11 years. Consequently, we can help you with any dog training goal.

What We Offer

For many of our clients, we train their dogs from puppyhood, getting them off to a great start. However, we also have extensive experience training rescue dogs from all imaginable backgrounds and circumstances. Our Board-and-Train program is our most popular.

We can help you, regardless of your dog's challenges or training goals. Being a professional dog trainer means having experience, knowledge, and skill. Further, we developed a highly effective training program to specifically help fearful dogs gain more confidence and become the best possible version of themselves. Building Confidence is our second most popular training program.

Last but not least, we are experts in dealing with all types of aggression in dogs and are often the trainers of last resort after many other programs have failed. Most of our aggressive dog clients previously spent significant money on half-baked solutions without much improvement. This is different from us. We will give you an honest assessment of what goals are realistic for your dog. We will tell you what can be resolved reliably and what likely needs to be managed before we start.

Our flagship product is our board and train program. But our virtual dog training and coaching services have become quite popular over the last couple of years. Our setup enables us to deliver online dog training services from our indoor and outdoor training areas. This allows us to help clients worldwide.

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Also, check out our Free Dog Training tips on Separation Anxiety in Dogs, Potty Training aka Housebreaking, and Leash Handling for expert solutions to common challenges.

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About Ralf and Sarah

Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.


Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.

Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.

Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer

Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.

Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.