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Options for an Aggressive German Shepherd Dog

We have a 3 year old German Shepherd. One throw of the rope and she’s a friend forever, if you’re an adult that is. When she gets near a toddler or a small child, she gets very aggressive. Our neighbourhood has a lot of young families and I’m scared to death that if she gets the chance she’ll bite one of them. I wish I would have read your article about socializing dogs to children, noises, etc. before they are 12 weeks old. What are our options for an aggressive dog?

– Jeff

Hi Jeff,

When dog owners have a serious behaviour problem such as this and want to know their options I tell them there are four. It’s more of an option funnel really where you move from one to the next. First though you have to start with an assessment.

The stakes are high so be careful with the assessment part. Many dog trainers are part time and fall into what I would call a hobbyist category as opposed to that of a professional. Even so, obedience training is one thing. This is quite another. For example, even an excellent full-time obedience trainer might not think to check on litter mate behaviour, or they may miss flags indicating that a dog’s thyroid or serotonin levels should need to be checked. Don’t let your dog’s future be dependent on someone who’s reach might exceed their grasp. (See side panel)

Dog Whisperer’s “Rottweiler” Attacking A 4-Year-Old Girl In The Mall! 07/20/2011
[youtube 8arycF8EvMc]

Options for an Aggressive DogSame dog trainer’s dog 2nd attack. Note the 2nd quotation:

“Lech’s dog, which was not on a leash, dragged her along the beach.The dog bit Meeka 11 times and she had to have surgery.The Cape Argus reported last week that the dog, “D”, had been put down at a private vet chosen by Lech.Lech runs a dog training and rehabilitation centre in Camps Bay and styles himself as a “dog shaman” and “dog whisperer”.”

Never would I have imagined that this incident could come to pass. Perhaps it could be said that I put too much trust into this animal, being unable to read his mind or question him directly, but I am wholeheartedly prepared to proceed responsibly.
6 Year Old Killed By Service Dog That Attackedby Kim Gebbia
CLARKSVILLE, Tenn- Police said a medical service dog that mauled a six year old to death had no history of violence, but professional trainers said that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t attack.

Oak Grove Police said there was a trail of blood through the backyard of the Linda Drive Home where a 6-year-old boy was mauled by a German Shepherd.

The boy’s parents were inside visiting friends and thought they had no reason to worry because the backyard was fenced in and the German Shepherd was a trained Medical Service Dog.

“Checking the background of this animal, at no time has it ever posed a problem to the public, never showed aggression toward anyone or anything,” said Assistant Police Chief Dennis Cunningham.

The dog’s sole purpose was to help its owner, a veteran who suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s not that he wanted to brutally kill this child it’s that he was confused on what was going on that screams were coming out and he wanted to fix it,” said specialized dog trainer Leah Patterson.

Patterson trains service dogs for vets with PTSD in Clarksville, but said the dogs should never leave the side of their owner and never be left alone with children.

“Dogs have teeth, what can you say? Anything can happen at a split moment. It could be anything from the little boy screaming at a split moment,” said Patterson.

Patterson says it’s easy for children to trigger dogs like German Shepherds, even if they are well trained. Hearing that the boy had a puncture on his hand and then was bit several times in the face fits the pattern of how these dogs can react to a playful child.

“My initial thought was maybe he nipped, and the child began screaming and the dog panicked and he wanted to fix the scream so he went for the mouth and the face area which is why he went for the attack,” said Patterson.

While police investigate what exactly happened in that Oak Grove backyard, they have euthanized the German Shepherd and said charges against the owner could be pending. If any, they would include endangerment in the first degree and harboring a vicious animal.

Background on the “specialized dog trainer” Leah Patterson

Leah Patterson graduated in 2010 after completing a Dog Obedience Instructor Training Program. It was designed to be an entry level course into the profession of dog training and covers basic obedience skills as well as treatment plans for basic problem solving.

My comment: Someone with less than two years of experience is not qualified to clear a dog for service work or prepare it to do so. Her comments if quoted accurately in the article are indicative of a sorry understanding of behaviour.

Once the assessment is complete you can have a look at level one of the funnel – the impact of training. On paper, training will almost always positively impact behaviour but a professional will read the fine print to you. There are a lot of “subject to” clauses. For instance, “Subject to: the owner having the necessary handling skills, time to invest, ability to provide a safe environment for all concerned during the rehab period etc.”

The second level of the funnel is the possibility of “the work around.” This is where we look at how we might strategize to reduce risk when training will have little or no impact. For example, the wearing of muzzles, higher fences, more diligent use of crates etc. For some behaviour problems risk might be manageable for others it is not and reliance on this option at best results in nothing more then a “next-incident” delay.

The third level is “find the dog another home”. This might be an option when it appears that training will turn the tide and the current owner cannot for whatever reason make that happen. The problem of course is that an ad saying, “Child Aggressive Dog – Free to a Good Home” isn’t going to make the phone ring off the wall. Some might suggest finding someone without children or a “place on a farm”. I’ve found this more fairy tale than reality. Children are everywhere and farmers aren’t dumb.

Sometimes a balance between our responsibility to the dog we love and our responsibility to people it will be exposed to simply cannot be found and we’re down to funnel-level four, which is euthanasia.

Your first step is finding a person (or two) to assess this dog and I must emphasize again, you may really have to dig to find someone with more experience than teaching sit for a treat or two and has a love of dogs. I love food and I “cook” but you wouldn’t want to depend on my culinary skills for a meal that really means something to you. You need someone that can really “cook” in the assessment and training department.


John Wade

(See also: Options for an Aggressive Dog Part 2)

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