Training Larger Dogs Using Positive Methods

Aggressive behavior sometimes starts at home – with the dog owners!


A holistic pet behavior counselor often has to be like a detective. You have to find all of the missing pieces of the puzzle and put them together to form a complete picture. Sometimes this is not easy because people are not accustomed to thinking about the whole picture in order to determine the cause of their problems. Most of the time, people focus on one detail and cannot see the forest through the trees.

This was certainly the case with Brutus, who was a 12-week-old Rottweiler puppy when his family called to inquire about my puppy class. Brutus belonged to a large family with five children ranging in age from sixteen to eight years. However, their veterinarian advised against taking a kindergarten class, so they decided not to attend. Instead, they waited until Brutus was six months old and enrolled him in a traditional obedience class.

The 16-year-old daughter was Brutus’ primary trainer and she did everything her instructor told her to do. At first, Brutus, too, seemed to tolerate the training and did as he was told. The family was pleased and happy with his progress. But as the class advanced, “obedience” became less agreeable to Brutus. He became defiant and angry, and finally began acting aggressively, threatening each of the family members in separate instances.

After an incident wherein he bit one of the younger children, the family took Brutus to a veterinarian to see if maybe something was wrong with him. At the veterinarian’s office, he was completely out of control and had to be tranquilized so they could work on him. Wisely, the veterinarian suggested they talk to another trainer, one who specialized in violence-free training methods; he gave them my number.

By the time they called me, Brutus was 18 months old and still unneutered. I have two requirements for taking aggression cases: The dog must be spayed or neutered, and they must take the dog in for a complete blood work-up and urinalysis. The second requirement had already been met; the lab work showed that Brutus had no obvious health problems. However, the family was hesitant about neutering and I told them to think it over and let me know what they decided. Shortly afterward, the family had Brutus neutered, and made an appointment with me to bring him to my teaching center. I asked the whole family to attend.

Brutus was the largest Rottweiler I have ever seen. When he was standing and I was sitting we were eyeball to eyeball. He seemed sweet, but his family was having some serious problems with him and now we had to try to figure out what was happening.

Diet and Aggression

The first thing we discussed was diet. They had been feeding him some grocery store dog food and that was all. Their veterinarian and breeder had told them never to feed him “people food.” However, these experts were not living with this dog and dealing with his behavior!

They were astounded to hear me tell them to feed him whatever they were eating. The rule of thumb was: If what you’re eating is good for you, then it’s good for Brutus!

I explained the importance of a fresh food diet and its effect on health and behavior. When a dog is not receiving proper nutrition, he cannot function well mentally or physically. What is sold as food for dogs in bags and cans is barely recognized by their bodies as food. All living creatures need fresh food in order to be healthy.

In Brutus’ case, I suggested that extra carbohydrates and fats in the diet have proven to be quite helpful in aggression cases. Although initially reluctant to go along with this, after much discussion, they finally agreed to give it a try. They felt they had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The next topic of discussion was the environment. When Brutus was a puppy, they had intended to make him a member of the family and have him live in the house. Since he had become aggressive, he was banished to the back yard and never allowed in the house.

This led to a discussion of the importance of incorporating Brutus back into the family. The more time he spent alone in the yard, the more his behavior deteriorated. While he was out there, he received no education about living with humans. He was merely a dog living in the yard. He made up his own rules and was apparently quite adamant about enforcing them.

By bringing him back into the family, with rules and guidelines, he could be more easily taught and learn how to be the omega member of the family, rather than the alpha! Of course, I was not suggesting they just open the door and let him in the house. They would have to decide in what rooms he would be allowed, where he would sleep, what barriers they could use and what rules they wanted to enforce.

From now on, the rule was simply that anything Brutus wanted was to be regarded as a reward. He was to say PLEASE and THANK YOU by doing what he was told in order to obtain the reward! If he did it, he got what he wanted. If he didn’t do it, he was denied what he wanted.

To accomplish this, a “no free lunch” program was to be instituted. This meant that from now on, Brutus would have to do something to earn what he wanted. If he wanted to be petted, he must first be told to SIT or DOWN or whatever. If he complied, then he would be petted. If he did not comply, there was to be no petting. The same was to be done at feeding times, when giving cookies, when letting him outside or inside, when playing with him, etc. Brutus would soon learn that if he did as he was told, then he could have whatever he wanted! This would give him a reason to listen and go along with what he was told.

The Heart of the Aggression Problem

The next subject was what kind of training Brutus had received. It was in this phase of the consultation that I finally uncovered the cause of his aggression.

The family told me they had taken him to an obedience class where he was taught the basic commands SIT, DOWN, COME, HEEL, STAY. They had used choke chains and been instructed to give him very harsh corrections when he made any mistakes. The instructor showed the daughter how to hang the dog by the collar until he almost passed out when he did not obey.

Because he was such a big dog, this did not work well. So he taught her how to use a rubber hose with a wooden dowel in it and smack him on the snout when he disobeyed. This sounded cruel to the family but the trainer assured them it was not and that they must do it or they would never have control of their dog. With much trepidation, they went along with the program and Brutus became worse and worse.

When they called their trainer about the aggression, he said they would have to get more physical with their dog. He told them, “Never let him get away with anything and harshly punish every incident of defiance. Brutus must be forced to obey every command.” These people trusted their trainer and did as they were told.

When I asked the girl to demonstrate how Brutus responded to her commands, she put a choke chain on him, then began shouting commands and jerking on his leash. Brutus reluctantly did what he was told, but grew visibly tense and angry.

At last, this was the puzzle piece that had been missing. Brutus’ “aggression” was really a defensive response to anticipated punishment that was poorly timed and totally misunderstood. He had been brutalized into obedience because that is what the “expert” had told his family they must do. This made him frightened, then defensive, and, finally, aggressive.

An Understandable Response

Imagine the situation from Brutus’ perspective. He had a family who loved and cherished him. Then one day they all began yelling at him and hurting him. Suddenly he did not feel safe with them and their “weird” behavior toward him. He did what his doggy brain told him to do and defended himself. I quickly ended the demonstration of Brutus’ training and removed the choke chain from his neck. I then introduced him to a clicker and a treat. Using the click/treat technique, Brutus was willingly performing all the things he knew how to do in a matter of minutes. He was doing it happily, willingly, off-leash and having fun for the first time. The entire family sat there in utter amazement. They could not believe I was able to tell Brutus to SIT and he would do it, without a leash or a collar. He was a completely different dog!

We had a few more sessions together and completed the reeducation of Brutus and his family. Everyone was delighted with the results. Brutus and his family had finally found the path to mutual trust and respect. It’s sad that people get such bad advice and feel they have no where else to turn. It’s really sad that dogs have to endure the bad advice of these “experts.” If someone tells you to do something that seems unkind or downright cruel, trust your instincts and don’t do it. Keep searching for someone who can help you and your dog learn to live happily ever after together!

Linda Goodman is a holistic pet behavior consultant with a training center and a Holistic Pet Supply Center in Riverside, California.