Training aggressive dogs who hate to train – Adrien case study.

Adrien, Adrien, Adrien… Where do I begin. He is the black beauty so frequently pictured on the site. He is also commonly referenced when talking about complicated cases because he has a major screw loose and it translates to really bad aggression. At 90lbs and 28″ at the shoulder, this is a major issue. Adrien is the epitome of a difficult case for training. 1. He has extreme neurotic aggression and anxiety, 2. He hates to train because he gets extremely uncomfortable when all eyes are on him, 3. He isn’t motivated by anything fun or enjoyable like food or toys, and so the only way to train him is by using force/aversion. Let’s break this down..

Here is a picture perfect dog to train: happy, enthusiastic, social, friendly, handler-focused, loves food, toys and affection, and really enjoys training and doing tricks.

Here is Adrien: Anxious, intolerant, aggressive, avoidant, stubborn, independent, unpredictable, neurotic, isn’t interested in food, toys or affection and hates to train.

Most dogs with aggression fall into the former category and so working with them on their aggression is usually a fairly pleasant experience and the dog enjoys the training because he gets lots of treats and praise and any uncomfortable methods are offset by the good stuff. Most types of aggression are easily treated and the dog/human partnerships is much stronger for it.

Adrien, however.. All the qualities we look for in a dog to train, Adrien is the antithesis. How on earth do we work with him!? If he won’t take food or toys and if praise makes him freeze then what do we do? He has to be trained because aggressive dogs cannot be left without that structure and communication, but if nothing motivates him, how do we do this? There’s good news and bad news. I’ll give the bad news first.

The unfortunate reality is that the only way to train a dog like Adrien is to use forceful and aversive methods. This means that the only motivator he has is to avoid discomfort. And so we have to apply discomfort for him to do what he is supposed to do, and his reward is relief from the discomfort. This sucks, and no trainer enjoys using only this kind of training. But in Adrien’s case, it is necessary. Dogs with aggression MUST BE TRAINED in at least basic obedience. It is dangerous, selfish and irresponsible to not train an aggressive dog just because the process may be uncomfortable. Now, most aggressive dogs are awesome in every other way and do respond to food or toys or praise and enjoy the training process, so I don’t mean to suggest that all aggressive dogs need fully aversive training. But aggressive dogs that are also unmotivated by anything but discomfort have no other option. If we are unable or unwilling to train these dogs by any means necessary, the dog needs to be euthanized. This is one of the only hardline-rule type conclusions I have, because believe it or not, cases like Adrien are pretty cut and dry. The only responsible way to own an aggressive dog is to train and manage it so they are not a danger to others, and if pleasant motivation doesn’t work, then unpleasant is the only option. Period. If an aggressive dog is left untrained, no amount of management in the world is going to keep that dog and the people around it safe. Without basic training we never build that communication and partnership in a controlled setting, because anxious and miserable dogs have a difficult time bonding with their handlers, so training cannot be avoided. If training cannot or will not be done, the only responsible thing is to euthanize. This is also for the welfare of the dog – the only way to keep an aggressive dog safe without training is to isolate him to a kennel for his entire life, which is a cruelty far worse than aversive training.

Now the good news is:

 1. Dogs learn from aversive training very quickly, much more quickly than all-positive training, which is why it was the go-to method for all of human history until the last 60 years or so, which means that the unpleasant training process doesn’t last too long and once it is over you will have a very solid relationship and communication which eases future exchanges. Of course this is not to say that using full aversion training is in any way preferable, only that it is very effective. All-aversive training should never be done unless the dog’s and/or the human’s safety is on the line. Training should always begin using very pleasant motivators, and aversion is added as needed. But as we see in Adrien’s case, the pleasant motivators are moot, and so aversion is the only thing left

2. What constitutes “basic training” can be much more practical than sit, down, stay. In fact, Adrien hates training so much, and I hate using all-aversion so much, that I have developed a training plan with him that boils down to the bare minimum effort on his part. While we did learn sit, down, stay, I focused mainly on daily-life behaviors of leave it (get away from whatever you’re getting into), wait (stop where you are), back up (move backwards out of a tight space or if too close to someone or something that may be at risk), excuse me (move out of my way), go (leave me alone and go somewhere else), stay close (come to me, don’t wander off when off leash, or walk by my side when on leash) and he also moves to where I point.

Another benefit is rather than using prong or remote collars to apply pressure, I was able to use the much gentler body-bump as the aversive method on most of those behaviors. The body-bump is using my body to physically force him to move as I need him to, or using my body presence or movement to intimidate him if he is showing signs of aggression. He also is very sensitive to verbal correction, which works as an excellent alternative to remote collars to doing long distance work (but we did use e-collars on some things). Because he is aggressive, he stays close to me at all times. He is a German Shepherd so fortunately this came naturally to him, but he must always be in eyesight to avoid the risk of him aggressing to the other dogs or if people are around. Because he is always close, most of the behaviors taught have to do with him moving his body to or away from me. I walk into him forcefully if he is in my way when I’m walking, I walk into him forcefully if he is blocking me in a hallway, I bump him off balance if he is getting into something, I stand up and forcefully push his body away if he is getting too close to my food. I accompany this with whatever word I am training as a cue, and after a few days of practice, he got it and I no longer need to use my body except for times when he ignores me. Even then, it only takes the slightest touch for him to scurry in whatever direction he’s supposed to go because he knows what to do already. So the aversive training lasts only a few days and because these are used daily, he is always fresh on what I am asking and I rarely have to use any discomfort at all anymore.

Note: I will always use prong and remote collars as needed as these tools do not cause harm to the dog and do not psychologically damage them, create fears, or hurt their relationship with me. The correction given with these tools is always with the least force necessary based on the dog. Adrien is very sensitive because of his anxiety, so it doesn’t take much force for him to relieve the pressure. For example, his working level outside at height of his anxiety on the remote collar is a number 8, and I can only begin to feel it on my neck at level 14.

3. And finally, the most important good news of all, is that with this training and management, our communication is very strong, our trust in each other is rock solid, we have a very pleasant and affectionate relationship and when things are quiet and calm, he is a very happy dog. If despite all the work we did he was still always miserable and anxious, euthanasia would be the only kind option. Living in constant terror (which is where anxiety and aggression comes from) is horrible, and if training or medication doesn’t help it, life itself is a cruelty. Some dogs, through bad breeding or bad early life experience, are just wired wrong. No matter what environmental or interpersonal kindnesses they experience, they are just physiologically damaged and quality of life should always come first. This brings me to my final point. If you have a dog like Adrien, you have to seek out a trainer experienced in working with aggressive dogs, and this trainer must be willing to use aversive methods. An all-positive trainer will be completely unequipped to deal with a dog that has no pleasant motivations and a serious aggression problem, and he or she will likely recommend euthanasia before all options are tried. Beware of any trainer that doesn’t utilize all possible solutions before making the final judgement.

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