Choke chains and other mistakes when working with dog aggression

I have tremendous success with my aggression cases and have been helping dogs overcome aggression since 2002. There are strategies that you can use that can make the situation worse.
I want you to avoid doing that and help your dog become more comfortable faster.

Everyone has their own views about curing aggression. A surprising number of trainers recommend abusive methods such as choke chains and shock collars. Those same trainers think that you have to treat aggression with aggression. "Show the dog who is boss" or be the "pack leader" or "dominant". I urge you to look beyond the fear tactics they use to scare you into leaving your common sense behind and hire them to beat up your dog. If it feels wrong and abusive, it probably is.

Don't let anyone tell you that you need to beat up or "break" your dog to cure him of his aggression.

Follows are some mistakes that I see when working with aggression. Want to join in on the conversation? Leave comments. I won't be shy responding.

Mistake - Using choke chains, prong collars, shock collars, or other positive punishment.

This is often incorrectly referred to as "negative reinforcement". Positive punishment is the act of adding something aversive in order to stop a behavior.

With aggression, some trainers recommend using a choke chain or shock collar and adding pain when a dog is aggressive.

Why it is a mistake.

Similar to alpha rolls, the dog can seem to be "cured" because they stop showing aggression, but the underlying anxiety can still be present. It is also unnecessary and abusive to add physical pain to any animal that is under stress. It is unfair, irresponsible and unnecessary to add pain to a dog when he is uncomfortable. Move him away, manage him better and use systematic desensitization to build confidence and get him more comfortable with the situation.

I equate punishing a dog for showing signs of aggression to punishing a person that is afraid of spiders. Just imagine if you were afraid of spiders, a spider fell on your head when you walked through it's web and you started screaming. Then, someone shocked you or choked you. You are responding to a stimulus (the spider) in way that you can't help and punished for it. If this happened, would you become more comfortable around spiders? I doubt it.

That is similar to a dog that is afraid of another dog or a person. They growl or bark because they are afraid. If they are choked or shocked when this happens, they will continue to be afraid of the approaching stimulus, and also afraid to show signals. If any animal is afraid, positive punishment can stop the animal from showing outward signs of discomfort, but the anxiety has not been addressed, except to mask it.

Then, that dog reaches a point that the dog can't help but to attack. It seems like they are attacking out of nowhere, but their signals were suppressed, so it seems like that. Not good.

Note: I am 100% against using choke chains, prong collars or shock collars in all dog training situations. Period. Comments? Please comment below.

Mistake - Moving too quickly or inappropriate expectations.

I was at a second appointment recently with a client that has a newly adopted dog that exhibits aggression towards people and dogs. She had bitten two people in the first week in her new home with little damage.

After working slowly and systematically during the first session, we made a lot of progress while I assessed Tulip's anxiety and learned her signals. By the end of the session, I could walk slowly towards her up to about 10 feet away while she remained calm the entire time. 

The second appointment we continued working and I was able to give Tulip a few treats from my outstretched hand, while Tulip was on leash the entire time.

I advised my client to move her away at some point to a distance of 5 feet. He said he was surprised that I was still cautious at this stage. She seemed fine and was taking treats gently out of my hand. 

The reason that I did not push too quickly and try and pet Tulip is that I did not want to put her in a situation where she felt nervous and that she had to defend herself by growling, barking or biting.

Aggression has obvious signals such as growling and biting, but before that happens, a dog starts to get anxious. In other words, if a dog would bite me if I touched her collar, she is not completely calm all the way until I touch her collar and then she gets instantly anxious and bites me. There is a point that she sees me approaching when she starts to get anxious.

If I push too quickly, I am proving to the dog that she needs to keep an eye on me and that I am a threat. 

I want dogs to not care about the trigger (person, dog, car, bicycle, etc.) that is currently causing stress. If a dog sees me in her house and I always push her until she shows obvious signals, then she will at some point start to get anxious as soon as she sees me.

"There's that guy, I need to be cautious, I know at some point he is going to come over here . . . oh, he stood up, is he coming over? He looked at me, this is it . . ." If that is our relationship then she will never learn to be completely calm when I am in the room or it might take a really long time.

Desensitization is working below the dog's stress level so she is not repeatedly thrust into defense or attack mode. 

Go slowly. Pay attention to your dog's signals, and it will pay off.

Oh yeah, did I mention you don't need shock collars or choke chains? You don't.

Latest Blog Posts

Let's talk about corrections in dog training

While working with a private client recently, we ran into another local Chicago trainer. It was interesting, because we were both teaching our clients the exact same lesson, using different...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2010-12-20 19:37:38
  • Hits 11268

Teach emergency stop

On Friday I met a client for the first session and met his wonderful 1.5 year old Labrador Retriever named Riley. Our session ended after some fantastic leash work, placement cues and some work on...

  • jeff-millman
  • 2010-12-21 03:50:21
  • Hits 8441

Do not ask an aggressive dog to sit

I work with dog-dog aggression a lot. I get lots of practice in the congested city of Chicago, and I use techniques that work. As with any training topic, there are many competing strategies out...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2010-12-28 21:32:17
  • Hits 49839

Don't repeat cues and other dog training tips

Just some quick thoughts to make your life as a dog trainer much easier. After training thousands of dogs, it still amazes me how the little suggestions can make the biggest difference.
  • Jeff Millman
  • 2010-12-30 19:22:30
  • Hits 27921

Dog training myths

There are so many dog training myths perpetuated by old school techniques, bad trainers, or trainers that do not give their clients the benefit of the doubt and "dumb down" everything into simple...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2010-12-29 19:37:00
  • Hits 10744

Tips to train your dog to come

I realized that I never taught my dogs what "Come on guys let's go for a walk" meant. That was many years ago, and since then I have taught them that, but it reminded me of the importance of...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2010-12-30 21:35:06
  • Hits 10520

Find time for dog training in your busy schedule

Everyone is busy. My wife and I have a wonderful new baby boy and it is challenging to find time to work with my dogs, satisfy all of my client's expectations and have time to breathe. I am sure you...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2010-12-31 22:14:00
  • Hits 15317

Summer dog training tips

As we approach summer, it is important to think about keeping your pooch safe. I live in Chicago where I have some unique things to worry about (such as dogs getting stolen out of cars), but...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2011-04-06 12:19:00
  • Hits 26927

Choke chains can increase dog aggression

I got a sad call from a new client recently. She said her dog was showing signs of dog-dog aggression and, from the advice of someone in the dog park, she hired a trainer that uses choke chains. She...

  • Jeff Millman
  • 2011-01-01 18:49:00
  • Hits 14212

What to do if your dog growls at you

It is so important to gently handle your dog throughout his or her life. I received a typical call a while ago from a client that is afraid because her dog growls when she puts on his harness.
  • Jeff Millman
  • 2011-01-02 23:07:00
  • Hits 61921