An Open Letter to my Clients with Aggressive Dogs

Owning a dog who behaves aggressively towards people is stressful, draining, and heart-wrenching. It can also be, maybe surprisingly, a story with a happy ending. I would like all my clients with aggressive dogs to know that I understand and can help, even if that seems impossible. If I could somehow impart all this with a magic pill, I would. But as dog trainers certainly know, magic pills are only available in fairy land. So I've written a letter, instead.

Dear client,

You have an aggressive dog. Your dog snarls, growls, and even bites. Your dog makes you cringe, or cry; he makes you angry, flustered, and frustrated. Your dog makes your friends and family scoff or judge you, and you feel cleaved in two. You love your family. But you love your dog, too.

I would like for you to know that I hear you clearly when you say he's slow, he's bad, he's not listening, he's rude, he's mean, he's manipulative, he's dominant, he's protective, he's anything at all. It is my job to listen and empathize, and I take that very seriously.

But it's also my job to help. To help you, and to help your dog. So here are my promises.

I promise that as often as you need to hear it, in as many ways as you need to hear it, and until it becomes a part of your thinking, I will repeat that he's scared. He's terrified. He needs protection from whatever it is that frightens him. We can offer him that, and it will be a great relief to both him and you.

I promise that I will never judge you for your secret negative feelings about him. I have those, too. We're all, every one of us, human.

I promise that as long as you're willing to work with him, I'll stand beside you. I'll write letters to your vet. I'll give you talking points for your family. I'll answer your questions in plain English — no jargon, no fanciful talk — and I'll pull you up when you feel like you've fallen into a rut. I'll create a plan to help him overcome his fears, as much as is reasonably possible.

I promise that if you miss a step and something happens, I won't be angry or patronizing. I make mistakes too. Instead, I'll sit down with you and we can figure out together how to make mistake less likely in the future.

I'll remind you that your progress, slow as it seems to you, is wonderfully, crystal-clear to me. I'll remind you, too, that fearfulness is the slowest thing to change in dogs. I'll regale you with stories about other anonymous dogs who took even longer, if you need to hear it.

I promise too that I care as much about your happiness as that of your dog. When we sit down at your kitchen table and talk, I will almost certainly be able to figure out new, lower-stress ways for you to live together. It's my job to find solutions, and it is what I'm trained to do.

I promise that I will be honest and open about training options and safety for you, your dog, and the public, and support any hard decisions you end up having to make.

I will assure you, as often as you need to hear it, that it's almost certainly not your fault. It doesn't matter how many items there are on your list of "this happened, could this have caused it?" It likely wasn't the thing at the groomers or the thing at the dog park or your father-in-law or corn in his diet or anything. And if you were dished up inadequate or false dog training information in the past and that has in fact contributed, then the fault lay at my feet, as a dog training professional. Pass that burden over. I promise I can shoulder it.

Finally, I promise you that I will use rigorous science and the most effective, efficient, and gentle techniques that I can: I will never hurt or scare your dog as a way to train him.