Some cases just break my heart. I had one of those the other day. For the record I do not work with serious aggression cases. (My general classification on that is a dog that has purposely bitten a person and broken the skin. This is depending on circumstances as well. When in doubt contact me for clarification on your dogs issue.) For me it is about liability. Some owners that don't follow through with the behavior work needed for those cases, and then have continuing issues, like to find a person to blame when they get sued because their dog seriously hurt someone. Sorry but that isn't going to be me.
I still attend seminars on the subject so I keep current with the info about aggression however. Personally I love learning about ALL dog behavior and find that having as much info as possible helps me know what is going on, even if I can't help a particular owner. It also helps me to know specifically who to refer those people I can't help to as well. I do work with some reactive dogs depending on the situation.
What I saw the other day was a very sad case. A cross bred puppy, 14 weeks old, with what appeared to be actual dominance aggression. I wasn't there for 10 minutes before I got to see him in action. He was even challenging me right away over the box I carry with all my handouts and paperwork. I removed that from his reach and he started on me specifically, would not be redirected, and we have to remove him to his crate. Not your normal pushy puppy behavior by any means either.
There are many different types of aggression. There is resource guarding, also known as possessive aggression. There is inter-dog aggression, or dogs that are aggressive with other dogs. There is fear aggression, a reactive response based on the dogs fear of a situation. There is redirected aggression, if you can't bite the one you want, bite the one you're with, also known as frustration aggression. This isn't a complete list of aggression in dogs but you get the idea.
Dominance aggression is (thankfully) less seen. These are dogs that are truly seeking status over and trying to control people. They will use any means necessary to do so as well. In dog language teeth are allowed to be used in corrections after all. The owners told me that this puppy was absolutely fine unless you tried to get him to do something he didn't want to, or tried to distract him from something he wanted. Then he turned into a shredder. (After giving really fast warning signals. He left no time for anyone to back down from his warnings. I saw this in action as well.) In a puppy that young this is really scary behavior. Add living with kids to the mix and you have a disaster waiting to happen. All kids have friends, so even if you can manage an aggressive dog in a home situation, you have to consider the other people coming into the home as well.
True dominance aggression in a puppy that young is a horrible thing to see. Heartbreaking for me because I know that the chances for rehabbing are darn small. Dominance aggression tends to get worse upon sexual maturity and it is rare to see it in a puppy so young. It usually doesn't even show up until sexual maturity so to see at this age makes you wonder about genetic predisposition. Is it possible to rehab this behavior? Perhaps, but not without a lot of behavior modification work and management and with no guarantees. It is very stressful to live with a situation like that daily. This family already knew the they had a serious problem on their hands and didn't sign on for this with a new puppy. He will be headed back to the breeder he came from. Hopefully the breeder will act appropriately for this pup.
The worse part of the day for me was after we had spoken at length about options and dog behavior when the 12 year old daughter asked me point blank what I would do with the puppy if he were mine. The 9 year old son was also in attendance. For the record I have a 12 year old daughter and a 10 year old son myself and they aren't stupid at that age. You can't talk down to them. So after taking a deep breath, I looked them straight in the eyes and I told the truth straight out. I wouldn't keep this puppy if he were mine. There were tears all around. I barely managed to keep it together and stay professional. To say it sucked would be the understatement of the year. And this was just before Christmas which only added insult to injury.
I did give them the names of some other reputable trainers and behavior people to get a second opinion from or to consider behavior modification with. I also left the behavior worksheets I had on the subject for them so they could see what it would involve. I did not charge them for the session. I know that might not be great business practice, time is valuable, but it just didn't feel right for me to do. I felt crappy enough already thank you very much.
After a melt down in my car on the way home I called a canine behaviorist friend and vented. She is a great understanding shoulder and in this case was great for me to have to chew over what I had seen and confirm my diagnoses. Second guessing yourself is much more productive if you have a second person in the mix to help. As upset as I was, it cannot possibly match the feelings of the poor family dealing with the puppy and all that entails.
So for anyone thinking dog training is all fun and games let this be a look at the other side. The realities can sometimes be much more harsh. You're not just working with the dogs, but their people too. People that can have their hearts broken when things don't work out. People skills are just as important as your training skills. Not every trainer thinks this but I have found it to be true. I have also found that sometimes, nothing can replace a good old fashioned crying jag when fustrated by the things you cannot fix.