In the wake of tragic attacks involving dogs, canine aggression has become a controversial topic. Recent cases in Southern Alberta include the biting of a nine-year-old girl during her recess break and a grandmother being killed by her dog.

But Calgary’s K9 Force Working Dog Club is a group of professional dog trainers working to show the world that aggressive behaviour can be taught, controlled and restrained.

President of K9 Force, Isabella Oxsengendler, leads their Schutzhund training, which is a dog training sport also designed to be a test for breeding German shepherds.

She says that Schutzhund is an elite sport, requiring precise communication and coordination between dog and handler to avoid mistakes.

“We look for very willing and happy dogs. Their heeling and positioning is very important,” Oxsengendler says, emphasizing the importance of a dog’s obedience in Schutzhund.

One component of Schutzhund requires dogs to bite, tackle, bark, and growl aggressively at a person—called a helper—who acts as a pretend threat towards their owner.

The dog sees this as an actual threat and is trained to react in specific ways to the type of threat in front of them.

In takedown training, the dog runs full sprint at the helper, jumps, and bites the perceived threat on a bite sleeve or suit. They are trained to not let go until told so by their handler.

In blind training, the dog is released by the handler towards tall tent-like structures where the helper hides behind. They run to the blind that contains the helper, bark aggressively, and jump in place until they hear a command to stop.

Despite the aggressive perception of these actions, the dogs are actually playful during training because they know there is a reward for playing this game with their handlers and helpers.

The sport includes biting, barking, and growling as key components of aggression training, but K9 Force’s trainers are able to turn off the switch to that aggressive behaviour.

Schutzhund 2 1 copyPresident and lead coordinator at K9 Force Working Dog Club, Isabella Oxsengendler, with her German Shepherd Azelle. Photo by Brian Cortez

Aggression scale

J.C. St. Louis, a Calgary dog behaviourist and former dog handler, trainer and breeder for Calgary Police Service, offers insight into the complicated world of training dogs to bite.

St. Louis often refers to an aggression levels chart created by veterinarian Ian Dunbar that divides bite levels into six categories:

Schutzhund 5 2Bites are split up into six different categories of intensity. Infographic by Brian Cortez
He says bites are usually the result of ignorance and dogs can lose their lives for it.

“People just don’t understand or are just not aware of what dogs can do, until they get bit,” says St. Louis

According to Alberta’s Dangerous Dogs Act, dogs deemed too dangerous can be put down at the discretion of the presiding justice.

St. Louis says handlers and owners are required to muzzle dogs in public if they are declared aggressive but not to a point of absolute danger. He recommends that such a dog should stay in a 6- by 10-foot steel kennel when at home.

Sometimes he has to tell clients that keeping hostile dogs is a high risk.

“I had to go to a home and spend two hours explaining to the guy that you have to euthanize the dog because if he [attacks] your wife while you’re on the rigs, you’ll never live it down.”

Schutzhund 3 1 copyA German shepherd and their handler practice letting go of the bite sleeve during canine aggression training for Schutzhund. Photo by Brian Cortez

Bite or flight

St. Louis says he’s not confident that owners recognize warning signs such as nipping, which can sometimes lead to serious injuries or in worst cases, death.

“Most dogs will start with maybe a growl, calming signals; maybe a snap, maybe a bite, maybe a bite and shake, there’s usually escalation.”

St. Louis says in some cases, canine aggression is linked to poor or non-existent training on the owner’s behalf. He says 95 to 99 per cent of aggression in most pet dogs is a defensive reaction to fear.

According to St. Louis, if a dog knows how to react to unfamiliar stimuli, then the dog would not bite out of fear.

“[Biters] are dogs that are insecure. They perceive a threat when there’s no threat. The weaker the nerve, the more reactive they’re going to be. Some are just fearful aggressive and will flee but on their territory at home, they’re going to fight instead of flee,” says St. Louis.

Schutzhund 4 copyJ.C. St. Louis is a behaviourist and former dog handler, trainer and breeder for Calgary Police Service. Photo by Brian Cortez
Dogs with strong temperaments, how an animal’s biological nature affects its behaviour, are a bad combination when paired with soft handlers.

“Sometimes you can bring the people’s skill level up to match the temperament but sometimes you can’t,” says St. Louis.

He says dogs are like vehicles and sometimes people don’t know what they’re dealing with.

“They have a formula one Ferrari and when they try to stop them, they can’t,” he says.

Despite incidents that make headlines, St. Louis says aggression isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Aggression is necessary for most species to survive … it’s a normal thing in dogs. Fully inhibited. Fully controlled. It’s a threat display. All species have threat displays.”

Nerves of steel

Typically, working dogs excel at ‘recovery,’ a word professional trainers uses to refer to an animal’s ability to reset and return to its normal state following fear-inducing stimuli.

“Some dogs’ nerves are like a thin sewing thread. You can only put a little bit of pressure on it before they snap. They don’t recover.”

Despite the controversies, trainers like St. Louis and Oxsengendler believe that aggressive dogs can be trained. Both use their own strategies to teach dogs the proper set of behaviours and keep the people around the dogs safe.

Editor: Brian Cortez |

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  1. I bought what I thought was a West German show line dog. He has show dogs in his pedigree but when I got him he would do these horrific displays of aggression to people he didn’t know or other dogs. I knew it was from fear so I used treats and a spray bottle of vinegar for training. I didn’t want to go overboard and wanted him to still trust me. He’s 1 now and I can handle what he dishes out at this point. I have always owned working line dogs and the confidence they show is more a comfort to me than the crazy fear.
    My question is with his mouthiness. He will “play” with my fingers using his teeth, very gently but I am stern with this behavior and don’t allow it. No teeth on skin. He has sort of stopped at this point. How well did I handle that? He seems respectful, we have a good connection that took place over time and with rewards. He does have displaced aggression on my 9yo female King. I stop that if I can do it fast enough. Anything I’m missing? I worry that if he pulled the misplaced aggression on me at the door I’d be screwed.

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