Fundamentals of Aggression Control


Fundamentals of Aggression Control By Armin Winkler

The term “Aggression Control” is used in K9 training, to label the apprehension phase of law enforcement K9 certification. The term serves a useful purpose. It emphasizes the word control. Furthermore, it eliminates any reference to the fact that dogs have to be trained and tested for their ability to apprehend (or bite) suspects. As part of K9 certification it is crucial to reduce liability for law enforcement agencies and K9 handlers. When a K9 is certified to be under the control of his handler, his actions are much more easily defended in court, should any legal action ever be brought against an agency. The typical elements of the “Aggression Control” certification are: terminated pursuit or recall, releasing or outing on verbal command, and off leash obedience control over the K9 before and after deployment.


It all sounds very simple and straight forward, a staged routine with standardized elements. But anyone who trains in the K9 world knows it is not so simple. It presents many difficulties and struggles. A lot of time is devoted to this part of K9 training, and often a huge amount of pressure is exerted upon the dogs in an attempt to teach and train these elements. And at the end of it all, when certification is over, the training for real world deployment begins and things like verbal outing and terminated pursuit are a distant memory. All efforts are placed on making K9s powerful and intense and reliable for the moment when they have to apprehend a suspect in the real world. My question here is this: WHY??? Why do trainers feel that real life reliability and power is incompatible with “Aggression Control”?  Why does training for “Aggression Control” end when certification is over?


Maybe nobody has ever bothered to ask these questions. Maybe it has just become the accepted norm and nobody examines why it has become the norm. I think deep down all trainers know the answer. The majority of the time the way the dogs are taught the “Aggression Control” certification routine is either through tricks to manipulate the dogs, or by dominating or suppressing a dog’s drives, power, and aggression. And everybody knows that real control can’t be established through tricks. And real power and aggression can’t be maintained when those parts of the dog are dominated or suppressed.

In modern law enforcement and military K9 training, however, the need for real “Aggression Control” is becoming ever more apparent. It is no longer just a term used to describe a phase of certification. As the tasks K9s are asked to perform are becoming more complex trainers have to challenge themselves to find ways to truly teach “Aggression control”; as the definition of the word suggests control over the dog’s aggression. BOTH elements have to be present: Aggression AND Control!!!!

The “10 Second After” Concept
Let’s begin the discussion of training “Aggression Control” with outing or the verbal release. It is arguably the most difficult part of the training, plus its training contains many fundamental elements necessary for other exercises. All outing problems are caused by the same issue in every dog!!!  Please read this statement again, it is a profound concept to realize. All outing problems are caused by the same issue in every dog!!! This issue is that the dog has not learned or processed what to do in the 10 seconds after he has released the bite. Please think about this carefully. Getting a dog off a bite is not so difficult. It is the keeping him off the bite that presents the challenge. And the more pressure and conflict we exert on the dog to stay off the bite, the bigger the reactions. The two most extreme reactions are avoidance, where the dog becomes hesitant and reluctant to bite again after he has released, or refusal to release all together, where the dog seemingly cannot let go anymore at all. Naturally there are many variations of these two extremes. In order to train releasing upon verbal command effectively and reliably, while still maintaining strong aggression and reliability in the biting before and after the releasing, we have to determine a technique that works best for each individual dog.

Creating a Stable Position
Before a handler can expect to control his dog, the dog has to be able to control himself. As handlers, try to mentally insert the phrase “control yourself and…” before any command given to a dog during any work the dog performs while high in drive. We want the dog to still stay high in drive, yet keep it all contained inside and be clear and focused enough mentally to follow verbal direction from his handler. The attention and focus should not shift from the drive stimulating situation to the handler. The dog has to stay in drive, but he also has to learn to keep some of his mental faculties available to process the commands from his handler. I call this ability to contain high drive and excitement with the ability to process verbal direction “capping”.  Handlers and trainers have to realize that a dog has to learn to “cap” every drive and emotion he is utilizing during apprehension work. Only when a dog can control all the things that motivate him to bite will he be able to learn true “Aggression Control”. In order to teach dog to “cap” all these motivations we have to very carefully assess each individual dog’s “fighting drive” package. (please refer to “Winkler Aggression Model” for details) It is my concept that no dog has “fighting drive”. All dogs have individual drives, behaviors, and drive products which work together in a package to produce what many trainers call “fighting drive”. For the purposes of training I find it much more useful to view it as a package of individual components rather than one thing. Identifying these individual components is important. Because, once one has identified the components, a careful approach can be developed to activate individual components and assist him to cap what is active. We can never just assume that just because a dog can “cap” one drive, that he will automatically be able to “cap” all drives or any combination of several drives and drive products together. I begin most of the basics of “drive capping” with the dog at some distance from the decoy, but in the interest of time I will “fast forward” through that step and move the “capping” work into closer proximity to the decoy where it serves to teach the stable position after releasing. I teach the stable position to the dog by bringing the dog to the decoy or by having the decoy move to the dog. Since we are at the beginning stages of “Aggression Control” training I do not ask the dog to go into a stable position after releasing yet. During the teaching stages for the stable position, the positioning happens before the dog bites. Then when the dog is rewarded out of the stable position, the equipment the dog is biting on is shed to him. It is much easier to have a dog release a dead piece of protection equipment than to let go of a decoy.  Since I want to teach the dog that being in the stable position is advantageous and successful for him, I try to minimize confusion and conflict during the teaching phase of this portion.

Handler Assisted Stable Position
The handler uses a non authority position and calm body contact to help the dog maintain his position and contain his drive and excitement without restraining him.

Stable Position Without the Handler
The dog maintains his position and focus on the decoy without handler assistance. The intensity towards the decoy while maintaining self control is what is crucial. Only true “capping” of all the components a dog works with will result in good control.


Rewarding the Dog from the Stable Position It is important to assess the quality of the dogs grip and intensity as he takes the bite from the stable position. The quality of the grip and the intensity have to be identical to the best the dog in training can deliver. If the grip quality and intensity is lessened the dog was not in a true stable position and not truly in a state of contained drive. The goal of this work is not the passive laying there of the dog, but stable containment of all that makes the dog want to bite. The reward bite from the stable position is an important part in determining whether the dog is learning what we are trying to teach. Adding the Difficulty of Challenging Environment, Start with Handler Assistance Again the handler uses his body to assist the dog to contain and maintain self control. Environmental stress adds a stimulation which he needs to learn to contain. The handler should neither subdue his dog nor restrain him, but merely guide him to remain focused and contained. The dog in this picture is on an unstable suspension bridge on a playground.

Progress to Unassisted Stable Position
Note, the dog is stable yet full of excitement and tension. His body is tense and his focus is on the decoy. He is ready to explode into the bite, the intensity is palpable. Yet he maintains self control until the handler gives a command.

The Dog is Rewarded from the Stable Position
Again we should observe the grip quality and intensity of the bite of the dog as he is given the command to bite. The decoy should do absolutely nothing to trigger or stimulate the dog. The biting should be entirely up to the contained motivation of the dog. And depending on where the dog is in his training and what aspects of his “fighting drive” package he has learned to contain decoy, handler and trainer should assess whether the dog is biting in a manner that suggests he is utilizing all that he should have had contained in his stable position.

Understanding the Dog’s Emotions During a Bite

Drive “capping”, self control, and containment of motivations are crucial aspects when teaching “Aggression Control”. But in order to approach training in an empathetic fashion, as trainers we should also examine closely what is happening in the dogs psyche while he is performing bite work. All dogs who do apprehension or bite work in the real world reliably have to be in a certain emotional state in order to function. In order to guide a dog while he is learning to control these emotions and his drives, we need to properly understand how the dog perceives the situation he is in when biting.

Firstly, due to the adversarial nature of how real life bite work has to be taught and the elements of confrontation and stress that have to be incorporated into the training, it is inevitable that K9s feel a level of threat and defense during virtually all aspects of bite work. And just to clarify that state of mind. When a dog is in defense to any degree he feels that his safety and well being are in jeopardy. In his mind, it is not just training, not just a game, the real potential for harm coming to himself is a real possibility. All realistic K9 training has to incorporate such stress factors.

Secondly, we teach the dog that he can establish power over any opponent. That he can gain control over the situation he finds himself in. Hard biting and countering are the techniques we teach the dog to overcome adversity. Holding on and biting aggressively are the ways to feel in charge and in control. It is essential for a dog to learn this during the development phase of apprehension training. Control over any scary and stressful situation can be established by biting and holding on. Often this part of the development work is forgotten about when it comes to “Aggression Control” training.

Thirdly, all dogs who have the necessary desire to do K9 bite work feel a sense of frustration when they have to let go of what they are biting. Despite the stress aspects of the work already mentioned, there is also a level of fun and excitement that comes from biting that dogs get deep satisfaction from. Any time any creature has to stop doing something it is excited and passionate about, a sense of frustration and deprivation happens. This emotion can also not be ignored during training.

The last emotional component that requires strong consideration during “Aggression Control” training is, trusting the handler. The dog cannot see the handler as an interference factor in his work, he cannot see the handler as the “No Man”, the guy who always stands in the way of fun, who only barks orders, corrects, and takes the fun out of things. The dog has to learn his handler is a teammate, someone who understands his emotions and who guides him to success, not to detriment and deprivation. Establishing this trust is important and not always as easy as it sounds. But it is a crucial element in successful and reliable “Aggression Control” training.

Helping the Dog Process and “Cap” his Emotions After Releasing a Bite
In order to address the defensive element of the dog’s emotional state, we have to demonstrate and teach the dog that letting go of a bite is safe. Consider this for just a moment. A dog is in combat with an adversary who, in his mind, means to do him harm. In the dog’s mind letting go means jeopardizing his own safety. So, we have to take the time to demonstrate to the dog that letting go does NOT jeopardize his safety. In order to do that, the dog has to be able to view the situation directly after he releases and have enough time in this “aftermath” to feel safe and not in danger. This requires that the dog sees the decoy (his adversary) in a position of lesser advantage and he has to spend enough time in that position to realize inside of himself that there is no danger for him. Not giving the dog this opportunity does not give the dog the opportunity to process the defensive emotion.

The sense of control and power element has to be addressed much the same way. The dog has to get a sense that he STILL has control over the subject and that he STILL has control over the situation. Again, the dog has to be allowed to see that the subject is still under control and experience the feeling that he still has power over the subject. Again the subject (decoy) has to be in a position of lesser advantage compared to the dog and the dog has to experience the situation where he (the dog) is in a position of control and power over the subject long enough to connect that feeling to the act of letting go.


In training the dog’s drive and desire for his prey item the bite suit or sleeve also plays a major role. Much of the dog’s satisfaction comes from winning prey equipment in early bite work development. Having to give that up creates a lot of frustration and leads to a sense of deprivation in the dog; therefore, this aspect also has to be addressed in training. Once again, time and positioning play a major role in teaching this to the dog. The dog has to be given the opportunity to realize that his “prize” is not lost forever just because he physically released it. The dog has to remain physically close enough to the suit to feel that his “prize” is still right there for the taking. All of the above teaching requires a certain degree of trust the dog has to have in the handler, as the handler has to be the one who physically guides and keeps the dog in the positions that allow the dog to learn these important emotional lessons. The dog simply cannot view the handler as an interference factor during this work. Aside from the trust that already has to exist in order for the handler to facilitate certain lessons, the dog during all this work has to learn that he can also trust the handler with his emotions. He needs to connect the feelings he has during the teaching of these lessons with the handler’s presence and verbal commands. Because only through this trust in the handler’s direction and guidance will he willingly let himself be guided and directed.

Helping the Dog Process and “Cap” his Emotions and Drives After a Bite
The dog is on the bite, subject in a position of lesser advantage, the handler supports and stabilizes the dog through physical guidance.

The dog drives in for his reward bite. Dog on a bite, subject still in a position of lesser advantage, but not as completely defeated as previously. The dog has released and gets to experience, safety, control and access to his “prize”. The dog is rewarded with a bite. Notice the intensity of the bite AFTER having outed. Another picture for the dog, same relative positioning. Dog has the advantage, subject disadvantage. The dog releases, the handler facilitates for the dog to experience safety, control, and access to “prize”. The dog gets his reward bite. It is always important to assess grip quality and intensity of the reward bite to gauge the mental state the dog was in during the release phase. Dog on a bite in a more difficult environmental set up. After the release, focus on subject, feeling safety, control, and access to “prize”. An intense reward bite AFTER the release.


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