The Old Trainer: Aussie growls at strangers

April 5, 2013 

Dear Old Trainer: I had excellent results training my dogs using your methods. Tex, my 1-year-old Australian shepherd, is the smartest and most loving dog I have, and the best trained, but he refuses to make up with anyone but me. He is not aggressive, but if they reach out to him he growls and shows his teeth. How do I train him to be friendly to people?

-- Darlene, Kansas

Answer: Australian shepherds are a smart breed, Darlene, so they have complex reasons for what they do. It is the theme explored in "A Beautiful Mind" -- the more powerful the mind, the more powerful the impulses it will produce.

Don't worry about Tex. It is counterintuitive, but sometimes the smartest dog requires the most training before he learns to control those impulses. I call it the Robert Downey Jr. syndrome.

I have the same situation with Joker, my youngest border collie. He loves on me the entire day. He loves all other dogs and is the happiest dog I have ever had. Yet he growls at anyone who tries to touch him. He doesn't dislike people. He likes to get up close to anyone we meet and study them, he just won't let them touch him and will growl if they try.

I decided it was not wise to try and train him to like people. I left it up to him. He is smart enough to make that decision and if he wants only me to touch him, that's fine with me. Some dogs only want to interact with the person they love most. But he has no choice when it comes to snapping. That's never allowed.

My suggestion is that you do the same with Tex. He is a loving, well-trained dog. He has reasons for his behavior, just as Joker does, even though we may not understand them.

Rule No. 1 when you have ANY problem with a dog who is already trained is to go back to basics and work on training every day. What you are really doing is reminding Tex to focus on your interests rather than his own.

Tex is your best-trained dog because he enjoys training, so it will be easy to show him what you expect when strangers are around. Go through sit, stay, come, hold, and all the other commands that Tex knows every day. When anyone else arrives, remind Tex right away to look at you. The minute he focuses on anyone else say, "No, Tex, look at me." Warn other people not to attempt to touch him.

If you sense any aggression coming, or if he starts to bristle, interrupt his focus by calling him to you and making him sit. Give him a lecture and tell him in a firm voice that he is not allowed to growl at people. He can ignore them, but he cannot growl or snap at them. He won't need to if you tell people to ignore him.

Jack Haskins writes as The Old Trainer. A trainer for more than 30 years, he has rescued, trained, and placed more than 2,000 dogs. Send questions to

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