The Recipe for Red Zone Dogs

Don’t Touch my CookieThe term ‘red zone’ dog has come into vogue to describe aggressive dogs. There is the connotation that these dogs are different in some fundamental way from other dogs. The term is often used to justify the use of severe punishment in order to train them. It’s as though, unlike every other dog on the planet, they are only able to learn if punishment is used.

Creating ‘red zone’ dogs is a fairly straight forward process. Take a dog, preferably one who is fearful, and force them to deal with things that upset them. Add one or more humans who are either arrogant, uneducated, ignorant, mentally ill, or some combination of the aforementioned. Do not allow the dog the freedom to get away, and maintain constant pressure on them in the form of punishment or threats of it. Any resistance on the dog’s part should be addressed with physical punishment, almost anything will do, a collar yank, a slap, kick or alpha roll. Yelling at the dog can suffice in some cases. The goal is to remind the dog that they are completely out of control of what happens to them, and that humans will make sure it stays that way.

The domestication process gave us dogs who are not likely to behave aggressively toward humans. Unfortunately some glitch has created people who are all too willing to behave aggressively toward dogs. And like a self-fulfilling prophesy, create the problem that allows them the excuse to continue to do so.


29 comments so far

  1. Ramona (Kit Katzz) on

    Your description of “creating red-dog zone” sounds like C.Millan’s Methods.. Cringe

  2. KellyK on

    Yeah, this is the thing I don’t get about using “red zone” as a justification for harsh punishment. If a dog is *already* likely to bite, that makes scaring or angering that dog an even *worse* idea than it already is in general.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, you’d think that would be obvious.

  3. Jim Crosby on

    Excellent post! Meeting force with force-or meeting frustration and fear with force-is not only irresponsible but downright dangerous. Data from my investigations of fatal dog attacks is supportive of this warning-dogs pressed into the red zone are fighting for their lives. To do so deliberately “just to see what happens” or to goad an animal into a bite for “correction” is reckless. For an average owner to do this from ignorance or misinformation is a huge travesty, one that victimizes innocents, often children.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts Jim. I appreciate it!

  4. Michelle Bertolo on

    I agree. However, how do you recommend that a dog in this psychological state be stopped in an acute incident with another dog or human. The fight has to be stopped. What should be done with the dog immediately afterward?

    • fearfuldogs on

      In emergencies we do what we need to and if we learn anything from the situation, it’s to not put the dog into the situation so it can happen again. The objective isn’t to come up with ‘good’ ways to break up fights or bites, but to prevent them from happening to begin with.

      Immediately afterward I would put the dog away somewhere safe and kick myself for letting the incident occur. I want the dog’s level of arousal to come down as quickly as possible.

  5. Jim Crosby on

    A absolutely agree that, in an emergency, you do what you have to for safety. Thing is, at that moment the animal is in flight-or-fight and there is no higher learning going on. First, separate and secure. Tend to wounds, if any. Then, after a significant break so everyone involved has calmed down (arousal, hormones and whatever else have dropped), you go back towards the trigger, stopping well short in order to interrupt the arousal and redirect it, then reinforce the new target behavior. In the heat of the moment there is no training-just immediate response and safety.

  6. Hello,
    I posted a comment yesterday to your blog (which I love). We’re desperate over our abused, unsocialized adopted Jack Russell’s explosive and aggressive behavior toward us, so much so that there’s no “threshold” under which to begin training.

    His medications (fluoxetine and buspar) didn’t work so our behaviorist took him off his fluoxetine cold turkey (which seems very unsafe to me) to switch him to citalopram, and told us to re-check in January. We don’t have until January!

    Linus, since July, has bitten me three times. All called for stitches. He’s air-snapped and bitten my partner, Chris Martin. We feel we need very aggressive pharmacology to treat his anxiety so we can begin training ASAP. Currently, he is so anxious he cannot learn. Has anyone any knowledge of very successful, strong anti-anxiety drugs for smaller dogs like Jack Russells?

    We’re so very concerned, and fear we may have to euthanize him. We love this dog and are committed to saving him. I have blogged about him in the past, which gives more background. We cannot fit him with a basket muzzle, nor a halter (I”m worried about his trachea he pulls so hard on the leash).

    I see reams of posts on fear aggression toward strangers, cars, other dogs, but never the owners. What do people do in these cases? Anyone wants to weigh in, I really would love input.

    We give him lots of exercise, but don’t have a fenced yard, which would help immensely. I think he needs to run and run.

    Also, I’m getting very brutal training advice from almost everyone: Shock, pinch, alpha roll, etc…, all sickening to us. We use positive reinforcement only. I knew nothing about dogs before adopting Linus – I was fostering him for a friend, whose children found him nearly drowned in a creekbed. We decided to adopt him after he bit me the first time, we knew we couldn’t re-home him; we are his only chance. I’ve since done obsessive research, we know most if his triggers, but he’s still so reactive and unpredictable, we just cannot predict everything. And, when he bites there’s not a warning – he just explodes.

    Patience is key, but we don’t have a lot of time as the seriousness of these bites is escalating and becoming more dangerous. This last blog post was just before the last bite, two days ago.

    Any help or advice would be hugely appreciated!!!

    Thank you so much.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Meds are a good start, but if you don’t understand how behavior modification works, with a level of skill that this dog requires, you may keep getting bitten. Can this dog be managed so that he never is put in situations in which he feels the need to bite? It may mean creating a very small, limited world for him until he can develop new behaviors?

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are so many factors that come into play with dogs. Brain damage, seizure disorders, illness, system imbalances, etc. It’s very difficult to change how a dog inhibits, or doesn’t, their bite. You may be dealing with breed traits. The very first step is to create an environment in which the dog feels safe and is not exposed to any thing that might be a trigger, including you.

      Check out the category ‘Nibbles’ in this blog and scroll through and check out the set up I created for him. When I needed to clean out the pee pads he could go into the crate.

    • KellyK on

      Wow. That sounds incredibly hard to deal with, and I hope you find a combination of meds and training that works. It might be good to do regular work with a positive trainer who works with aggressive dogs if you’re only seeing the behaviorist every month or three. “Check back in January” sounds pretty tough to me too. I’d want to be working with a trainer every week or two if possible.

      Also, you might be able to do counterconditioning with things that are known triggers. Like if he freaks out when the door opens, then instead of opening the door and coming right in, Chris might want to open the door, toss in some treats, and make sure Linus seems reasonably calm before coming in.

      Another thing would be to be really careful about respecting every warning signal. If he knows that the scary thing backs off if he growls, then there’s less of a need to bite. Not approaching him from behind, giving some sort of signal when you stand up or do something that might startle him, that might help too.

      Turid Rugaas has a really good mini-book on calming signals which might also help. My in-laws have a dog with fear aggression issues, and I’m one of the few people she hasn’t bitten. Partly I’m just lucky, but I also try to be soft, quiet, inoffensive, and predictable. If she runs up to me barking, I back off and yawn and look away, and she generally chills out. But it’s a really hard thing to retrain yourself to do, when the instinctive response is to yell at the dog.

      Does he like tennis balls or chew toys or stuffed kongs? Rolling a tennis ball or chew toy for him to chase might be good inside exercise, or hiding treats throughout the house for him to find. Any kind of play he can get to work off the anxiety is good, and the lack of a fenced yard makes it hard. We got cheap plastic mesh fencing that went up in an afternoon or so. In no way would it stop a determined digger, so it’s not suitable for leaving a dog unattended. But, it’s a lot cheaper and easier than a “real” fence, and it’s worked well for us taking the dogs out supervised. Since Linus doesn’t trust you yet, if you went with that option, I’d take him out on a leash initially before giving him free roam of even a fenced area, because I can easily picturing him trying to bolt and going under or through the fence.

    • grady2 on

      Can you get a harness on him? That way you don’t have to worry about his trachea.

    • engineer chic on

      The plastic netting/fence is one option. If you can afford it, you could create a long running track with stakes and exercise pens (wire pens that are typically made from 8 panels). If you connected them together in a long rectangle that might be a way to make a running track for him.

      I am not a trainer, but it sounds like he doesn’t associate people with good things right now. Almost like a feral cat, if you will. I hope his new medication is helpful and kicks in very quickly. And I hope you can stay safe.

  7. Ramona (Kit Katzz) on

    I can’t give other adive BUT for the trachea/pulling scare – try a Premier Easy Walk Harness, they work wonders .. I wouldnt say 100% but atleast 75-80 of the pulling will be controlled and its safe : )

  8. sydneyru2 on

    Why do we as people beat or dislike things we don’t understand. Probably is just like a child and only knows abuse. Love the hec out of them and eventually the will come around.
    And as far as Kit Katzz says trachea collapse happens more than it should cus it shouldn’t happen!

    • Ramona (Kit Katzz) on

      ? I mentioned to the woman who is afraid of her dog’s trachea collapsing(that she clealy mentions in her post) … to simply TRY an premier easy walk harness…. I think you misunderstood what I meant.

  9. glasgowdogtrainer on

    I blogged about this very topic the other day. Couldn’t agree more

  10. Kelly on

    I know you love Linus and are very dedicated to helping him, but you also admit you’re not professionals and it sounds like he may need professional help. Have you thought of letting him go to somewhere like Best Friends Sanctuary in California or a similar place where he would be worked with and cared for his entire life by skilled professionals who specialize in cases like this. I really hope things work out for you and Linus and applaud you for wanting to help him and not giving up.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The Best Friends Sanctuary is in Utah and I would caution owners seeking out ‘sanctuaries’ without doing an onsite visit. There are plenty of ‘no kill’ shelters calling themselves sanctuaries that are anything but. There are not many places like Best Friends and owners might feel better that their dog is alive somewhere and be unaware of the suffering they are experiencing.

  11. Golfer Lin on

    If a person adopts a sheltered bull terrier with biting history, and got bitten by it many times leaving countless deep wounds, that person would seriously consider giving it up and that dog would most likely be euthanized.
    That dog only reacts to human ‘hands’. It doesn’t bite anything excepts hands. It doesn’t bite legs, feet, arms. The dog can be walked and while it looks relaxed walking if the handler puts his/her hand on the dog it will immediately snap and bite.
    One method to desensitize the dog’s fear about hand is to equip the trainer with bite sleeves and fake hand. This is after all other reward methods been tried and trainers gave up.
    Even if the dog’s sensitivity towards hands can be lowered, who’s to say he would not bite again, or hurt a kid by accident?

    I am talking to next potential trainer about this dog. In my heart though, I sort of half given it up because there are too many deep wounds on my both hands.


    • fearfuldogs on

      There is a difference between desensitization and counterconditioning. Hopefully any trainer you work with will understand this.

  12. emilee turner on

    hi, I read your post and to me it does make sense to get them around the things they are scared of to show them its okay. my dog is fearful of other humans and becomes aggressive. we started walking him at a pond where theres other people. we don’t let him get close to anyone, but we take our time and let him look and know he is okay.
    but tonight, him and his sister got into a fight(there was blood). now no one saw what triggered it, but when we heard the noise everyone came running. my male does tend to be a little food aggressive, also different things just trigger him. he gets a stare going and you know hes about to bite. im not sure what to do in that situation. they say don’t hit, but absolutely nothing will break him of that stare. he is almost a year old, so im hoping it is not too late to fix his issue. if you could give me any advice on how to correct his behavior or break that stare, please let me know

    • Jim Crosby on

      The so-called secret to correcting an unwanted behavior is that correction is a three-step process, not a single action. The steps are Interrupt, Redirect, and Reinforce. By the time your guy has “locked on” you are interrupting too late. You need to watch his body position and language closely. Start far enough away from his trigger(s) that you only get a first look, before as my pilot friends say, he gets “target lock-on”. At that point you should be able to distract, redirect him to an incompatable, positive behavior such as sit or “look at me”. Then reinforce the positive behavior. THEN back away enough that he can recover his composure. You may ( if safe) have to physically stand between you dog and the trigger. Make sure you use a high value reinforcer to seize the proper behavior.
      Nowhere in this sequence is there punishment. We are looking at curing the underlying reactivity, not associate more negative.
      Repetition is key and you should, slowly, be able to approach the trigger closer. Eventually the reaction will be see a trigger-look at Mom-get a good boy or treat-move along.
      And remember to give a break between every exposure instead of just pushing forward. Those breaks give your dog time to return to baseline and learning will take place quicker. No one learns when pushed to flight or fight.

      • Jim Crosby on

        This is directed to emilee and of course others.

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