eileenanddogs

Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Aggressive, dangerous dogs (a.k.a. Red Zone Dogs) should be trained with positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counterconditioning. Here’s why.

Training with pain, startle, and intimidation carries huge risks. Decades of science tell us that aggression begets aggression. It’s that simple.

Two of the most common side effects of attempting to use pain or other punishment on an animal are called “operant aggression” and “redirected aggression” (Azrin, Holz, 1966). In operant aggression, the dog attempts to stop the aversive stimulus by aggressing against the individual who is delivering it. For example, you jerk the dog’s collar; dog bites you. In elicited aggression, the dog aggresses against nearby individuals who may have had nothing to do with the punishment. For example: you jerk the dog’s collar; dog bites your kid.

black and brown dog barking in the snow. Some would call this a Red Zone Dog

When seeking to modify aggressive behavior, you shouldn’t use methods known to create aggressive behavior.

So even though it is super tempting to believe that we just need to “carry a bigger stick” than the dog and keep him intimidated and subdued, that is neither safe nor sensible. And of course, not humane.

A recent study found a correlation between behavioral euthanasia of dogs and the owners’ use of punishing training methods. 

Dog- and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation (Siracusa, Provoost, &Reisner, 2017)

I do understand how seductive the “overpower and subdue them” idea is, especially when a dog’s behavior is scary. The approach is imbued in our culture.

Our Typical Response to Red Zone Dogs

Many years back, when I was still new to the dog training world, I went to audit a workshop. One of the working participants’ dogs was aggressive. His owner and the people in charge of the workshop wanted him to be able to participate but were worried about the safety of other dogs. The person hosting the workshop provided a prong collar and recommended that the owner use it on the dog.

prong collar

She did so. Prongs work by poking into the dog’s neck when he moves out of position or when the trainer applies pressure or a jerk. I remember talking to a friend at the workshop. I said I didn’t like the idea of prong collars, but I was glad they put one on that dog “because it would keep the rest of the dogs and the humans safe.”

I had it exactly backward. I was caught in one of the biggest misunderstandings about behavior. Using an aversive method can quite likely make a dog more dangerous.

For aggressive dogs, aversive methods often mean putting a prong collar on them and jerking on it whenever they react. For some dogs at some times, this will subdue them. They may shut down and offer very little behavior at all. This is another known result of aversive methods. But it takes some education about dog body language to see that such dogs are not “calm.” They are petrified or have “left the building” in their heads. Even though that’s not humane training, that outcome is fine with some aversive trainers. It’s the goal.

But the thing is: that shut-down response is not guaranteed. The dog, alternatively, might start to aggress. Also, over the long term, the dog will develop a classical association between whatever it aggresses at and the pain of the correction. A conditioned negative response. That, also, is exactly what we don’t want.

I need to mention that not all use of prongs is so ham-handed. There are trainers who use them with more skill and (perhaps) less risk. But any use of a prong is aversive. They don’t work any other way.

Witnessing the Fallout of Aversives

I don’t know what happened to the dog at the workshop. But let’s fast forward a few years, to another “problem” dog. This time I did see what happened.

I was at another event and had noticed an adolescent corgi. The pup was full of beans and a handful. I didn’t envy the owner, but the pup was a typical feisty teenager and was fun-loving, friendly, and full of life. This dog also received a prong collar and I watched a tragedy unfold. The owner would jerk on the collar, as directed, and the pup first shrieked, then snarled, and by the fourth collar jerk he was biting the owner’s ankles or whatever he could reach. These weren’t careless puppy bites. The dog started landing serious bites to get the pain to stop. The owner was advised to escalate. In the course of an evening, the dog had been hurt by the person he trusted, responded in kind, and acquired a bite history. It was a living example of how many “Red Zone Dogs” are created.

Here’s another example of “operant aggression” that happened in my own household. I used to have a very benevolent shepherd mix, and at the same time had a feisty rat terrier mix. The terrier, Gabriel, would be all up in Shadow’s face every day. Shadow was three times Gabriel’s size and weight. When they ran somewhere, Gabriel would leap and snap at Shadow’s neck. Shadow put up with this for years. Then one day he had enough and bit Gabriel. It was an inhibited bite, but it was still enough for a vet trip. If it had been to a toddler, that might have been the end of Shadow’s life. I always think of Shadow when I think or someone else says “He’s so sweet; he puts up with so much from the other dogs.”

Try to make it so the nice dog doesn’t have to put up with aversive methods from other dogs, either.

Here’s my standard reminder about anecdotes. I only relate anecdotes that are solid examples of highly accepted science. The ones above could be textbook cases. My goal is not to “prove” a point. Anecdotes can’t do that. My goal is to show “this is what that well-understood principle looks like in real life.”

Are Red Zone Dogs a Thing?

No, they are not really a thing. The term “Red Zone Dog” was made up by a TV personality to describe aggressive or reactive dogs, usually big strong ones. Dangerous dogs. It is an example of the myth that “some dogs are qualitatively different and need forceful training.” I wouldn’t give the phrase any screen time except that people are out there searching on it and I want them to get good info. 

The word is already spreading. My friend Kayla Fratt is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant and has a very thorough post about Red Zone Dogs. It includes a questionnaire that can help you assess the risks posed by a dog’s aggression. 

Another friend, Debbie Jacobs, a Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in fearful dog behavior cases, also has a great post about Red Zone Dogs. She always writes what I want to write, but better and more succinctly.

How Do We Use Positive Reinforcement-Based Training on Aggression?

A qualified behavior consultant will first observe the dog in person or via a camera interface and possibly interact with it. She will perform a functional assessment, which has as its goals the determination of the function and antecedents of the aggressive behavior. She will almost never need to see or provoke the actual aggression to treat it. Unlike aversive trainers who need the dog to perform the aggressive behavior so they can punish it, science-based trainers prevent the dog from practicing (and perfecting) its aggressive responses.

The behavior consultant will make recommendations for keeping the dog’s family safe. She will recommend a training plan that depends on the function of the dog’s aggression.

In the case of fear aggression, she may recommend a visit to a vet who specializes in behavior to ask about possible medications. She will create a training plan that centers around counterconditioning, either classical or operant, to address the dog’s fear. That’s right. The plan aims at the root cause of the aggression and doesn’t merely suppress the symptoms.

What Do The Experts Say About Fear and Aggression?

Ethologist Dr. John Archer argues in his classic paper that the same kinds of situations are capable of evoking either escape or aggressive responses and that fearful and aggressive responses are closely intertwined (Archer, 1976).

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Karen Overall lists 13 distinct varieties of canine aggression (Overall, 2013, p. 223-224). No surprise: none of them is called “Red Zone.” Aggression in response to fear and pain are two of the most common. We don’t immediately think of great big threatening dogs as being fear aggressive, but it is not uncommon.

She spells out what a bad idea it is to punish a dog for fear aggression:

Physical punishment/discipline has no role in the treatment of an aggressive dog, but it is particularly awful for dogs with fear aggression. Fearfully aggressive dogs become worse when punished/disciplined and may have no recourse except to bite.

Dr. Karen Overall, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Cats and Dogs (Overall, 2013, p. 185)

Veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner says something similar in her scholarly and practical article about aggression in dogs (Reisner, 2003):

Punishment of any kind should be avoided, including hitting, leash corrections, ‘‘hanging’’ by holding up the leash, holding the dog by the scruff, shocking the dog at the moment of aggression (using an electric shock device), rolling the dog onto its back, and other misguided actions. Any of these can increase anxiety and is almost certain to result in further biting. Reacting to an anxious or fearful dog with such a display also guarantees increased aggression at the next exposure to whatever situation sparked the aggression in the first place.

Dr. Ilana Reisner, “Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in dogs”

I’ll leave the reader to find the parallel resources from the field of neuroscience. You could start with the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” response.

Think I’m cherry-picking? I’m not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a doctoral-level behavior professional who recommends punitive treatment for aggression. The science about that has been writ large for decades. This is why people who base their dog training on punishers have to resort to cults of personality, claims of magical energy, or misplaced talk of dominance to justify their training. Most avoid science like the plague.

If Your Dog Is Aggressive…

Demand transparency from any trainer you consider. Don’t accept euphemisms. You could be risking your dog’s life if the trainer uses painful methods, whatever terms they use and whatever arguments they make.

Here’s an option if you can’t find a qualified trainer locally. More and more qualified trainers are offering remote consultations via Skype, Facetime, and online meeting programs. Here are three who do so. They are highly qualified, and I know them personally.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

References

Archer, J. (1976). The organization of aggression and fear in vertebrates. In Perspectives in ethology (pp. 231-298). Springer, Boston, MA.

Azrin, N.H, Holz, W.C., “Punishment” from Honig, W. (1966) Operant Behavior: Areas of Research and Application, 380-447.

Overall, K. (2013). Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Reisner, I. R. (2003). Differential diagnosis and management of human-directed aggression in dogs. The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice33(2), 303-320.

Siracusa, C., Provoost, L., & Reisner, I. R. (2017). Dog-and owner-related risk factors for consideration of euthanasia or rehoming before a referral behavioral consultation and for euthanizing or rehoming the dog after the consultation. Journal of veterinary behavior22, 46-56.

Photo credits: prong collar, copyright Eileen Anderson. Standing dog courtesy of CanStock. Snarling dog on couch copyright Eileen Anderson (and thank you to the friend of a friend whose dog is pictured. Astute observers may have noticed that this is likely not a dangerous dog, and they’d be correct.)

7 thoughts on “Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

  1. Well spoken, Eileen. Great timing with the release of Nat Geo Wild’s new money maker magic trainer show “Dog:Impossible”.

    1. And yes, I just learned that that show almost had “Red Zone Dogs” in its title before they renamed it. Too bad they didn’t just trash it. Thank you!

  2. It’s always been a no-brainer for me when working with or spending any time with or around “red zone” dogs or any animal. Why on Earth would anyone in their right mind seek to be an even bigger, greater threat or challenge to a dog that already has form and if it is bad enough and happens to turn, will rip you to shreds like Christmas wrapping paper?

    The rare times I’ve encountered a strange, aggressive looking dog, first thing I want is to be the super friendliest, least threatening person in the entire world right there and then.

    Had three dogs charge at my daughter and I once – three huge bully breeds that we didn’t know were even around the area and it was just us, them and nobody else for at least a mile.

    Me immediately to daughter “Cross your arms hands in pockets – look up ahead – stand perfectly still and do nothing else until I say so”

    Then me to the dogs whilst standing still, tapping the side of my leg, talking in a nice light upbeat and friendly tone of voice to mask the fact I was absolutely bricking it “Hey hey there’s no need for all that ya big silly sausages what’s this for? 🙂 Hmmm? Big silly billy it’s OK you can come to me and sit here if you like sweet? 🙂 I’m not gonna get you nooo.. we don’t get dogs we love dogs course we do yeeee…”

    Daughter whilst still stock still and staring dead ahead “Mum… one is rolling over for a tummy rub by my feet can I give him a tickle and make friends??!”

    If nothing else a so called “red zone” dog no matter what size or breed can kill you without much effort. I don’t want to be someone that makes him think he can’t trust me because with that comes a greater risk of things going wrong.

    Why anyone would deliberately do anything to make one feel even more afraid and even less inclined to trust them is beyond me.

    1. Just the other day I came back from a walk, and as I started to come up the driveway, I was surprised to see a massive bull breed or maybe mastiff mix come trotting off the front porch and start to come down the driveway towards us. I stopped, he stopped, the dogs I was walking tried to pull forward a bit wanting to say hi, and he gave us a not particularly friendly looking stare. So I threw a couple handfuls of treats behind him, which preoccupied him, and was able to sidle on past and put the dogs in the house. When I came back out he was gone. I think my arrival had surprised him and he just started to get defensive, was all. Acting aggressive towards him would probably just have made him come after us.

  3. So this week I learned not to allow anyone to take River’s lead unless I’m sure they are a reward-based type.

    We’re training for conformation showing and attending ringcraft classes, mostly so I can learn how to best present him. One of the trainers suggested I turn him in a circle before starting to walk and offered to show me what she meant – this apparently involved her yanking at his (very thin) show lead until he squealed before I had chance to react and stop her.

    I still don’t know exactly what he was being “corrected” for and clearly neither did he.

    I was especially mad because I’d specifically told her that my sensitive 4-month-old Papillon puppy was very new to the show lead (I usually use a harness but unfortunately you need a thin lead/collar for showing so the judges can easily see the neck).

    It’s a good job he trusts me because it took a while of treating and encouragement to get him comfortable again afterwards, and now we keep the hell away from that trainer.

    I suppose the point is that I wouldn’t blame him for a second if he’d aggressed in response to the sudden pain in his neck, and then my sweet 5lb puppy would have a bite history.

    1. Oh man, I’m so sorry. I know several people who regret the time they handed over their dog’s lead in a class or workshop, even with someone they thought would be OK. I’m so glad you were able to get him comfortable again.

      Eileen

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