Red Zone Dogs

I re-blogged a post by the wonderful Nicole Wilde yesterday discussing whether or not some dogs need a heavier approach to training meaning more physically aversive techniques. The answer to that is no, they don’t and I agree wholeheartedly with Nicole’s well educated opinion on the matter. It got me thinking about the term “Red Zone Dog” which has been popularised by Cesar Milan on his show “The Dog Whisperer”

I want you to imagine that you are frightened of something. You have also learned that screaming and shouting and acting like a crazy person generally makes the thing you are scared of go away. You also have no ability to rationalise things. Your screaming usually works either because the scary thing wants nothing to do with your insanity or that the scary thing was going to go on it’s merry way regardless of how you act. Now, lets say the scary thing is getting closer and closer. Having learned that acting like a madman usually works, this time it doesn’t. What are you more likely to do? My guess would be act the way you usually act but this time with more intensity and energy than usual. Now the scary thing goes away. So the next time the scary thing comes close and because you are smart and efficient, you are just going to jump in with the same level of intensity as the last time, so you learn this is now what works. Now some person comes along and forces you to remain in the same area as the very thing you are terrified from. Would it be reasonable to expect you to fight like hell to get away from the person and the scary thing and you might even want to hurt the person, regardless of their intention to help or otherwise, who is forcing you to remain next to the very thing which causes you nightmares? On top of this they occasionally punch and kick you in order to “snap you out of it”.

Now, lets imagine a trusted and kind friend who understands your fear, keeps you at a safe distance from the object of your terror, makes you feel safe and reassures you in a way you understand that nothing is going to happen when the scary thing appears and if you don’t react badly, you will either be moved away from the scary thing and/or given something which you really enjoy (chocolate, money, whatever you really like). Do you think in time you might become used to the scary thing, and maybe even look forward to seeing it at a safe distance? Maybe even think you might try getting a bit closer because when you do you get better or more of the things you like?

The safe distance I’ve described is called threshold. At or further away from threshold, dogs have the ability to learn and we can teach them that the object of their fear isn’t going to hurt them, and may even mean good things happen. If we move beyond threshold, dogs can only react, they can no longer learn. They now engage the emotional part of their brain and disengage the thinking, learning part.

Cesar Milan’s “Red Zone Dogs” are seriously beyond threshold. In his show, we have seen him forcing dogs to remain at a distance which they are clearly not comfortable with and he then assaults them. I’ll not get into the reasons or excuses he uses to justify this. Now I have worked with some seriously aggressive dogs, whose threshold distance is several hundred feet. These are difficult to work with but if you find the right location it’s possible and I’ve had some truly excellent results. Some of these dogs could easily be classified as “red zone” cases.

If you don’t want to see a red zone dog, don’t bring it within a distance to the scary thing where it can’t learn. It’s cruel and ineffective. How would you feel?

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Do Some Dogs Need a Heavier Hand?

Nicole says it all, excellent blog

Wilde About Dogs

It never fails—someone always says it. In an recent online discussion about a trainer known for using less-than-gentle methods, someone made a comment that sounded a lot like this: “Positive training is fine for smaller dogs and puppies, and maybe even some adults, but there are some dogs that need a heavier hand.” Really? Because that sounds an awful lot like justification for jerking, yanking, shocking, and other things done to dogs in the name of training.

I’ve heard the excuse for heavy-handedness put like this: “They’re red zone dogs” (somehow that term always makes me visualize dogs with red, flashing sirens over their heads) or something similar. The term is meant to indicate dogs who are severely aggressive, and often the trainer has been brought in as last-ditch effort before the dog is euthanized. In my years of working in canine training and behavior, I’ve worked with many of…

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When reinforcing growling is not only acceptable, but desirable

Yesterday, I had a consultation with Rosemary and her 4 year old terrier Jasper. Jasper has had significant health problems for his whole life. He has a spinal defect on the lower part of his back, which causes very stiff movement. He has developed cataracts in one of his eyes over the last few months and from what I saw yesterday, he doesn’t see too well from his good eye either. He’s also reactive to other dogs.

Rosemary is realistic about how much I was able to do for Jasper, and every now and then a dog like wee Jasper comes along and really tests my abilities and powers of lateral thinking. For those of you unfamiliar with the term “threshold”, it refers to the distance at which a reactive dog will react to the stimulus in the environment which she doesn’t like. For example, if your dog as reactive to other dogs, she might be non reactive if the dog is 30 feet away, and only react if the other dog comes within 25 feet. In this case, 25 feet would be the threshold distance.

In the case of Jasper, because his eyesight is so poor, the other dog is well within his threshold distance by the time he knows it’s there, which means in most cases, as soon as he can see or smell the other dog, it’s already far closer than he is comfortable with and he then barks and lunges at the other dog.

Usually when I’m working with reactive, I do my best to work sub-threshold, so the dog I’m working with can see the other dog but the distance is enough that he doesn’t react. We then reinforce (reward) more appropriate behaviours such as looking away, sniffing the ground, tongue flicking or looking back at us, all of which the dog uses to calm himself or try to displace what he is feeling.

Because I couldn’t do this with Jasper, I allowed him to approach the other dog and the instant he recognised the presence of the other dog and growled, I verbally praised him with a “Good boy” and walked away. Here, the sense of relief the dog is feeling from being away from the other dog is rewarding so we can use this relief to reinforce the growl. Why would I want to reinforce Jasper growling at the other dog? the answer is because it’s not a lunge, snap or bark. The growl is the first behaviour Jasper is offering me that lets me know he’s uncomfortable but it is considerably less intense that behaviours he usually offers.

If we do this time and again, Jasper is than far more likely to growl rather than lunge and snap. As his confidence increases, he will become less growly and we can then start reinforcing less intense growling with the ultimate aim being him not growling at all.

If your dog can’t do what you’re asking or wanting him to do, reinforce something he does which is in some way, even a tiny amount, more appropriate or more approximate to the behaviour you want. It’ll work wonders.