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.