By Eileen Anderson
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.
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.
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.
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.
To locate a force-free trainer or behavior consultant near you, see the Pet Professional Guild’s zip code search.
Note: Photo of snarling dog on couch – 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.
Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson
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 practice, 33(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 behavior, 22, 46-56.
About the Author
Passionate amateur dog trainer, writer, and learning theory geek. See more at http://eileenanddogs.com.