Updated: Jul 20
If you’ve watched television in the last 10 years or kept abreast of dog training culture, you’ve probably encountered the term red zone dog. This scary-sounding moniker has been used to refer to dogs who have acted very aggressively toward people or other dogs. A red zone dog may have bitten one or more people or attacked other dogs. But what does the term really mean, and should it even be used?
When we talk about a red zone dog, the implication is that such a high degree of aggression is present that the dog is dangerous. Fair enough; there are dogs out there who are truly dangerous. But the vast majority of dogs that are labeled as highly aggressive are actually behaving from a place of fear-based reactivity. Most dogs bite out of fear, not because they are raving maniacs who live to cause pain or injury to others.
For many of the 30 years I’ve been training, my practice was largely comprised of dogs who had multiply puncture wounded multiple people. Some would most definitely have been classified as red zone dogs. Were they dangerous? In many cases, yes. They were. But would labeling them in that way have helped? Once we label a dog, everything he does is seen through that lens. This particular label seems to imply that the dog is so dangerous that he might not be able to be rehabilitated to the point that other dogs could, because there is something fundamentally wrong with him. It also doesn’t allow for the spectrum of behavior in dogs who act aggressively. Consider the difference between a troubled teenager who is acting out violently and a serial killer. Sure, serial killers exist, as do truly dangerous dogs. Thankfully, both are in the minority. The vast majority of “delinquents” we see are troubled teens whose behavior, with the right guidance, can be turned around. It’s the same with dogs who display aggressive behavior. While it's true that truly dangerous dogs should not be placed in homes, who exactly is passing judgement on and labeling these dogs? Is it an expert with years of solid experience, one with a sound, science-based understanding of canine behavior? Or is it someone who is scores high in popularity but lacks any sort of real credentials? An incorrect assessment and subsequent mislabeling of a dog is not only unhelpful, but could result in a death sentence for that dog.
Of course, not every trainer can or should handle serious aggression cases. But a behavior specialist who is experienced with aggression and understands where it comes from and how to work with dogs gently and positively can achieve amazing transformations. Instead of boasting about rehabilitating red zone dogs, let’s stop labeling them and focus on their behavior instead. Once we separate the behavior from the dog’s underlying temperament we can stop making assumptions, and behavior modification can be that much more successful. ____________________________________________________ You can find my books, recorded seminars, and more on www.nicolewilde.com. Aspiring and professional trainers can find my one-to-one coaching service at Dog Trainer’s Friend. And if you’re interested, you can view my photography and digital art online.