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Sometimes, people come to me asking if their dog is a dangerous or “red zone dog.” The reality is, all dogs can bite and would in the wrong situation. Some dogs, however, are far more dangerous than others.
As a behavior consultant who loves working with tough, marginal dogs, I see a lot of scary dogs. When I worked at the fourth largest animal shelter in the U.S., we saw several each week. I have taken a lot of time to study dog behavior so that I feel (relatively) comfortable assessing and training dangerous dogs.
If you’re worried about your dog’s behavior, consider purchasing our e-book, Practical Solutions for Aggressive Dogs. It’s affordable and thorough!
What is a Red Zone Dog?
The term “red zone dog” is not a term I like. Articles that talk about red zone dogs sometimes use words like “dark, evil, or psycho.” When I say “red zone dog,” I mean a dog that is dangerous.
Red zone dog means different things for different people. If you think that your dog is dangerous and you think he’s too risky for you, your life, and your family, then he’s a red zone dog to you. I think that’s legitimate.
My level of comfort with dangerous dogs is probably more than some people’s (especially since I don’t have kids and I’m a skilled handler), yet my comfort with dangerous dogs is probably lower than some people’s because I never fool myself into thinking “I would never get bitten.”
Like with most things aggression-related, there aren’t really hard-and-fast rules for determining how dangerous an aggressive dog is. For example, my own dog Barley will growl if other dogs approach his food bowl. Since we don’t have another dog, this isn’t a big deal at all to us. But in a different home, his resource guarding could quickly escalate to a more serious problem.
That said, there are a series of questions that I like to ask people when trying to determine how serious an aggression case is. Many of these questions are derived from Michael Shikashio’s Aggression A-Z Course.
28 Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Aggressive Dog
I created this questionnaire to get a grasp on how risky a case was, using a combination of my experience in the animal shelter and in homes (and drawing on the wisdom of others). The more questions that a person answers “yes” to, the more serious the case (and the more dangerous the dog).
Five questions about bite inhibition:
- Has your dog bitten anyone? The more bites, the more serious the case, in general. Please read about the bite scale to learn more about why serious bites are a more serious concern.
- Did that bite break skin?
- Did that bite require medical attention?
- Was that bite to a person’s torso or face?
- Has your dog caused damage to another dog?
- A useful metric here is the bite-to-fight ratio, based on how many squabbles your dog has gotten into versus how many times your dog has actually bitten another dog. The more often a fight results in a bite, the worse.
Six questions about the family and living situation:
- Are there children in the home?
- Do you have an active social life that could impact your ability to manage your dog’s behavior? For example, do you have people over frequently or often need a dogsitter due to travel?
- Does your living situation make it harder to prevent your dog’s aggression? For example, do you live in an apartment where you must walk your dog through narrow hallways past stranger or other dogs? Or does your dog “have issues with” your neighbors and your HOA doesn’t allow fences? Or does your roommate frequently leave the back gate open?
- Do you not have the time to train your dog?
- Do you not have the energy to train your dog?
- Do you not have the money to pay for training and/or medication for your dog?
Four questions about the dog’s demeanor, history, and physical build:
- Does your dog frequently bark at minor disturbances, startle at noises, pace, whine, drool, or otherwise appear restless and anxious?
- Is your dog large and/or powerful?
- Have you had your dog for a short period of time?
- Was your dog raised in an environment that lacked appropriate socialization opportunities (such as puppy mills, as a stray, in a neglectful home, or a dog fighting ring)?
Three questions about the dog’s training history:
- Has your dog already seen a trainer who is skilled in dealing with aggression cases?
- Does your dog lack basic obedience training? In other words, is your dog unable to respond to basic cues such as sit, stay, and leave it? It’s ok if you taught your dog this at home, we just want to know if your dog is able to respond to any verbal cues.
- Would you describe your dog as generally poorly behaved? This is different from obedience. Some dogs don’t know how to sit on cue, but are still polite and gentle around the home.
Ten questions about the dog’s aggression:
- Does your dog’s aggression seem unpredictable (you’re not sure what the triggers are or the thresholds seem inconsistent)?
- Is the behavior happening frequently (more than once per month)?
- Does your dog seem to react to a lot of different triggers?
- Is the aggression getting worse?
- Does your dog not give clear warnings prior to aggression?
- Does your dog take a long time to “calm down” after an incident?
- Is the aggression directed at something that you’ll have a hard time avoiding (like a family member)?
- Does your dog have any relatives that also exhibit aggressive behavior?
- Given the choice, would your dog rather fight than flee?
- Has the aggression been going on for a while?
Keep score and tally up your dog’s behavior. As I said, the definition of “red zone dog” is based on your own comfort and skill level. However, these 28 questions are also meant to get at your own ability to manage and control the problem.
What Does My Dog’s Score Mean?
As a general rule, a dog that scores above five on this scale should probably see a trainer unless those points largely come from the “Family and living situation” section. Then again, if you’re worried enough about your dog’s behavior to read this article, your dog is probably a candidate for training!
A dog with a score of two or three can still be pretty scary – for example, if I had a young child (1) and a dog who unpredictably (1) and frequently (1) growls (just 3 points), that’s a serious situation!
On the flip side, a large (1), anxious (1), untrained (1), new-to-you (1) dog that takes a while to calm down after incidents (1) and is frequently (1) triggered by a lot of things (1), resulting in growling at you (1) is a cause for concern, but arguably a less serious scenario as long as the aggression is low-level and predictable (despite scoring 8 on our scale).
A dog that scores above ten on this scale is generally quite concerning and should see a behavior consultant who is well-versed in positive reinforcement based training and aggression. Reach out to me and I’ll help you find someone good!
Most homes are not well-suited to keeping dogs that score above ten on this scale. A dog that scores fifteen, twenty, or more is probably a very serious case indeed.
If the bulk of your points come from the “family and living situation” section, rehoming your dog may be a legitimate option. However, it can be a very difficult decision to rehome a potentially dangerous dog. Again, consult with a behavior professional to get their opinion.
No matter what your dog’s score is, it’s smart to get help.
Send me a copy of your scoresheet at email@example.com and I’ll help you come up with a preliminary game plan – for free.
Odds are, I’m going to suggest a muzzle at the minimum. Management is always the first step.
There are no easy answers with aggressive or red zone dogs. Training, rehoming, or euthanasia are really your only options. Training is hard and doesn’t always work. Rehoming can be risky with dangerous dogs, and not many people are lining up to take on a dangerous new pet. Euthanasia is devastating, but sometimes it’s the only safe option.
Why Shouldn’t I Correct My Red-Zone Dog?
Well, we’re going to correct the behavior (and the underlying emotions). But we’re not going to administer corrections. If you want a detailed overview of how I work with aggressive dogs, check out this article. Take it from a dog behavior consultant with years of experience, not a T.V. star, your local obedience trainer, or Joe Schmoe down the street.
Good dog training revolves around:
- Preventing problem behaviors through smart management in the short and long term.
- Catching your dog being good.
- Teaching your dog the skills he needs to navigate life. If necessary, this also includes counterconditioning to change his emotional responses to adversity.
Reacting to aggression with aggression is not a great way to create peace and harmony. Instead, skilled trainers will resort to using counterconditioning to change your dog’s emotional response to his triggers. Before any of that can happen, though, a behavior consultant will help you figure out how to prevent the aggression from happening.
Once you’ve got the situation under control and everyone is safe, it’s time to work on counterconditioning. While you teach your dog that his former triggers are actually the signs of treats coming his way, you can also teach him an incompatible coping behavior.
For example, I treat my dog’s food aggression like this:
- I don’t knowingly let him eat food where other dogs might bother him (prevention).
- I set up training situations where Barley is leashed and muzzled and another dog walks by. Right when Barley notices the other dog, I toss hotdogs into Barley’s bowl. He learns that other dogs coming near his food makes hotdogs rain from the sky.
- I taught Barley to drop food on cue and run over to touch my hand. He can’t do this while he also bites another dog, so it’s an incompatible coping behavior. I give him lots of treats for complying with this cue!
If you catch your dog acting aggressively, the best bet is to interrupt it with a cheerful or calming voice, remove your dog from the situation (or yourself, if you’re the thing your dog is upset at), and then calm your dog down. For example:
- Naomi sees another dog and starts to bark and lunge, snarling and spraying saliva all over.
- Instead of yanking on her collar, I sing in a high-pitched and happy voice, “Naoooomiiii, let’s go!”
- Then we run in the opposite direction, playing a chase game away from the other dog.
- When we get far enough away, I shower Naomi with treats.
“But Kayla,” you might be saying, “That’s a lot of treats. I don’t want my dog to get fat AND I don’t want to reward him for being a jerk!”
I’m right there with you. I keep careful track of my training client’s food and weight. We reduce their meal size to accommodate treats.
As far as rewarding your dog for being a jerk, the thing is that punishing your dog for being aggressive is likely to make the problem worse. Feeding your dog is likely to improve your relationship with him and help him calm down.
Let’s look at a human example. If I’m in a pissy mood and I start picking at my boyfriend Andrew (usually by yelling at him to turn the music down or getting unreasonably irritated with his driving), he generally has two responses: respond to my aggression with aggression of his own (causing a fight) or being kind and understanding, and offering to cheer me up with ice cream.
Is he rewarding me for being a jerk by giving me ice cream? Not really. The ice cream calms me down and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy towards him.
You can read more about my dog training methodology here. I also have a big old primary literature kit that goes over the science of different training methods, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Moving Forward with Your Red Zone Dog
Let’s be like the kind, understanding, and cheer-you-up version of Andrew with our dogs.
Positive reinforcement works, and it’s got none of the nasty fallout potentials of correction-based training.
E-collars, prong collars, yelling, physical manipulation, and other forms of correction have been shown to cause aggression in some studies – so let’s not risk it.
In short, everyone’s definition of red zone dog is different. This scale can help you get a good idea of how serious your dog’s case is.
If you send me an email with a copy of your scoresheet, I’ll give you some free help. Regardless of what you decide to do, reward-based training is a far safer and better bet than using correction-based training, especially with red-zone dogs.
I’ve written quite a bit about calming aggressive dogs here if you’d like more of a nitty-gritty training plan on the subject.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.
Kayla, this information is wonderful. I like your human analogies and your pragmatism. It’s important to keep tough conversations in mind – both for safety and also to remind us how high the stakes are. Thanks again.
Glad I could help, Lexi. I know how tough this can be. I try to help as much as I can!
I have a bully that’s 2 yrs old from puppy we’ve had Nyla she’s been wonderful but her fear of everything from noise to anything trigger an automatic Red zone my daughter whos the owner has been trying to deal with.. she has been to a behavioral counselor, she been to a very expensive 6 week training but they can’t get her out of this behavior.. she has nipped at friends but today she atacked our 9 yr old grandson for no reason other than he walking to our backyard whike I was playing with. It was horrible I was not fast enough to grab her he was shocked not knowing what to do while I was trying to ger her ood him, He required a stitch but had some very deep punctures.. we are all devastated my dauy has decided to euthanize her but I love her sso much( not more than my grandson) but she was a little baby when we got her.. so with all that said she is with my wife an I now while my daughter (23) is getting ready with her Vet to do this she is otherwise so loving and sweet with me specially. So I wish I could do something to save her..
We rescued a 2.5 year old mixed breed. He is sweet and tolerates our 2 small children well. We didn’t think he was aggressive to people, but after hiring a trainer we are unsure. She mentioned some red flags, that after reading this checklist I now see as well. His biggest issue is that he is unpredictable…
I feel so guilty at the thought of rehoming him, but he is a strong dog that is showing us that maybe he can’t be trusted with our kids. For now we are trying to continue with professional in home training. Any advice for how to know when to call it quits? My children have to be safe in their home. We teach them kindness towards the dog, but we need the dog to be teachable as well.
Hi Ashley, I can’t really give advice on if or when to call it quits without speaking to you personally for quite some time; I just can’t give an opinion based on a few sentences. I’m happy to help out if you’d like, but we’d have to schedule a call for that.
Kayla, what was your answer to John (email Oct 3, 2020)? Our situation has similarities (except she is a boxer, age is 9, and she hasn’t bitten anyone, though she seems quite willing and able.) She was rescued from the street as a pup under 1 yr old.
She is so sweet with family and friends, but aggressive with new people, strangers (esp. tall guys, but anybody is possible), on the street or in the home, with bicycles, surprises, noises,etc., etc.
My son adores Berny (his dog), but is seriously considering euthanization if latest effort doesn’t work (currently taking Guylkine …spelling?).
Has spent money spent on training (negative, I thought), gadgets, other medications, etc. His corrections to her are negative and he is frustrated and gets upset. He won’t listen to me any more, because he’s heard all my ideas, but he loves Berny and wants desperately for her to improve and spend her golden years happily with him.
It will devastate him to have her killed, no matter how humanely and I think he won’t be able to get over it.
I will get him to fill out your form and send it to you, if you have time to review and suggest/refer (we are in FL). I’m happy to pay your fee, as I appreciate that your time and expertise are very valuable. Thank you. Marty
Hi Martha, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. Let’s get you scheduled for a call right away – you can use the link in the menu bar above (1-on-1 Training) to find a service that suits your needs.
I am currently waiting at the vets because my 1 1/2 year old German Shepherd almost killed our pomeranian mix dog. We got her at 8 weeks and they were fine together until she was a little over a year. She attacked him the first time over the chewy box we just brought in. She has gotten him 4 or 5 times but the worst was today. I have to literally put all my weight on her and to fight for his life. She has bit me twice during these confrontations but not intentionally. I got my arm in the way when she was trying to readjust her grip on him. She is fearful of sound and strangers but this is different. She was locked in her crate, but exploded out the door and went straight to him. It seems like either a bone or one of her toys is nearby when this happens. I love my dog more than anything but I don’t want her to kill our other dog or cat.
Hi Camella, I’m so sorry. That must be so stressful and scary! Once everyone is home from the vet and cleaned up, I’d urge you to keep the dogs completely separate until you can get in touch with a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant (check the IAABC listing for help). If there’s no one in your area, let me know and we can help you remotely. Don’t try to work on this on your own using free advice online – it’s far too serious and risky for that!