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Episode 307 - Pit Bulls on Parole

“It’s not uncommon for dogs to be frightened of certain appliances because they can make strange, loud noises — but it’s up to us to not let their fear interfere with our home life or jobs. And it’s our job number one to help them overcome that fear.”


Q&A with Cesar

I inadvertently rescued a red zone dog. She is about one year old. What do you recommend, Cesar?

In all cases of severe canine aggression, it is best and safest to begin by calling in a professional trainer who can assess your dog’s level of aggression and give you the tools and training necessary for rehabilitation.
The assessment is necessary because I see dogs that are just aggressive get mislabeled as “red zone” all the time. Red zone is very specific. This is a dog that, once it is triggered to attack, will not stop until it has killed unless it is stopped by another animal or humans.
This kind of aggression is not common and it’s not natural. Show me a red zone dog and I’ll show you a human who helped, whether intentionally or not, to make the dog that way. Dogs used for illegal fighting or trained to guard places by attacking strange humans on sight are red zone. Dogs that charge a fence to bark at strangers are probably not red zone.
One of the major factors behind aggression of all levels is frustration, which is why it can actually be easier to rehabilitate an aggressive dog. First, we need to identify the source of frustration, then remove it by satisfying the unfulfilled need that is making the dog frustrated — for example, a lack of exercise, a lack of mental stimulation, or the inability to indulge in breed-specific activities like herding.
At the same time, aggressive dogs need strong leadership — not pushy, dominant, or aggressive, but strong, by which I mean calm, clear, constant, and consistent. They need to learn to trust you, which will help you learn to trust them again. This mutual trust will help the dog understand that there’s no need to be aggressive because he is protected, and it will help you understand that there is no need to be afraid of what your dog might do, because your dog can change with your help.
This mutual trust is how humans and wild wolves were able to form a bond in the first place that led to modern dogs. It’s also the “invisible leash” that maintains the leader and follower relationship that allows us to have balanced relationships with our domesticated dogs today.

My dog is also unpredictable like Luna. How can I know when she is about to attack? She is a biter.

You can tell when your dog is about to bite because she’ll show you. You just have to learn to watch for the signs. Always be aware of your dog’s body language and watch for things like physical tension, head and tail held very high, and an intent focus on something or someone.
Some dogs may let out a low growl or a muffled bark, almost like a quiet cough, and the hair down their back and spine — their hackles — may suddenly stand on end. Some dogs will also assume a stalking stance by lowering their body while leaning forward. This means that they are getting ready to pounce at something.
Even without these extreme signs, you can often tell by watching a dog’s eyes. If they get very big and you can see the whites, the dog may be getting ready to bite — this is particularly common in very small dogs, like Chihuahuas.
To a dog, an actual bite is an extreme measure. Think of what it would take to get you to punch another person. Unless you’re a red zone human or really have anger issues, you’re not going to do it out of the blue, but only in response to a perceived physical threat to you or a loved one, and you’re probably going to “bark” or “growl” first by getting into an argument.
Dogs also communicate before they bite. They don’t do it in words, but they will send the message with their body language: Back off. It’s only when that message isn’t respected that they take the next step — their body language says “I’m going to bite.” When they feel threatened or disrespected enough, then they bite.
So your dog is giving you and whatever is threatening it plenty of warning, meaning you have plenty of time to redirect your dog away from the stimulus to avoid an escalation. But there’s one other thing you can do — learn what triggers your dog to bite. Is it strangers approaching? People trying to pat her on the head? A particular type of person, like men in hats or children?
As a Pack Leader, it’s your job to protect your dog by watching for these things and politely asking people to respect your dog’s space. If you tense up and drag your dog away, you’re just telling your dog that she’s right in being nervous. But if you calmly and politely say, “Hey, my dog is really nervous around strangers,” most people will understand and move on.
Not only does this keep your dog from being triggered, but it exposes her to lots of possible triggers that do nothing to frighten or threaten her — the scary man in the hat kept walking and nothing happened; that kid didn’t try to grab her face. When the “threat” goes by and your dog remains calm, reward her with praise or a treat, and eventually her need to warn and bite may go away on its own.

Cesar, you said that Leesa needs to apply “leadership with love.” How can I do that with my dogs?

It’s all about how you apply your love to your dog. I always say that people make the big mistake of giving a dog nothing but affection, affection, affection — but this is not what they want.  A dog wants to earn your affection by working for it.
To create this relationship, you must be your dog’s leader and provide rules, boundaries and limitations. These will help your dog to learn what’s expected and what’s not allowed. When your dog earns your affection — i.e. love — by doing what you want, it strengthens the bond between you both and reinforces your position as Pack Leader.

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How to Watch

TV: "Cesar 911" appears in the U.S.A. on Nat Geo WILD. Check local listings.

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International: "Cesar 911" will premiere internationally in May. Please visit our schedule page for more information.