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Extract from Aunty Kaye’s Doggy Dictionary of Training and Behaviour

The concept of a “zone” in dog training and behaviour relates to the dog’s sense of space and social distance.

Dogs may feel threatened if you move into their personal space. “In this zone the risk of aggression is very high, if we allow another object, animal or human to get into our dogs’ faces the dog is forced into fighting, biting or hiding in between our legs,” comments Australian trainer Pat Robards.

A dog’s “comfort zone” is the space a dog needs to feel comfortable with any particular approach, threat or intrusion.  Of course, it will vary according to who or what is approaching. Some dogs have small comfort zones and others have large ones. It depends on how confident and sociable the dog is, and it also depends on how the dog interprets a situation.

The comfort zone will be different for familiar people or dogs compared to strangers, and it also depends on whether your dog views them as threatening.

Some dogs have a lower tolerance level to stress therefore some dogs’ zones may be smaller or some bigger.

As a general rule, in classes I say that a dog’s personal space extends about a metre and a half from the dog and handler. This means that two dogs have to be about three metres apart not to be in each other’s personal space. When you consider that in many obedience classes, dogs are set up about a metre apart, you can see why understand dogs are stressed and reactive. This is not to say that dogs should never be brought closer to each other. Of course, one of the goals of socialisation in group classes is to desensitise dogs to being approached, and teach them to be comfortable about being approached. However, this should be regarded as a goal, not taken for granted as a starting point. I like handlers to be aware of their dog’s space and the space of the dog they are approaching. If the handlers stand 3 metres apart, they can allow their dogs the choice of moving into more neutral ground midway between the two people.

Zone One (Neutral ground and the outer circle)

This outer circle represents the flight distance, the dog becomes aware of other creatures and is the distance that a frightened animal may choose to move away. Turid Rugaas has it on her video, the dog saying by signalling to his owner “don’t make me go any closer”. The dog will ignore the other dog or send out dominance/submissive signals, calming signals, become aggressive or friendly or move on. If your dog is friendly and relaxed, you can continue into Zone Two, if not, don’t go any closer, because your dog just indicated “don’t make me go any closer”.

Zone Two: (Critical distance and the middle circle).

If the dog is unable to flee it may show fear-based aggression to make the intruder go away. The dog is forced into deciding between withdrawal or avoidance (fight or flight) or a warning to proceed no further. The strategy chosen depends on the dog.

Zone three: (personal space or safety zone)

Dogs have a sense of “personal space” and may react with calming signals, warning signs or aggression at being approached by a person or another dog who intrudes into this space. This is called their personal safety zone.

Zones of the body

The term “zones” is sometimes also used in relation to zones of the body.

Even though positive reinforcement training emphasises “hands off” training methods, we still teach handling for grooming and maintenance, and to ensure that the dog accepts handling. Dr Ian Dunbar teaches instructors to teach puppy owners to “grab the collar, give a treat” to condition the puppy against developing “grabitis”. In Australia, Delta Society instructors teach “gotcha!” a similar idea.

For those dogs sensitive to touch, the clicker or word ‘good’ can be used mark the handling of trouble spots on the body and associate this with pleasant things happening.. Dr Ian Dunbar has a great way of doing this.  He begins in a safe zone, then gradually goes closer to the danger zone, and gives a ‘#1′ or high value reward for getting closer to that area –  for example dry food for safe areas and liver for close to the dog’s danger zone. He then resumes handling in safe zone allowing dog to calm down, before approaching the danger zone again. Doing this slowly and using different treats shows the dog it is good to be handled in the danger zone. Danger zones can be the dog’s head, mouth, withers, flank, feet, tail or rear end.


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