There have been a few high media profile and tragic incidents with dogs in the UK this year which has lead to heightened media attention around the issues of dangerous dogs in our society. Thankfully, these incidents are very rare, which is why they make the news. There are many things we can all do to help stop these incidents from happening and I believe it starts with everyone of us who is involved with dogs taking personal responsibility for our roles.
The dog’s life starts with the breeder. Breeding practices have changed dramatically over the past thirty or so years, pedigree dogs becoming more popular as family pets among many other things. The majority of dogs bred by anyone, including show breeders will end up as family pets. If we bred primarily for health and temperament, rather than looks and allowing brood bitches to decide for themselves whether they want to mate we would have more stable and healthy dogs. The practices of artificial, assisted and even forced matings are fairly common and lead to problems in the new pups temperament and health. Keeping the bitch in good health and stress free as much as possible during pregnancy also helps as the influence of stress hormones on the pups in the womb can effect temperament.
Breeders should be doing the following – getting the pups used to being handled (ears, paws, genitals, mouths), having the pups meet 100 people in weeks 5-8 of their lives. This isn’t just about exposure to these stimuli, they need to be positive experiences which can easily done through classical conditioning using food. We’ve probably all seen adverts in the local paper or online saying “well socialised pups brought up in a family home around children”. While this is a far better way to rear newborn pups than on a puppy farm or outside in a kennel, the exposure to the two or three children in the breeders home gets the pups used to those children, not all children. These pups might be better able to deal with children than pups who haven’t been exposed at all to kids, but it’s by no means enough. Further more, if the experiences around those kids aren’t good ones then it’s actually making matters worse. Socialisation isn’t about exposure, it’s about creating good associations. Breeders should also be chew toy training their puppies, beginning toilet training, teaching basic obedience using positive reinforcement training and getting the pups used to being on their own for periods of time. I’m of the opinion that if breeders aren’t doing these essential protocols with all of their pups and then carefully vetting the potential customers then they shouldn’t be breeding at all. I’m not bashing all breeders here, I know some are doing all of these things, but they are exceptional and in the minority.
New owners should carry on (or in most cases start)this process. Socialisation should continue from week 8 when the puppy comes home and then on into adolescence and into adulthood. Again, this isn’t about exposure, it’s about good experiences. Vets tell new owners not to take the pup out until after the second injection at 11-12 weeks old. The window is closing rapidly at that age. My suggestion would be to carry the pup outside and take him to places where people can interact with the pup in a safe way. One of my clients bought a baby buggy/stroller and would have the pup in the buggy to socialise her before 12 weeks of age. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, then you should be inviting 100 people to your house over weeks 8-12 to interact with your puppy using food to classically condition the dog. Handling is also essential during this time, with the pup building positive associations with all shapes, sizes and ages of people touching her ears, paws etc. I worked with a couple a few years ago who had a 15 month Malamute who was fearful of people and would lunge and bark if they got too close. The couple told me they had socialised their dog during puppyhood by taking her to the park on busy afternoons. What would happen is literally dozens of people at a time would surround and pet the cute Malamute pup. What happened was not socialisation. This puppy learned that people surrounding her made her feel frightened and that she had no way to escape the situation. As she got older, she learned that barking and lunging caused people to go away, which is what she wanted.
Train your dog to do what you want him to do. It’s not an entitlement to have your dog off leash in a public park (where laws allow), it’s a privilege. If your dog gets into fights, doesn’t come back when called, jumps on people and other dogs and generally makes a nuisance of himself then please take personal responsibility for him and train him. If your dog is reactive/aggressive to people or dogs, keep him away from them until you can help him not to be. No one else will train your dog to sit or stand politely when greeting strangers. Strangers usually inadvertently train your pup to jump by petting her when she jumps up to say hello. The dog then gets bigger and her jumping on someone with muddy feet isn’t so cute anymore, but the owner allowed this whole scenario to happen. Read a book or seek assistance from an experienced positive reinforcement trainer who doesn’t use aversive training before you get your dog. Build positive experiences with your dog around kids, men, people from all races, large vehicles, buggies/strollers, people with hats, glasses and umbrellas, people in uniform and hi-vis jackets, anything and everything which is different or potentially spooky to your dog. Again, dog ownership is not an entitlement, please take responsibility for your dog.
Trainers – you all know my thoughts on training practices and I constantly strive to improve my knowledge and skill. Please keep up to date with current research. There are techniques I no longer use as I have found better and less aversive ones. I have no doubt some of the ones I use now will be replaced in the future. Ongoing education is essential.
The non-dog owning public – please educate your children on how to interact with dogs. Don’t leave your kids with or let them approach or touch dogs without asking first. Please be respectful of both dog and the owners wishes. I’m currently working with a young bull breed puppy. The dog is extremely nervous of strangers and doesn’t like being petted by people he doesn’t know or people standing directly over him and bending down. We have a training and behaviour modification protocol in place to help make this dog better. I’ve asked the owner to tell people not to pet the dog, which he is doing religiously. A few days ago, someone approached the dog, owner asks her several times not to touch the dog as he is in training. The woman bends over the dog with outstretched hand and the pup lunges and snaps at her. My advice to the owner is if he sees it happening he should either walk away quickly or physically block the approach by standing between the dog and the person. But he shouldn’t have to. The woman should have respected his requests but she felt entitled to pet the puppy. Please take responsibility for your own actions around dogs.
I know this blog entry has been a bit more serious than usual but it’s a very serious issue. If we all did more, from breeders, to owners, trainers, vets and the general non-dog owning public then we will continue to have to freedoms with our dogs we currently enjoy. If we don’t, the freedoms will be restricted and our and our dogs’ lives will be changed for the worse.