Dog controls without educational support could do more harm than good, says Kendal Shepherd – but, she suggests, there is a solution
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RESPONSES to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's call for evidence on the Dangerous Dogs Act Amendment Bill almost without exception note the absence of any educational and preventive measures in the proposals, with most respondents also calling for the introduction of Dog Control Notices, as have already been implemented in Scotland. However, as far as control notices are concerned, it is my experience that simply physically controlling a dog that has already demonstrated antisocial behaviour – by means of a muzzle and leash, for example, or with dog-proof barriers – is insufficient to ensure future safety. Without some form of educational intervention, the social frustration that such control entails, combined with inevitable human error, can result in just the kind of dog that the order was supposed to prevent – a dog whose behaviour deteriorates over time and has no chance to learn more socially appropriate ways to behave. In addition, physical control without consideration of the mental and emotional effects on the dog may well be inhumane and contrary to the animal's welfare. Such factors may be instrumental in owners failing to comply with a court-imposed order, if their pet appears to be distressed under its terms.
‘Simply physically controlling a dog that has already demonstrated antisocial behaviour – by means of a muzzle and leash, for example, or with dog-proof barriers – is insufficient to ensure future safety’
A solution, which would include both educational and preventive elements, would be to use behaviour awareness courses for dog owners in much the same way as speed awareness courses are used for motorists. Speed awareness courses are devised as an educational intermediary between no action at all and prosecution for exceeding the speed limit. The rationale is that, although no other offence has been committed (such as reckless or dangerous driving), and no damage or injury has been caused, exceeding the speed limit is in itself deemed a risk factor in road traffic accidents and is therefore to be prevented. The workshops are offered at a cost akin to a fine for drivers who have exceeded the speed limit by a relatively small amount, as a means of providing education regarding speeding in all its aspects – why people do it; the injurious, tragic and costly results of road traffic accidents; the reasons why speeding is considered dangerous; and, ultimately, how to avoid speeding at all. The ‘carrot’ for successful attendance is the avoidance of prosecution and its punitive results, in the form of a fine and points on one's driving licence.
There are many similarities between speeding offences and dangerous dog incidents. Both are strict liability offences, in that, if a driver is caught exceeding the speed limit, or if a person is in charge of a dog that is deemed to have been dangerously out of control, a guilty plea is automatic. As presently legally defined, a dog simply causing apprehension of injury is sufficient for an offence to have been committed and there is no mitigation or excuse that can be brought to bear on the mandatory guilty plea itself. However, in both cases, the severity of the offence (for example, how fast the car was going, whether any injury to another dog or person resulted from the dog's behaviour) and other exacerbating factors (such as a driver or owner being drunk or having taken drugs at the time) and previous similar misdemeanours are used to determine level of punishment under sentencing guidelines. In both cases, lack of awareness – of the dangers of speeding or the risks of a dog being under less than adequate control – contributes to the number of offences being committed under the relevant legislation. In both cases, most pertinently, the threat of punishment alone does not appear to be enough of deterrent to prevent offence.
‘In the majority of ‘dangerous dog’ cases under Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act that I have been involved with, the owner or handler of the dog at the time did not, and could not, predict what their dog was about to do'
The main difference between speeding and allowing a dog to be potentially dangerously out of control is the presence in every car of a speedometer, giving the driver information about how fast they are driving. This gives the driver the means to avoid offending, as long as the information from the speedometer is taken in combination with all environmental information, including traffic signs. In contrast, in the majority of ‘dangerous dog’ cases under Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act that I have been involved with, the owner or handler of the dog at the time did not, and could not, predict what their dog was about to do. Behavioural tendencies, although readily recognisable by a qualified and skilled dog canine behaviourist as potentially contributing to danger, are not generally recognised as such by the average dog owner. As well as physical control, therefore, imparting information about the common risk factors for dog bite incidents is vital in order to predict and prevent potentially dangerous behaviour, rather than depending solely on punishment afterwards for an unpredicted event.
Possible format for dog behaviour awareness courses
All attendees should be asked what their dogs have done that has brought them to the attention of the authorities. They should also be asked for their view of why their dogs have behaved in such a way and how their own action or inaction contributed to the perceived problem. Common reasons might be excessive barking when dogs are left alone in the house or garden, lack of reliable recall at exercise and antagonistic behaviour towards other dogs, as well as territorial aggression towards people viewed by dogs as intruders. A paradox for all dogs is that behaviour such as being loyal and protective is considered appropriate and desirable in some circumstances, yet in others is condemned as dangerous. The message throughout should be that aggression towards people in any circumstance is unacceptable.
Statistical and other information should be presented and discussed regarding the incidence and nature of dog bite injuries; their cost to the NHS; the traumatic physical and mental effect on victims and their families; the fact that children are over-represented in dog bite injuries; and that most bites occur in the home by a dog known to the victim.
Attendees should be also made aware of the effects of seizure of an offending animal and welfare concerns and considerations for the dogs themselves, as well as the costs of long-term kennelling and court action to the public purse.
Inclusion of information on current thinking on dog behaviour and the dog-human relationship will be essential. There needs to better recognition of the factors that contribute to the perception and creation of dangerous behaviour, and topics covered should include: the contributions of normal dog activity, such as jumping up, barking and over-excited play; training failure, such as lack of recall; punishing training techniques relying on threat; as well as a dog's emotions, such as of fear. A dog's perception of threat, the underlying emotion of fear and a (behaviourally normal) aggressive response features in the majority of ‘dangerous dog’ incidents but, once these are understood, dangerous situations can be predicted and prevented. It is a dog's fear, and the contexts that resulted in it, that must be addressed and prevented, rather than simply the risk of future biting. Humane and non-threatening training and communication methods should be covered, as well as society's paradoxical expectations of dogs – aggression being condoned and lauded if the victim is up to no good, but condemned as a criminal offence if the victim is a next-door neighbour. The perceptions, motivation and actions of the dog will be the same in each case.
I therefore suggest that dog owners whose dogs have shown concerning behaviour should be compelled to attend a dog behaviour awareness course on the same grounds and with the same aims as those drivers who exceed the speed limit, in that their dog's behaviour is as likely to cause alarm or injury as a car that is driven too fast. Individual assessment of a dog by regionally based panels of accredited experts in canine behaviour, as well as the dog-human relationship, may also be required to determine the degree of risk posed by both dog and owner.
‘Imparting information about the common risk factors for dog bite incidents is vital in order to predict and prevent potentially dangerous behaviour, rather than depending solely on punishment afterwards for an unpredicted event’
Drivers exceeding the speed limit are picked up by appropriately sited cameras or by police-operated mobile units. Dog owners whose dogs are causing concern have to be reported to the appropriate authorities, such as local dog wardens or the police. At present, there appears to be no obligation for mandatory intervention unless a definable offence is suspected and can be thought to be proved. There can be no better example of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. The level of response varies hugely according to area, local authority and the individual interest and ability of relevant personnel. Even if a visit to the household is triggered, the standard of advice given is often deficient owing to lack of up-to-date behavioural information and human and dog training skills. A preventive approach involving mandatory attendance at a dog behaviour awareness course might prove helpful in, for example, reducing injuries to postal workers by changing the behaviour of owners who routinely allow their dogs to be outside unattended and to fence-run and bark at all passers-by. What might be considered a desirable activity in a ‘protective and loyal’ dog is also potentially dangerous and could, under the current proposals, result in a criminal offence.
Using the principles applied in speed awareness courses, a dog behaviour awareness workshop could follow the format outlined in the box above.
Ultimately, the only ‘safe’ dog is one that has been bred, reared and taught to understand that contact with human skin is never acceptable and that can be assured as far as possible never to feel the need to bite in the first place. Any amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which condones canine aggression on one hand but makes it illegal on the other, while ignoring the need for education, demonstrates a lack of understanding of dog behaviour and, like the original act, will be brought into disrepute.
The responsibility lies with society to decide the nature of the dogs we want and ensure the creation, from conception onwards, of dogs that we consider acceptable. We need to improve understanding of how human actions inadvertently contribute to a dog's need for aggression, and including such education in the National Curriculum (in the same way as is done for other potential health risks) would go a long way in helping to achieve this (Shepherd 2012).
‘Any amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which condones canine aggression on one hand but makes it illegal on the other, while ignoring the need for education, demonstrates a lack of understanding of dog behaviour and, like the original act, will be brought into disrepute.’
Veterinary surgeons can contribute to the educational process by understanding that unacceptable behaviours, particularly aggression, have much the same aetiology in a surgery context as in any other situation. By routinely discussing dog behaviour in all its aspects, as well as demonstrating humane and non-threatening means of communicating with dogs while under their care, veterinary attention could help to prevent canine aggression in a much wider context (Shepherd 2007).
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