Category Archives: Musings

“Dangerous dogs” – what’s to be done?

What should we do about “dangerous dogs”?

So many views; so many entrenched ideas about there being no “bad dogs” only “bad” owners. That no dog is born “bad”. I’m not going to go down the route of defining what “bad” is supposed to mean, though although perhaps the naïve people who believe it, should take off their rose-tinted specs. IME working with clients, and with my own dogs, its far from black and white.

But what can we do to stop dogs killing and biting people?

Ban certain breeds?

It’s been tried. It hasn’t done a great job. Dog bites haven’t been reduced. The government are saying the legislation did work because no pitbulls are associated with any of the recent deaths. But anyone who knows anything about dogs knows the owners just went on to find another type of dog they could turn into aggessive status dogs. No, the legislation hasn’t worked Suella Braverman. Moreover, it has been failing the lovely, nice, safe pet dogs that just happen to look like a banned breed. They have been seized, often highly aggressively, isolated, and even destroyed because it’s just too difficult to keep the dog under the rules imposed on them.

Defining what constitutes a breed is fraught with difficulties. Not all dogs within any breed are the same either, even if it is likely certain traits are more likely to be found in that breed. That’s the point of selective breeding for a type, or breed. Breed dogs for traits that contribute to aggressive behaviour, and yes, you are more likely to see the consequences of that just as you can breed for traits which make it more likely the pups will be sociable and friendly. There is no single “aggressive” gene than can be identified. Aggression is a complicated topic. Just removing some dogs from the gene pool won’t stop dogs behaving like dogs. Any dog can bite if they feel under threat or are stressed or frightened. That some dogs are physiologically more able to do more harm when they behave aggressively is perhaps the only rationale behind a breed ban that makes any sort of sense. Bull breeds usually have bigger, stronger jaws than a terrier, or a collie. They can do real damage when they do decide to bite in a way a Pomeranian or a cockerpoo physically cannot.

So, what about the owner?

Plenty of dogs ARE messed up and are unsafe. It’s not always the fault of the owner. When people take on a pup, or an adult rescue dog, that dog will have already had experiences and an environment to add to their genetic make-up. Even an 8 week old pup isn’t a ‘blank slate’ as some people like to believe. Plenty of owners end up with a dog that they love and care for that has had things happen to it, triggering all sorts of unwanted behaviour – perhaps including aggressive behaviour. Of course, there will also be plenty of unpleasant people who get a dog that intimidates and reflects a particular lifestyle. If there is legislation surely it ought to find a way focus on those individuals?

Some dogs are going to be much more vulnerable to bad things messing them up because of their genes and early rearing. Often because they were bred and reared by backyard breeders whose ethical outlook (and empathy for dogs and fellow human beings) is so very different to other breeders.

Some dogs are going to be more vulnerable to adverse events happening in their lives for all sorts of reasons. Whether it be by accident or design – some just can’t deal with them without damaging them in some way. Its why how we breed, train and bring up our dogs matters so much. Uncaring breeders, abusive trainers, owners who simply don’t know or understand enough to realise what their dogs need can all bring out traits which might never see the light of day in other circumstances.

But even the most experienced owner and trainer can find themselves with a dog that throws a curved ball at them by some quirk in a dog’s make-up, or just because the problems they present are simply not possible to fix.  

Chance can throw a spanner in the works too. It might be an attack by another dog, or the dog becomes frightened by unexpected events. However well or safely we manage our dogs; however well we set them up to be resilient and sociable, ‘stuff’ can happen to wreck things.

Then it becomes the owner’s responsibility if they fail to make good decisions about training, management or control of those dogs once they realise they have a problem. It’s the owner’s job to aim to mitigate against that becoming a disaster.

So, shouldn’t the focus of any legislation need to be on the people involved? The breeders, the owners, and the trainers. Banning “breeds”, without any clear idea about what the “breed” is, hasn’t reduced dog attacks. The people who want their dogs to be dangerous (or don’t care) just moved on to different dogs. And that’s what they’ll do again.

What can we do? I really don’t know. License owners after they’ve taken some sort of test? Educate everyone who has anything to do with dogs about the importance of responsible breeding and rearing? Focus on breeding sociable dogs? Get shot of abusive trainers? That would probably reduce the more ‘accidental’ domestic aggression problems we trainers and behaviourists would need to deal with.

But understanding the mindset of people who breed and intentionally choose to own “status” dogs, who want them to be aggressive, and have no desire to have dogs as sociable, friendly companions is way beyond my ken. Maybe banning is the only practical way to pause them, before they find another breed to exploit, and dogs to abuse (which they will do), but in the meantime there will be dreadful consequences for so many nice, lovely people and their (genuinely) nice, lovely dogs. A lot of dog lovers, especially those who own a dog that, by sheer bad luck, physically resembles an American bullie, are likely to be paying for the government’s refusal to understand its not just about the dogs.

A ‘good thing’

To my friends this will not come as a surprise. I LOVE doughnuts. I especially love the traditional deep fried, well cooked, caster-sugared jammy ones. I recall as a very young child where and how it started. The local bakers- Marigolds – not only sold them, sometimes we’d sit down and eat them at the few tables they had in a corner of the shop while mum had a coffee. I can remember also when I learned you could enjoy doughnuts any time. It was my brother in law to be’s fault. Yes, you, Jim Crompton. Driving me to the airport having had a stay in the USA, we stopped at something like seven in the morning to buy an assortment of doughnuts. Who knew that was even possible? But my love affair with them has never really wavered and its with regret my weight says I have to limit my intake of them these days.  

So what has this to do with dogs?

Well – if tomorrow I were to experience a doughnut that was horrible, as in truly disgusting that it made me ill I’d know – because of my previous positive experiences of eating doughnuts – it would be the exception. That it was a one off. My experience of many sorts of doughnuts mean I prefer some over others and some are, to be frank, disappointing, but my faith in the pleasure and delight doughnuts normally brought me would be undented.  So if we have a dog that is attacked and harmed by another dog, but our dog has had heaps of great, positive experiences of all sorts of dogs before he met that one nasty one, with any luck he’ll write it off to being a ‘one off’. The exception. With any luck he’ll happily continue engaging with other dogs sociably, knowing that mostly they are a ‘good thing’.

If the very first doughnut I’d ever eaten had been horrible and so 100% of my doughnut eating experience had been a negative, nasty one and I decided to never eat another, well, that would have been a tragedy. I might never understand the delights of doughnut eating. I might have gone though life assuming doughnuts were a ‘bad thing’ instead of the ‘good thing’ they are. But no doubt I’d be a couple of stone lighter too.

“Reactivity” and how to upset other dogs

Imagine…

You are a very sociable person. You were raised in a large family.  They often had friends round.You love people 🙂

wren whoosh and a bc
Getting to know each other – safely

Then as you were beginning to grow up and maybe even reached your teens, you were given away to a family of camels. Yes, camels. An entirely different species. They don’t hug or kiss or chat. They don’t talk to you in any kind of language you can understand – just a load of noises which make no sense to you. They stink too. Worse, they live in the desert, so from that day you don’t see another human being. But you get along OK. You adapt. It’s not a terrible life. Then one day, meandering about in the desert with your new camel family, you see on the horizon not just ONE human being, but a whole bunch of them! You can’t contain yourself. You charge over to them, laughing excitedly and generally making something of an idiot of yourself as you shout ‘HI! HI! OMG! People! Who are you?’ You hug and kiss a couple before they are really aware you are on top of them. But the third one is ready for you – and pushes you away angrily. After all – you are a complete stranger. You not only ignored all the social niceties of a proper greeting – you HUGGED him?? He gets cross.  At least the others just move away and put up with your nonsense. But that one who just got angry – he’s not prepared to let it go. He’s a bad tempered old bugger with a dodgy hip; he can’t evade you and it hurts. And you nearly had him over! He gets hold of you and shouts at you to ‘stop!’  Suddenly all your enthusiasm evaporates. You are frightened. You had never met anyone as grumpy as that before and you were only trying to be friendly and you hadn’t seen a fellow human being in ages.

Very quickly your camel family gallops up and intervenes and hurries you away. But mortified by your totally inappropriate behaviour, and angry with the grumpy old man who’d so viciously attacked you, it is clear they are upset as well. They make angry-camel noises at you. All very stressful. No chance for apologies. No making up between you and the humans you were so desperate to make friends with.  Everyone is angry and there’s a sour taste of frustration that you hadn’t been able to make friends with any of them and worse, finding out that some people are horrible to you. And you don’t know why. A poor encounter on every level.

So we can easily see how a young dog is being set up to make the kind of mistakes that can end in tears when encounters with other dogs are mismanaged, or allow him to behave in a way that upsets other dogs.  But worse than that, if something bad happens, what we humans do in response often compound those worries and fears. Our friend who lives with the camels wasn’t given the opportunity to learn actually most of that group of humans were OK, but, well, if you approach people in a crazy way, they are very likely to going to react badly, especially if they can’t move fast to get out of your way! 

Both our human friend and the grumpy old man might get labelled “reactive” in today’s world. The friendly youngster as he jumps up and down with excitement, shouting hello as he charges towards the group of people; the grumpy old man as he reacts sharply, and aggressively, to stop from being hurt or knocked over.  Very different motivations; potentially very different outcomes in the long term that might have been avoided had things been managed differently.

Thinking inside the box

I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.

And carried on lecturing.

It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not.  It was very rare for anyone to.

So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’

Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.

The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).

The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.

The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.

The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.

I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.

I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.

I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.

Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it.  They might help each other, they might not.  An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,

When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.

It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it.   RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.

“Reactivity” – what’s in a label?

In recent years it has become common for dog trainers to use the word ‘reactive’ to describe some dogs’ unwanted, noisy, lunging behaviour that they show towards other dogs. But what does ‘reactive’ actually mean? Most definitions agree that ‘reactive’ means “showing a response to a stimulus”. Well, the so-called ‘reactive’, lunging barking dog is certainly doing that! But does it help to describe that as reactive? Well, perhaps. if It tells us that the dog has noticed something (the “stimulus”) and has reacted to that.

However, the word in itself fails to describe how a dog has reacted. If a dog reacts by wagging its tail and gently sniffing the other dog – that’s a reaction. If it looks, then turns and walks away that is also a reaction. Both can quite legitimately and accurately be labelled as ‘reactive’. If a dog barks, lunges, snaps or snarls at that other dog those are also reactions.  What should be of most concern to any dog trainer or behaviourist is if a dog doesn’t react in any way at all when it sees another dog!

But the term ‘reactive’ has evolved to cover the kinds of reactions that tend to be seen as difficult or unacceptable to owners, trainers and Joe Public alike. The barking lunging dog is often labelled as ‘reactive’. The label ‘reactive’ doesn’t attempt to ascribe motivation (which is fine – since we can’t always work that out). Special classes which state they are for ‘reactive’ dogs are increasingly common now but I have yet to meet one that means it’s for dogs that react to other dogs by turning and wandering away in a benign and bored way. It invariably means it is for dogs that behave in a way that is perceived as ‘bad’. 

Perhaps it doesn’t matter, Using words to make a problem behaviour appear more acceptable is a sensitive and sometimes necessary way to help distressed owners who are upset at their dog’s behaviour. Maybe it is just part of linguistic evolution to tweak a definition in this way, but the danger with this particular euphemism is that it seems to be commonly used to blunt the reality of one dog showing aggressive reactions towards other dogs and suggesting to owners it is something other than aggression. Sometimes those barking and lunging reactions are aggressive, sometimes they aren’t. For the owner of the dog that lunges and barks out of frustration and/or excitement (often labelled as ‘reactive’) it could perhaps be doing them a disservice. They may not want their dog’s behaviour to be lumped in together with dogs that want to bite and threaten other dogs.

I guess time will tell if it becomes a more precisely defined term or whether it simply falls out of favour.