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.