I read during the week that the NSW Government plans to introduce tougher laws about dangerous dogs (“NSW approves new rules on dangerous dogs”).
There will be three categories for dogs:
1. “menacing” (“those which are aggressive in public”)
2. “dangerous (“ones that have already attacked”)
3. “restricted” (“breeds which are illegal to sell, breed, or buy”)
I think the Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) issue is not so clear cut as many people in the “dog world” claim. However, I believe it is certainly clear than just restricting some breeds will not solve the problem that there are so many dog bite injuries, including serious ones and those leading to fatalities.
Even President Obama has come out against Breed Specific Legislation, saying that research has shown it to be ineffective. He has just added a second Portuguese Water Dog (not considered to be a dangerous breed) to the White House.
However, the opponents of BSL should be pleased that the category of “menacing” has been added, because that seems to be based on “deed” rather than breed.
I think there is a issue about how to define these categories. What does “aggressive” mean? As distinct from having “attacked”?
Owners (of dogs categorised as “aggressive”) will be forced to have their dogs desexed, to wear a muzzle and never to be left alone with someone under the age of 18.
Predicting aggression is notoriously difficult. It is possible in hindsight to say, in a particular case, that a whole list of risk factors were present. But not all cases where risk factors exist will lead to an attack. It is just more likely. However, one can say that the best predictor of whether a dog is going to bite is whether the dog has bitten in the past, so this gives some support to the “menacing” category.
The legislation provides for a sentence of five years in jail for the owner if a dog in one of these categories then attacks.
There is also an issue of how to define “irresponsible” owners e.g. does this mean lack of microchip; dog outside of owner’s property; dog not registered; other?
My concern is that there should be more done, in these areas:
If the Government continues to refer to restricted breeds, then DNA testing should be used, rather than someone’s identification by appearance. Appearance is not a good indicator, despite what various experts claim. Just look at the photographs of crossbreeds in the famous Scott and Fuller study. The Basenji-looking dogs with Cocker Spaniel behaviour, and the Cocker Spaniel-looking dogs with Basenji behaviour, and their litter mates who looked and behaved like a mixture of the two.
Notice that reports in the media are even more unreliable, and this influences the public attitudes. Dogs can be identified as Pitbulls, Bull Terriers, American Staffordshires, Staffordshire Bull Terriers and so on. Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, whereas the breeds are quite different – let alone the cross breeds. The dog that killed little curly-haired 2 year-old, Deeon Higgins, in Deniliquin recently, was variously described in the media as a Mastiff, MastiffX and Bull Mastiff.
If breeds are to be singled out, I would prefer it to be evidence-based, and I would want the evidence to be more than a ranger eyeballing a boxer cross and calling it pit bull X bull mastiff, for example. I heard of one owner whose alleged pit bull was DNA tested and found to have a lot of Golden Retriever in its mix. Mind you, Golden Retrievers also bite, but this is where we come to a major issue…
I have said in the past, in previous articles about dog bite injuries, especially dog bite injuries to children, that most bites occur in the family home, in your house or back yard, or in your neighbour’s place, as a result of the family dog being mismanaged. Restricting some breeds will do nothing to solve that problem. Nor will identifying dogs with a genetic predisposition towards aggression, as Professor Paul McGreevey wants to do.
Professor Paul McGreevey got a lot of support when his proposal to do research on isolating genetic predispositions to aggressive behaviour was not funded.
The issue for me is that genetic predisposition is a factor, but by no means the only one. It would result in a lot “false positives” i.e. targeting dogs with those genetic markers, whose training, socialisation and management by responsible owners results in the dog being a low risk of committing an aggressive act.
Aggression is social behaviour. It is not just a feature of the dog. It is a function of the dog’s early socialisation and training, its subsequent training and experience, the environment the owner keeps the dog in and the interactions that take place between the dog and the family in the home, and how the dog is managed when the taken out into the community. These all add up to responsible dog ownership.
I would like to see research into the circumstances of the attack. I would prefer this to be part of a compulsory reporting scheme for non-trivial bites. However, I realise the issue then would be “who is qualified to do it?” and also “who is going to fund those people for their services?” Knowing more about the events leading up to the attack would help us to focus on prevention strategies.
We do know some of the risk factors, but having more reliable documentation would help. As a dog trainer, I have taken on board the experience of Dr Ian Dunbar, who worked intensively with dangerous dogs, before deciding to move into prevention.
This led to his promotion of puppy socialisation and early training, in which puppies were taught bite inhibition, and were conditioned to become accustomed to a wide variety of people and social situations, which might otherwise lead to them biting someone.
Puppies are taught to welcome being grabbed by the collar (in games now known as “gotcha!”) and to feel good about someone approaching their food bowl (to give, not to take). These are both high risk situations in relation to the family pet. Dunbar sets out urgent priorities for extensive socialisation of puppies between the ages of 9 and 12 weeks. This information is available in his book After You get Your Puppy, which is a free download.
Dog owners who attend Dunbar-style puppy classes are taught ways of training and managing their dogs which do not include the now discredited techniques such as the “alpha rollover” and the “scruff shake”, which were recommended in the 1970s as ways for owners to discipline their pets. This advice was retracted more recently because too many owners had been bitten following that advice.
Many trainers now believe that a lot of dog bite incidents are “defensive biting” – the dog’s response to feeling threatened. This can be prevented by:
1. people learning not to threaten dogs, and
2. dogs learning to tolerate unintended threats, such as people leaning over them, hugging them (which can be processed by the dog as threatening restraint) and thumping them on the head (which people regard as “patting”).
I also try to educate dog owners and trainers about the more subtle body language signals which dogs give to communicate that they are not comfortable. Most dogs will give a lot of signs which say in effect “either let me get away from you, or will you please get out of my face”. When these signs are ignored and the dog then feels trapped and has run out of options, a bite can result. So many people say that a dog bite “came out of the blue” and that the dog gave no warning. This is rarely the case. Most dogs give many warning signs, but these go unheeded.
Having a “menacing” category in the NSW legislation will probably pick up some of the dogs who bite and may bite again – for example the mismanaged family dogs who bite because of defensive aggression. They have usually learned to escalate over a period of time.
It will not pick up the high risk dogs that:
♦are powerful (and therefore likely to do a lot of damage),
♦have not gone through any form of bite inhibition training and also
♦are either not socialised with children and a wide variety of people, or – even worse –
♦are deliberately kept anti-social by their owners.
Unfortunately there are people who actually want to own dangerous dogs. Dogs in these categories are therefore likely to do serious damage when they first bite, having a “menacing” category won’t pick them up.
Dog bite injuries are very common in Australia, but we do not have reliable statistics on the overall numbers. We certainly do not have rigorous research on the background of the dog, its training and socialisation, its living environment and the circumstances leading up to the incident. This information would go a long way to helping us to target prevention programs.
According to one report “Paramedics are called to a dog attack every 12 hours in NSW. The number of dog attacks increased by 17 per cent from 4381 in 2009-10 to 5140 in 2010-11.”
Just as I was writing this, news came in of another serious mauling by a pair of dogs.
For more information see the newspaper report. An 82 year old woman in Perth, Western Australia, was walking with her husband when two dogs burst out of the front door of a house and attacked her. She had injuries to her face and head, and broken bones in her hand. This is not just a bite, this is a serious mauling which could easily have become a fatality. The dogs were described as “American Staffordshire-Mastiff cross”.
And in another incident in Sydney, a mother pushing a two-year old in a pram was attacked by two dogs in the street. One leapt at the pram, and as the woman grabbed her baby from the pram the other dog bit her on the knee, causing an injury that required stitches. Police were called, and both police officers were bitten as they tried to catch the dogs.
We are faced with fatalities and serious maulings caused by dogs. The victims are usually the very young or the elderly. Added to this, there is a very large number of dog bite injure needing medical attention. We urgently need targeted research to help prevent the problem, without being heavy-handed with people who do the right thing. Pet ownership is very important to many people, and dogs are increasingly being used in so many ways to assist and benefit people.
- How Much Do You Know About Dog Bites? (babyzone.com)
- May I Pet Your Dog? (babyzone.com)
- Obama administration comes out against breed-specific legislation (mnn.com)
- 8 Dog Bite Warning Signs (dogs.answers.com)
- Why do 4.7 million Americans suffer from dog bites each year? A dog bite rarely happens without warning, so chances are these warnings are being misunderstood or ignored. The best way to avoid a dog bite is to learn a dog’s language and respect his boundaries. For details, follow the link above.