Recently a respected colleague who runs an excellent dog training club in NSW said that there had been some incidents at her club, where some dogs were accused of being aggressive. On investigation, this was found not to be the case. She published the Regulations put out by Dogs NSW covering aggression at affiliated clubs and shows. While I agree that incidents have to be investigated, and in some cases, if a dog is found to be a danger to others, action must be taken. However, I had some concerns about the Regulations and the way in which they assumed that a dog could be identified unambiguously as being “aggressive” or not.
I posted this comment.
What concerns me is the assumption that a dog either is or is not aggressive, that this is a black and white quality, and it is a characteristic of the dog. Yes, I know that some dogs will be more likely to show aggressive behaviour than others, but it is a spectrum, not a fixed characteristic of the dog.All dogs can behave aggressively. That’s what they are – they have teeth at one end and a tail at the other. What we need to understand is that dogs have a large repertoire of behaviours to call upon when they are threatened or feel threatened. This can range from calming signals, to avoidance to distance-increasing behaviours (get out of my face displays), to appeasement, to self-defence and pre-emptive strike. And combinations of these. We can call these “good choices” or “bad choices”. We can recognise active defence or passive defence. We know that any individual dog will have a preference to respond in one particular way, but if pressed, will have to try something else. So if avoidance doesn’t work, and the threat keeps on approaching, and the subject can’t get away, then he or she might have to turn to attack as a last resort. Problem is, who understood all the initial non-aggressive messages that the dog was giving? If they were ignored and a bite eventuated, they say “it came out of the blue”. No, usually, you just didn’t understand the signs.In the document, there is an onus on the handler of the dog to make sure it is not aggressive. But there is no mention of the obligation of other handlers to prevent their dogs from doing anything provocative. I have heard of many incidents at shows and clubs where handlers let their dogs do something unacceptable, or even deliberately use a dog as an unwitting “decoy” for their aggressive dog. And who gets blamed? The dog who has been subjected to an unreasonable approach.Aggression is the product of the interaction between the dog and his or her environment. It is not a fixed characteristic of the dog.There are all sorts of things that can be done to reduce the chance of reactivity or aggression. It is not all just in one dog. It is about recognising the need for space, about consulting the other handler before letting your dog approach, and many other things which ought to be protocols, but are honoured more in the breach than the observance.A friend from another state, who is an experienced competitor and instructor sent me the following comments:I’m dealing constantly with unaware handlers, rude dogs or dogs behaving according to their breed instincts – to stare – that are not stopped or interrupted. Unfortunately learning the hard way that there isn’t any responsibility put on those handlers to do anything about it.Its breath taking how little respect is shown to a dog who is displaying either back off body language or please go away body language.I replied to her: Sometimes people from clubs e-mail me privately to ask what they can do about certain situations. I am thinking about starting a campaign about “protocols” in public, dog parks etc. but what hope do we have when clubs, and even instructors, break the most basic rules such as “ask if it’s OK before you let your dog approach another dog”. It’s not good enough to say “mine’s OK” or “mine only wants to play”. The other dog might not be able to cope with what some people regard as play.