How to train a happy pet and prevent dogs from attacking

by Jane Clifton / 16 May, 2016

Dog trainer Geoff Bowers: never let dogs spend time in the front yard because it tells them they are expected to guard. Photo/Louis Trerise

Breed is just one of the factors that can lead to a dog attacking. Here’s what’s important.

When people cry, “Ban the pit bulls!” Geoff Bowers’ reaction is: what pit bulls?

“I’d be very surprised if there were any purebred pit bulls in New Zealand,” the Christchurch dog trainer says. “I’ve never seen one and if there are any they’d be kept well out of sight because they’d be illegal fighting dogs.”

In reality, what people are talking about in the most recent public outcry about dog attacks are cross-bred dogs that look a bit pit-bullish or a bit staffy, but are in all likelihood labrador-and-sundry. Bowers cites a client who complained his local council had insisted on classifying his dog as a pit bull. Bowers advised him to get it DNA-tested.

“Sure enough … there was just about every­thing in there, even chihuahua. So the council had to back down.”

A former police dog-handler, first in Britain and later in New Zealand, Bowers now specialises in rehabilitating problem dogs and problem owners – not that he sees them as such. He sees biting as reactive and defensive rather than aggressive and says it’s almost always caused by fear, which in turn comes from humans’ inability to recognise what’s likely to make a dog feel threatened.

Potential owners should investigate a dog’s parentage to assess its likely temperament. Photo/Getty Images

Dogs banned from New Zealand are the American pit bull terrier, dogo Argentino, Japanese tosa, Brazilian fila and the perro de presa canario. But Bowers says breed is almost irrelevant and because of the incidence of cross-breeds, further breed-specific bans would be legally un­enforceable. The exceptions would soon outnumber the rule, as any and all breeds can and do bite.

This is also how Professor Kevin Stafford of Massey University Veterinary School sees it. Animal behaviour is one of his specialities and he says assumptions people make about breeds are often wrong. For instance, Stafford says mastiffs in New Zealand tend to have a very sound temperament despite their fearsome looks, because the breed is almost entirely controlled by show-ring breeders who would be wasting money and effort if they weren’t scrupulous in breeding for good nature.

He says the dog-racing industry has a bad name in some animal welfare circles, but it does a superb job of eradicating poor temperament from the breed, which is why a retired greyhound is possibly the most chilled-out dog around.

“Any dog that displays aggression, that dog’s off the track and it’s not going to be bred from either. So the only problem you might have with a proportion of retired greyhounds is that they still like to chase small furry things. But otherwise all they want to do is lie around and get fat.”

Kevin Stafford: we need to enforce our dog laws better.

Death to biters

A lifelong owner and lover of dogs, Stafford says the bottom line is there is no place for dangerous dogs. ACC figures show there were more than 12,000 claims over dog bites in the year to June 2015, the highest number since 2006. “Owners of dogs that bite should be encouraged to have the dog euthanised. That probably sounds harsh. But when you consider that once a dog is classified as dangerous, it has to wear a muzzle when it’s off your property, it can’t be off the lead, can’t run free anywhere …” That’s not much of a life for a dog.

Stafford says legislation could be improved by doing away with the confusing and inexact distinction between “menacing” and “dangerous”. Other than that, he says the rules governing what ­happens to dangerous dogs is commendably clear – we just need to become more purposeful about enforcing it.

He is impatient with suggestions that the answer is for children to be taught how to behave around dogs, because it’s not the responsibility of children to avoid being bitten. “It’s the responsibility of dog owners to make sure they don’t get bitten. You can’t train a two-year-old child.”

Bowers says it helps to see dogs as like a two-year-old. A dog cannot communicate easily with humans when it’s distressed, fearful or in pain. Like an infant, it is reactive. “A dog doesn’t make a conscious plan to bite. It’s just when someone prods you and you get a fright and jump. That’s what the dog is doing. Reacting.”

The key is to learn to avoid situations in which the dog may feel insecure or afraid. That means that, generally speaking, children and dogs are not a good combination in Bowers’ book. He grew up with German shepherds and was taught to respect dogs. But, like Stafford, he says you cannot start to tackle the problem by training children. It’s about training dog owners.

He favours a multi-agency approach, so that dog control officers are more focused on proactive education and prevention. One of their chief responsibilities could be to ­identify habitually chained dogs and those left patrolling front yards – biting timebombs – and encourage the owners to get the dog a crate or secure kennel. Use of crates, which make dogs feel secure, is a simple way to prevent dog bites.

Geoff Bowers specialises in training problem dogs. “A dog doesn’t make a conscious plan to bite.” Photo/Louis Trerise

Inside a dog's head

Greater public awareness about dog behaviour would go a long way too, he says. Troubled dogs can be rehabilitated, though it can be a long and complex process. But central to that process is understanding that dogs are much more fearful than they look and even mellow or confident dogs are more inclined to see threats in their environment than most of us imagine. “It helped me to understand better when it was pointed out to me that dogs probably see us as angry bears. In the wild, the only thing that stands on two legs is a bear when it’s getting ready to attack you.”

It’s also unhelpful, he says, that there’s so much contradictory advice about dog training. Science is unlocking new information all the time, but still some trainers are ­teaching concepts such as “dominating your dog” by holding it down on the floor. “That’ll get you bitten,” says Bowers. “How’s the dog going to feel being held on the floor? Frightened. What’s that going to teach it?”

Another myth is that the owner should always walk ahead of their dog. This is illogical, Bowers says, because we now know that domesticated dogs see their human carers in more of a “mum and dad” light than simply as alpha dogs. “Would you make your kids straggle behind you? No. You want them ahead of you so you can watch them.”

Dogs feel safer ahead of us, and will generally keep checking we’re still close, he says.

In the US, the latest word is that breed is not the only factor influencing a propensity to bite. In 2013, the American Veterinary Association Animal Welfare Division ­published a peer-reviewed summary of data, law and regulation reviews and scholarly assessments, and concluded that breed was a poor sole predictor of bites. Finger-pointing at “pit-bull types” was not borne out by any reliable studies. Some breeds, notably the German shepherd, cropped up in higher numbers as biters, but there were more of them.

Many of the review’s findings are counter-intuitive. It found that the more aggressive dogs, based on behavioural assessments and owner surveys, tended to be small- to medium-sized breeds “such as the collies, toy breeds and spaniels”.

Small dogs do bite, but because they are less likely to cause serious injury, their biting was reported far less often.

“Certain large breeds are notably under-represented in bite statistics, such as large hounds and retrievers (labradors, for example) although these breeds may have aggressive subtypes,” the report found. This indicates there are strains of highly strung or otherwise iffy-tempered bloodlines in breeds of generally placid dogs.

“Owners of dogs that are identified by the community as ‘pit-bull type’ may experience a strong breed stigma. However, controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.

Darnell Minarapa-Brown was mauled by his uncle’s pitbull terrier in South Auckland. Photo/Supplied

Identification issues

The “pit-bull type” is particularly ambiguous as a “breed” that encompasses a range of pedigree breeds and informal types. Visual determination of dog breed can be un­reliable. Witnesses to bitings may be predisposed to assume that a dog that bites is a pit bull.

“The incidence of pit-bull type dogs’ involvement in severe or fatal attacks may be associated with the prevalence of at-risk dogs in neighbourhoods with lots of young children. Owners of stigmatised breeds are more likely to have involvement in criminal and/or violent acts, so apparent breed ­correlations may be due to patterns in owner behaviour,” the report said.

Bowers notes that after that research was published in 2013, the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association passed a ­resolution urging all federal, state and local authorities to repeal any breed discriminatory or breed-specific legislation. They were concerned breed policing didn’t offer protection for the public.

Plenty of people have pitched in to the current debate in the spirit of “muzzle them all”. It would be a brave politician who went that far.

It’s estimated a third of New Zealand households owns a dog and even during the global financial crisis pet care was one of the few recession-proof industries. The popularity of dogs has been stoked by the seemingly limitless supply of designer dogs, deliberate cross-breeds with aesthetic and sometimes hypoallergenic and non-shedding appeal.

It has also never been easier to own a dog. Once it was a matter of scoping the SPCA, happening upon a litter by word of mouth or tracking down a breeder and going on a waiting list. Now there are Trade Me and pet shops – despite massive mark-ups on pure-bred dogs with no papers and no ­ability for buyers to check the temperament and health of the parents.

Dog-walking services and daycare facilities have multiplied in recent years, so work hours, family and lifestyle commitments and apartment-dwelling need not preclude dog ownership.

An attractive feature of large, “pitty” and “staffy”-looking dogs – here and overseas – is that they’re seen as an affordable source of security.

Worldwide, crime statistics show that low-income earners are much more often victims of crime than the better off. Unable to afford insurance and home security, they opt for a fierce-looking dog – which they may not be able to afford to socialise, train or restrain. Thus they are disproportionately victims of another sorry statistic, dog bites.

As of May 2015 there were 543,972 ­registered dogs in New Zealand and 191,201 of those were cross-breeds. There were 8232 classified as menacing and 585 as dangerous, but no reliable way of knowing the numbers that are unregistered. The most popular dogs registered were retrievers and labradors, ­followed by huntaways and collies.

But Stafford wonders whether we have already hit “peak dog”. Given rapid changes in lifestyle, not least the home-affordability issue, mankind’s ancient relationship with canis familiaris may not endure.

“I look at the younger generations and I really don’t know whether they’ll be prepared to spend the time and money that we do on dogs. They do stop you from doing anything spontaneous like travel.”

The need for a companion animal might evolve so we end up with something harmless – something “small and furry that just wants to be loved”.

Breed confusion

"Pit bull” is less a breed or even a nature than a look. Many of us probably saw our first pit bull rampaging unsupervised with small children in the Little Rascals and Our Gang movies. The term derives from one pure breed, the American pit bull terrier and a similar breed, the American Staffordshire bull ­terrier. Inter-breeding among these and other breeds means there are now proportionately fewer true pit bulls or American staffies than there are crosses that look like them, some of which will have no DNA from either original breed.

Both pure breeds have become synonymous with dogfighting and readily confused with the English ­Staffordshire bull terrier, which was itself stigmatised by its menacing appearance as Bill Sikes’ dog Bull’s Eye in Oliver Twist.

This article was first published in the May 7, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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