Archive for December 2009

Why have incidents of dog biting increased?

December 22, 2009

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

Figures recently released by the National Health Service have shown that biting incidents by dogs have risen sharply over the last ten years. Apparently these figures only include those people admitted to hospital after reporting to Accident and Emergency and not those who are treated and sent home. This means the actual figure and percentage is likely to be much higher. The immediate reaction of those involved in re-homing dogs is that this is due to the increased number of dogs being used for fighting and as ‘protection dogs’ by individuals who want to look tough on the streets. To some extent this may be true but I believe the real reason is much more to do with society’s attitude and approach to dog training, an approach which has undergone and significant change over the last ten years. Can this be co-incidence? I think not.

Let me explain. At one time, the Barbara Woodhouse school of dog training reigned supreme. The owner had to be ‘in charge’ and the dog had to be forced into subservience by recognising its owner as its ‘pack leader’. The theory is based on what has been perceived by researchers as the behaviour of wolves in the wild, although it has since become clear that most of that research was carried out with wolves that were not truly ‘wild’ and did not have to compete for food. What was not recognised was the immense changes which had taken place in the behaviour of dogs as a result of their being domesticated. The DNA may have remained the same but the subtle changes in behaviour as a result of selective breeding had not been taken into account.

Added to this was the work by Karen Prior and many others that showed the effectiveness of what is called positive re-enforcement. That is, if you reward the behaviour you want the animal will quickly continue to behave in that way rather than behave badly. As a teacher I know that if you encourage pupils you get better results than beating them and that one of the most powerful forces in education is not punishment but the withdrawal of praise. The principle is the same although we have to recognise that there are circumstances when it is not enough – as we shall see.

Personally, I accept and use positive re-enforcement and there is no doubt that it is extremely effective as can be seen by such disciplines at Heelwork to Music where its ‘magic’ is so clearly demonstrated. If you bring a puppy up using this approach you will almost certainly have a well-behaved and well-socialised adult dog, which will be a pleasure to own.

Dogs behave well for one of two reasons: they are either selectively bred to behave in a certain way as can be seen in the Border Collie, many gundogs and the work of Guide Dogs for the Blind who have many generations of dogs bred to be ideally suited to their work, or they are well trained by their breeders and their owners using the positive re-enforcement techniques which we are speaking about and which are described in many books and used by many behaviourists.

But as always with changes in perception the pendulum tends to swing too far and this has resulted in many canine behaviourists rejecting any suggestion that a dog should be subjected to ‘negative’ re-inforcement and some believe that even raising your voice to draw a dog’s attention to its unacceptable behaviour is tantamount to ‘cruelty’.

A recent statement by an group called the Dog Welfare Organisation tends towards this view. It calls what I have referred to as ‘negative re-enforcement’, ‘aversive’ training techniques which includes choke chains – used by Guide Dogs for the Blind incidentally as well as many in the show world and Kennel Club registered trainers) among the unacceptable ‘unpleasant stimuli used to inhibit behaviour’.

I do not and would not condone any form of cruelty in ensuring a dos behaves acceptably but the thinking behind the Dog Welfare Organisation is naive and makes the assumption that all dogs and all anti-social behaviour can be treated using positive re-inforcement (what is often called ‘reward based’ training) and I am afraid that this is simply not the case.

The reason is not because positive reward based training does not work – it most certainly does – but that many, many dogs in the community become adult with ingrained bad habits because their owners have allowed them to behave in a way which is not acceptable and have not encouraged the dog to behave well through proper training. It is these dogs that cause the problems and these dogs that are mostly responsible for the rise in biting incidents and, incidentally, clogging up the re-homing system in our rescue kennels.

I think we have to recognise that any learning experience is not necessarily comfortable – ask any student preparing for examinations. Of course it better if learning is fun and the learner is highly motivated but to achieve anything worthwhile requires hard work on someone’s part and a degree of discipline, whether self or externally imposed, is essential if progress towards any skill is to be made. And if there are bad habits then the demands are inevitably increased: think of giving up smoking or dieting and remember a dog does not have that sort of personal, peer motivation and support.

This is not say that the negative equipment and procedures which include prong collars, electric shock collars and ‘pinning to the ground’, named by the Dog Welfare Organisation are acceptable but to condemn an effective trainer such as Cesar Millan (and by implication many others such as Mic Martin in the UK) who deal with dogs which have behaviours which are exceptionally difficult to modify is misleading and counter productive.

In my view it is no co-incidence that there are no DVDs showing really difficult dogs being rehabilitated by positive re-enforcement while there are many which show effective training using other techniques which, I must emphasise, are neither cruel nor unusual. The press release states that ‘a number of scientific studies have found an association between the use of aversive training techniques and the occurrence of undesired behaviours in dogs’. There are certainly some such studies but the information I have about them is that ‘scientific’ is a misnomer, that they have not been peer reviewed and there are no links to them on the organisation’s web site at

The answer of course, is as always, the education of breeders and pet owners to ensure dogs are properly socialised from the nest. That is where the focus of these organisations should be.