Posted tagged ‘dog behaviour’

Two simple strategies to reduce the incidents of dog bites

February 1, 2015

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists

Cuddly toy! Cuddly toy! – Bruce Forsythe

The meeting held at the Kennel Club recently which had as its objective the devising of a strategy which would make some progress in reducing the number of dog biting incidents in this country was an initiative which, rightly, has been widely praised. Much of what was discussed was not in itself new but the initiative brought a number of issues together which enabled a fresh focus. I have been discussing these ideas with others and some very interesting ideas have surfaced.

We have friends in Belgium who have two teenage daughters, one of whom has always been passionate about dogs. Four years ago her grandparents bought a Basset Hound bitch from a local breeder which some judges might like but certainly would not pass any vet checks in the UK were it to be shown. Almost everything about her is ‘overdone’: too long, too close to ground, too much skin for her frame, ears dragging on the ground and eyes which have to be carefully cleaned regularly. But Chloe adored her and when her maternal grandmother became ill the dog came to live with her and her family. Chloe looks after her dog beautifully, cleans up after, feeds it and takes it for walks regularly. She is an ideal and dedicated owner who loves her dog who loves her in return.

Recently, Chloe’s paternal grandmother went to stay with them and, as a dog breeder herself was very concerned about her granddaughter’s behaviour around her pet. Chloe’s parents are intelligent and sensible but they had not realised that the way Chloe ‘played’ with her dog, rolling with her on the floor, pulling her about and dragging and carrying her around could be dangerous. Not because the dog has ever shown any defensive or aggressive behaviour: in fact she greatly enjoys the attention, but because its weight and conformation is such that its spine could be seriously damaged. And, of course, if she was hurt, then she might turn and instinctively bite whoever she considered to be the source of the pain.

Problems simply not considered

Chloe plays more carefully now: it was simply not something that either she or her parents had considered – but what her grandmother pointed out in discussions with me was that it made her realise that there has been a significant change in the toys that children are now given compared with the past. The teddy bear has been an important ‘person’ in the lives of many young children as have dolls for girls and fire engines for boys but it is only relatively recently that the range of ‘cuddly toys’ has been so very wide. One of our 17-year-old student students at Bell Mead, when Angela and I were running Battersea Dogs Home’s country kennels at Old Windsor, had a collection of over 50 which she insisted on bringing with her and which lived, packed like a pile of fluffy sardines, on her bed. And it was not so very long ago that the huge ‘cuddly toys’ which we regularly see being carted around Crufts draped around their necks and carried over shoulders became available.

Of course, I am not against toys, ‘cuddly’ or otherwise, but it does seem that if children chew them, tear them, mistreat them and whirl and throw them around without some behavioural control from parents then, when they get a dog, a cat or any other pets, they are likely to treat them in the same way. It may even be the fact that so many toys are so available and there is, presumably, the money to pay for them, that they are not regarded in the same way as they were in times when toys were fewer and consequently more precious.

Two important issues

In a previous article I mentioned that most dog bites occur between 3 pm and 7 pm because this is the time when the dog in the family is under the greatest stress and maybe, quite inadvertently, put under pressure by the tension generated as a normal part of family life. But there are two further aspects of this particular issue which are important and should be underlined.

The first is that my friend suggested to the family that their dog had its own bed, preferably covered and tucked away in a convenient corner where the general hubbub of family life can be avoided. There are many good reasons for any dog being provided with its own safe haven (worth an article in itself from the point of view of sound training and good socialisation) but in terms of biting incidents, it may be that this one recommendation could significantly reduce the stress on dogs in families to the extent that many bites would be avoided.

The second issue was highlighted by a case I was involved in as an expert witness several years ago. The boarding kennel involved took in many stray dogs, many of which were quite difficult to handle, as part of its service to local authorities. One of the kennel staff was quite small in stature but she had worked at the kennels for several years and had never had any problems. In the months before this incident she had taken a particular interest and ‘shine’ to a large dog (a working breed and probably a cross but I only had rather poor quality photographs to go on) which she trained and who became her constant companion around the kennels. The dog would be in the kitchen area when she prepared food and would follow her around when she fed the dogs under her care, usually only being put away while she carried out her general cleaning duties in the kennels. It was a small operation so both the employed kennel staff worked on their own. They had mobile phones and a telephone in the reception area from where they could contact kennel owners direct. There was no suggestion that the routine was anything other than well thought through. On the day in question she sat down on a chair to have a lunch in a common area outside as it was a beautiful day The dog, as was usual, nuzzled up to her for his expected treat. It appears that she got up to reach for something, turned and unfortunately tripped over, knocking her head against the edge of a step which caused her to lose consciousness. The dog ate the lunch from the lunch box and then proceeded, quite calmly it appears, to ‘play’ with the woman to the extent that the seriously damage her legs and arms as he dragged her about over the concrete and the steps.

The point of this terrible accident is that the dog was not angry or under stress. It had no history of aggression as far as we were aware in our enquiries into its previous owners: as far as the dog was concerned it was behaving perfectly normally.

This is the incident I describe when people tell me that their dog is a ‘sweetheart’ and that there is no need for any supervision when it is playing with their children.

There appears to be a temptation among many animal behaviour professionals to overcomplicate the issue. I would not for a moment suggest that the important and interesting research which has been carried out into canine behaviour and psychology by both academics and working practitioners is of no value: it is vital in the long-term interests of pet ownership that there be a thorough understanding of the relationship (and complications) between humans and their pets but I cannot help thinking that if some easy, common sense actions were put in place many problems would be solved. Making sure every dog has its own space and ensuring that young children are always at least within immediate call of an adult might be the best place to start.

We need to demolish these ‘Ivory Towers’

December 6, 2014

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

All national institutions[..*.] appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit. – Thomas Paine

The All Party Group for the Welfare of Animals (APGAW) has published a Strategy for Dogs in England. In my view little is likely to be achieved as there is, despite the varying pronouncements of all political parties, both a lack of will and, as was clearly stated by other speakers at a recent APGAW meeting, a significant lack of resources to carry out many of the suggestions.  That said the Strategy Document contains much that is thoughtful, sensible and sound (along with some wishful thinking) but there are some glaring inaccuracies and assumption in one aspect of the strategy: that which concerns training and behaviour.

Under ‘Education’ the document says: ‘All animal welfare organisations, public sector bodies and central government should ensure all messaging in this area is up to date, evidence-based, clear, consistent and accessible and visible. Such information should be positive in its tone rather than the scare mongering approach some advice currently takes. The understanding of dog behaviour and welfare has improved and advanced significantly in the last 10-15 years and is now a well-established science and discipline. Some previously accepted theories and techniques have been shown to be outdated and can place dog welfare at risk making behaviour problems worse and placing people in danger. There are still practitioners that use these theories and techniques and this is compounded by the problem that anyone can still call themselves a ‘behaviourist’ regardless of their qualifications, knowledge, experience and skills. This has resulted in a plethora of people offering behaviour therapy and training and because there has been no joined up agreement on where to sign-post the public or other industry practitioners there is much confusion. Over recent years, the Animal Behaviour and Training Council (ABTC) has developed, maintains and oversees a range of standards for those in the behaviour therapy and training industry to which the majority of stakeholders have signed up. For the standards that have been created by industry to be upheld and recognised, the public needs to be informed of them and there needs to be clear signposting from Government that these bodies offer the highest standard and demonstrate best practice. Additionally the Kennel Club accredits dog trainers, providing a high quality standard of training from accredited instructors and those working towards accreditation. In 2010 the scheme achieved City and Guilds recognition. Recommendation: Defra needs to urgently identify and endorse a suitable industry standard and independent regulatory body (including qualifications, knowledge, skills and experience) so that the public can be confident in finding and going to a suitable behaviourist or trainer.

Evidence based?

I was especially interested to see the phrase ‘evidence based’ because although much of the above is correct some of its statements and conclusions are quite wrong. I am not a dog trainer but have been involved in animal care education for almost 40 years through the Animal Care College and eleven years as deputy to the Director General and manager of training with Battersea Dogs Home so I am therefore absolutely behind much of this report, especially those general points made about education. It is certainly true that sometimes confusing messages bombard the public. This needs to be addressed although the report omits to point its finger at those responsible: those groups, charities and lobbyists defending their own particular castles of influence. They are institutions which occasionally work together but their prime objective is inevitably, as Gavin Grant said in a published interview in PR Week a couple of years ago when he was appointed the Chief Executive of the RSPCA: ‘My first job must be to bring in enough money to pay my staff’!

I think I would also take issue with the phrase suggesting that dog training is now: ‘a well-established science and discipline’. You would not think so reading the immense amount of contradictory material available through books and the Internet. But let me address my specific concerns about the above paragraph. And I would add that I am not on my own – many organisations have already expressed doubts regarding the summary which contains a number of assumptions and inaccuracies.

First and foremost is the report’s endorsement of The Animal Training and Behaviour Council. The statement that it ‘developed, maintains and oversees a range of standards’ is simply not true and the assertions on their website are disingenuous to say the least. There is no doubt that ATBC has done a great deal of work but the ‘standards’ referred to are incorporated in the National Occupational Standards recently agreed by Lantra and I wrote about them at the time.  These standards were created by many organisations working together: they included the Kennel Club, the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council and the Guild of Dog Trainers among others.  Not only was the ATBC not one of them but, in fact, it argued strongly against their adoption as may be confirmed by Lantra.

Furthermore, the list of organisations which ‘support’ ATBC is mostly made up of groups (mainly those ‘castles of influence’) which only have a peripheral impact and influence on dog training and behaviours.  This is not to undermine the work that any of them do but it is important to understand that the various ‘bars’ set by ATBC and its few associated training/ behaviour organisations is such that the vast majority of those involved in dog training who have knowledge, experience and expertise could not comply – and do not need to.  

It’s not rocket science

Basic dog training is not rocket science: socialisation and the simple behaviours that families required for their pet dog do not need degree level knowledge and expertise.  Complex behaviour modification and the training of support dogs, search and rescue and sniffer dogs require immense skill, and expertise but, sit, walk, stay, come and fetch, the basics, are all straightforward. The APGAW report complicates the whole issue by supporting the view of ATBC and other ‘castles’ that just a few highly educated, expensive, dog trainers only should be allowed to train dogs and modify their behaviour.  This ignores most of the excellent work being done for thousands of dogs and their families in the community by practical, experienced dog trainers both individually and through the many training clubs – many of which work closely with the Kennel Club.

It is essential that the dog training sector gets away from the ‘ivory tower’ approach and reaches out to everyone involved – preferably through membership of one of the sensible and practical  organisations which belong to the Pet Education, Training and Behaviour Council ( or through the independent National Register of Dog Trainers and Behaviourists which I launched recently. The Register is free and welcomes any and every dog trainer or behaviourist who is prepared to sign up to the Companion Animal Welfare Council’s Code of Practice – the one and only thing, I might add, that everyone within the sector has ever agreed to. Unlike any other organisation it provides links to all the Kennel Club Training Clubs and all the recognised organisations which themselves ignore and often seek undermine each other.
To make progress we need to open doors – our society seems to be more and more determined to close them.

*Thomas Paine was writing about religion and the church/es in this quote but I think it applies equally to most institutions