Dog training – Two simple strategies to reduce incidents of dog bites

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 over-complicate 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 or that there is much else educational work to be done: 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 these two 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.

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