Following the tragedy of the dog attack on the baby in her crib in Co Waterford this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the terrible grief that the family involved must be feeling, and my heart has gone out to them. And I have also been thinking about how we, as a society, might be able to deal with these types of incidents better, how we might learn from them, and what we might do to prevent them in future.
It’s easy for people to forget that our pet dogs are animals, and they do not make rational or moral decisions. It is never “the dog’s fault”. Such events are usually just tragic freak accidents. But we still need to learn to understand dogs’ behaviour better, so that we can do more to prevent the type of awfulness that took place earlier in the week.
A few points need to be made:
1) Dog attacks are not breed related.
Around thirty years ago, after a number of highly publicised attacks on humans involving specific breeds (Pit bulls, Rottweilers, etc), specific breed-related legislation was introduced in several countries (including UK and Ireland). This legislation proved difficult to enforce (it can be difficult to legally define a breed or breed cross) and many innocent and harmless dogs were targeted, which was life-changing for those dogs, upsetting for owners and a waste of time for the government departments trying to enforce this. Since then, better models of controlling potentially dangerous dogs have been developed (e.g. in Scotland, where the focus is on “the deed”, not “the breed”, with dogs being given warnings if they are reported to behave in a dangerous way, and then stronger measures being enforced if behaviour is repeated).
Here in Ireland, we still have The Control of Dog Regulations 1988 which place additional controls on dogs of specific breeds:
- American pit bull terrier
- English bull terrier
- Staffordshire bull terrier
- Bull mastiff
- Dobermann pinscher
- German shepherd (Alsatian)
- Rhodesian ridgeback
- Japanese akita
- Japanese tosa
These dogs (or strains and crosses of them) must:
- Be kept on a short strong lead by someone over the age of 16, who is capable of controlling them.
- Be muzzled whenever they are in a public place
- Wear a collar with the name and address of their owner, at all times.
It is true that these breeds tend to be large, well muscled and powerful dogs (so if they do attack they are more likely to do harm that smaller, weaker dogs) but there are many types of dogs that can cause harm that are not included, so it is not rational legislation.
Many people agree that the Irish laws need to be reformed, but before scrapping them, they would like to have alternative laws in place (such as the Scottish model) because at least the current Irish laws offer one way to control those occasional dogs that may be used by criminals to intimidate others, including the public and police.
2) There is a genetic aspect to dog behaviour
- Calm, relaxed adult dogs are more likely to have puppies that go on to be calm relaxed adult dogs.
- Lively, boisterous dogs are more likely to have puppies that grow up to be lively boisterous dogs
So when choosing a puppy, meet both parents, and consider this aspect
3) Socialisation of puppies is critical to developing non-aggressive adult dogs
There is a sensitive period of socialisation between 2 and 14 weeks of age. During this time, pups are good at learning about their environment, and they adjust to this well during this time. There is a lifelong impact: pups that meet plenty of different types of people, situations, etc, are more likely to be calm and relaxed when older. Studies have shown that dogs from puppy farm environments (where they have not had good socialisation, confined to concrete pen etc) are more likely to be anxious, fearful and aggressive when they mature as young adult dogs, and it can be very difficult to change this aspect of their personalities. It’s a bit like the way that children who grow up in an environment of poor parenting can grow into adults with lifelong mental health and social difficulties.
4) Dog behaviour is also influenced by ongoing interactions throughout their lives
All life long, dogs are influenced by what happens to them.
Studies have shown that humans with specific attachment personality types (avoiders, anxious ambivalents etc) are more likely to have dogs with certain behavioural problems.
As a vet, I have noticed that some people seem to have badly behaved dog after badly behaved dog – and one reason for this is that they unknowingly influence the dog’s bad behaviour by responding in specific ways that they may not be aware of. This highlights the importance of getting good professional behaviourist advice if your dog has any issues.
Also, ongoing socialisation is important. If a dog never meets a baby, it may consider that this small, noisy object is legitimate prey: they do not automatically recognise babies as human.
This is why potential parents should introduce their dogs to other people’s while they are pregnant, so that the dogs do not get a surprise or a fright with the new arrival
5) Government should do a better job of dealing with the aftermath of dog attacks.
Invariably, a dog attack makes headlines, the dog is euthanased (or “destroyed”, as media reports say), and then we hear nothing more. We cannot learn anything because we know nothing about what really happened.
It would be far better if the government employed a professional, skilled behaviourist to carry out a forensic analysis of the situation – a bit like the State pathologist does for murders.
- Do a full assessment of the dog – what was different about it compared to other pets?
- Analyse the background to the incident – what happened, precisely
- Produce a full, detailed report, with personal details redacted, obviously
- The media should then highlight the details, in the same way as the incident itself is highlighted at the time
If this was put in place, we could learn about what leads up to dog attacks, helping us all to prevent them in the future.
You can listen to the podcast below to hear more of a discussion on this topic.