There’s a lot of misinformation about dog attacks, not helped by sensational media reporting that often follows an incident. So, what are the facts and how can vets educate owners and keep themselves safe? Chloe Warren reports
One of the major mistakes journalists often make in their coverage of dog attacks is to focus on the dog’s breed. Unfortunately, it’s normal for a dog attack to trigger discussions around tighter policies on breed restrictions. Following the tragic dog attacks earlier this year, however, vets and animal behaviourists were quick to assert that further restrictions would unlikely be a successful means to prevent further attacks.
Alternatively, one of the effective measures we can take to reduce the number of aggressive dogs being bought as pets is to ensure that breeders are properly educated.
As outlined by veterinarian, animal behaviourist and zoologist, Dr Kate Lindsey, “While there’s no such thing as an aggressive breed, genetics have a major role to play in a dog’s behaviour. We’ve known for a long time that if you have anxiety or mental health issues in your family, those can be passed from generation to generation. It’s the same for animals—and aggression in dogs is almost always rooted in anxiety.”
Dr Lindsey asserts that preventive measures, as well as the provision of basic education, can be easily implemented by vets who are in regular contact with breeders. “If a breeding bitch comes into the clinic with behavioural problems, they should be sterilised to prevent these problems from being passed onto future generations. It’s something that can be easily changed.”
As well as this unnecessary focus on breed, some news outlets use fear-mongering to gain traction. While it’s not necessarily true that we need to be afraid of dogs, it is true that we need to be wary of them. In speaking with Dr Claire Stevens—or the ‘InstaPetVet’ as she’s more commonly known—the vet explains just why we shouldn’t get too complacent.
“Some dogs do look like fluffy toys, and if you’ve got a well-behaved dog at home, you can presume that all dogs behave like that,” Dr Stevens says. “But it’s important that we supervise children around dogs, especially if the dog is eating or sleeping.”
“It’s not in a dog’s nature to be aggressive, so if they are showing signals of aggression then they are likely to be just trying to protect themselves, their food, their owner or their property.”—Dr Claire Stevens, veterinarian
Dr Stevens also emphasises the role of education in reducing dog bite incidence rates, especially for children.
“It’s the community’s responsibility—parents, schools and vets—that children are educated about dog behaviour. I’m a parent myself—I’ve got a two-year-old and I’m pregnant—and I’d never leave my kids alone with a dog. It’s because I’m a mum that I’m so passionate about this issue of dog safety.”
Dr Stevens has teamed up with PetSafe to deliver a safety awareness campaign, ‘Be Educated, Be Aware, Be Prepared’, which has been promoted across social media and on television.
“It’s not in a dog’s nature to be aggressive, so if they are showing signals of aggression then they are likely to be just trying to protect themselves, their food, their owner or their property. We need to be compassionate in how we avoid that,” explains Dr Stevens.
So how do we develop this compassion? The answer isn’t surprising—it’s through education, not just for children but for everyone. Dogs can and do communicate but unfortunately, many of us just don’t know how to listen. These are issues that vets can help with, and Dr Lindsey encourages all graduates to ensure that they have skills in this area before going into practice. She’s concerned that not all university curriculums value these communication skills as much as they should.
“Whenever I have vet students and newly graduated vets come through, they always say, ‘Why isn’t this part of the curriculum; why aren’t we learning it?’ Universities need to understand how important it is for us to understand the language of the animals that we’re treating,” Dr Lindsey says.
“It doesn’t make sense to use punishment on a dog with anxiety manifesting as aggression. If you’re punishing someone that’s frightened, you’re just going to make them more frightened.”—Dr Kate Lindsey, vet, animal behaviourist and zoologist
“I’ve got all these clients that tell me, ‘My dog goes from zero to 100’. But at some point in that sequence, the dog has tried to tell you it needs space. They’ve learned that those things don’t work so they don’t go from zero to 100 in terms of emotional arousal, but behaviourally that’s what we see.”
One of the ways a dog can learn that their communication methods are ineffective is through inappropriate training. And unfortunately, sometimes it’s the irresponsible trainers who have the best marketing campaigns and attract the most desperate and vulnerable.
“It’s important that clients know that their local pet expert is their vet. Sometimes people will just get onto Google and go to the first training school they can find,” laments Dr Lindsey. She says that one of the worst things a trainer can do is punish a dog’s means of communicating their anxiety, such as a growl. “It doesn’t make sense to use punishment on a dog with anxiety manifesting as aggression. If you’re punishing someone that’s frightened, you’re just going to make them more frightened.”
In truth, if a client is concerned about the behaviour of their dog, the first port of call should be their vet, not behavioural or training classes. A good opportunity is during annual check-ups. Vets also need to look out for their own safety during these check-ups. It’s recommended that even animal professionals approach every dog with caution, and to assess whether a muzzle or even sedation is necessary in extreme cases.
“I’m educating my vet colleagues to ask about behavioural concerns in every check-up. There are all kinds of conditions which precipitate behaviour problems, and if you don’t treat those, the dogs are not going to get any better,” says Dr Lindsey. “If the dog does need training, a vet can refer clients to an appropriate trainer. People shouldn’t be leaving it to Google.”
Another major factor in dog training—which needs to be managed carefully by both vets and trainers—is the client’s expectations. It’s not realistic to expect that any dog can be moulded into the behavioural shape the owner desires.
“A lot of people come in with the expectation that they want their worried dog to like all people or dogs, or to be able to be in a cafe being touched by strangers. Those goals are not likely to be reached. Having realistic expectations is the ground-zero for behaviour management.”