Breed Specific Legislation – Banning Dogs on Sight

In a previous post I discussed the increase in dog bite incidents in recent years Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it? | The Animal Nerd.  Today, I’m delving into a related and highly controversial topic, that of Breed Specific Legislation.

Breed-Specific Legislation (BSL) has been defined as “laws that regulate or ban dog breeds that are believed to be dangerous to humans or other animals”.[i] The regulation of dog ownership by breed and the prohibition of certain dog breeds has been a hotly debated issue for several decades in the United States and a considerable number of other countries; primarily in Europe but also in other regions as well.[ii]  In most cases, breeds are restricted based on the belief that certain of them, such as bull terriers, German shepherds and rottweilers, are  prone to violent attacks; while other breeds are restricted for other reasons.  For example, certain regions in China have prohibited dogs that are taller than 35 centimeters, and have specifically banned a wide range of breeds, to include, dalmatians, bearded collies and keeshonds.[iii]

The practice of restricting certain dog breeds began in the 1980s in response to media reporting of people being mauled and based on a growing popular belief that certain dog breeds had been selectively bred for aggressive behavior and were inherently dangerous.[iv]  Over the next two decades, laws and regulations were enacted in countries, states and municipalities, placing varying levels of restriction on certain breeds that were believed to have those characteristics.[v]  These restrictions have ranged from setting requirements for registration and a mandate for liability insurance, to authorizing local authorities to confiscate and euthanize and dogs believed to be from banned breeds.[vi] On the other hand, twenty-two states have prohibited the enactment of BSL to varying extents.[vii] Some insurance companies have gone so far as to deny coverage to households that have certain dog breeds, while others increase the premiums charged to those homeowners and renters.[viii]

The rationale used by governments in imposing restrictions on dog breeds is generally based on a public concern over dog attacks that are reported in the media and on certain beliefs held regarding specific dog breeds.  The problem with media reporting on these cases is that these reports are often rushed and sensationalized, based on low-quality information.  The collection of data related to dog bites is haphazard, without any consistent reporting of the severity and circumstances of bite incidents.[ix] The use of reporting by emergency rooms and police investigations is generally based on third-party information without verification of the dog breed involved in bite incidents.[x]  Further, as found by Arluke et al (2017), articles written by human healthcare professionals tend to use poor quality information, bordering on histrionics, when reporting non-clinical aspects relating to dog bites.  This includes speculation on the behavioral characteristics of dog breeds, “pack mentality”, and breed stereotyping.  Unfortunately, such articles are often cited by civil authorities when drafting BSL.[xi]

The stereotyping of certain dog breeds is a major component of BSL.  For example, the popular myths that “pitbulls” have “locking jaws”, can bite with far more force than other breeds, and will not stop attacking until they have killed their prey are often cited in popular literature.  These myths have also been used as the basis for legal decisions in the United States,[xii]  with court rulings venturing into lurid imaginings of the inherent viciousness, aggressiveness and other dangerous characteristics of pitbull terriers.[xiii]

Beware Of This Dog Pit Bull Terrier Sports Illustrated Cover Photograph ...

Sports Illustrated, July 27, 1987

The biggest single influence on the development of BSL has been the news media treatment of dog breeds.  Beginning in the 1980s, media outlets began reporting lurid accounts of dog attacks.  Magazines and newspapers began publishing articles describing pit bull terriers as “time bombs on legs” and circulating accounts of inner-city drug dealing gangs “brandishing their fierce pit bulls just as they would a switchblade or a gun”, going on to describe pitbull terriers as a breed that “revels in a ‘frenzy of bloodletting,’ and described as ‘lethal weapons’ with ‘steel trap jaws’ and as ‘killer dogs,’ and the new ‘hound of the Baskervilles.’. [xiv]  Sports Illustrated Published an issue with a picture of a snarling pitbull on its cover with the caption “Beware of this Dog”, and an article titled “The Pitbull Friend and Killer”.[xv]  One Denver reporter went so far as to stage dog fights for the purpose of producing a 1990 report titled “Blood Sport”.[xvi]  This media frenzy continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s; in 1987, the phrase “Pit Bull” appeared in more than 850 American newspaper headlines.[xvii]  This media attention, led to a public outcry to ban or regulate pitbulls and other breeds considered dangerous.  And, as indicated above, the exaggerated media accounts of the danger presented by these dogs influenced the language and wording of court decisions and state or municipal legislation.  This is borne out by court findings, such as Toledo v Tellings, in which the appellate court stated “Breed-specific laws were enacted because, in the past, courts and legislatures considered it to be a ‘well-known fact’ that pit bulls are ‘unpredictable,’ ‘vicious’ creatures owned only by ‘drug dealers, dog fighters, gang members,’ or other undesirable members of society.”[xviii]  This has led to accusations that BSL includes elements of racial discrimination and racial profiling of minorities.[xix]

Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, BSL is based in flawed and inaccurate information.   In spite of media reporting of dangerous dog breeds, numerous studies in Europe, Australia and the United States have found that dogs from restricted breeds are no more likely to inflict bites on humans than those of unrestricted breeds.[xx],[xxi], [xxii], [xxiii], [xxiv] In fact, there is a strong indication that the data regarding bite incidents or aggressive behavior is skewed, as police and medical authorities are more likely to report incidents involving restricted breeds than non-restricted ones.[xxv]

The danger in relying on published statistics related to dog bites is that the information from which the statistics are drawn is largely unreliable.  Early studies conducted by the AVMA used data that was “collected entirely from media reports and those media reports were relied upon as complete and entirely accurate.”[xxvi]  Thus, authorities who rely on published reports to gauge the relative danger of specific dog breeds were reliant on the reporting of people who have no direct knowledge of incidents related to the dogs in question.  And that has not changed significantly since then:  For all intents and purposes, if anyone who reports an incident says that it involved a dog from a restricted breed, that is accepted as gospel by government authorities.  The Centers for Disease Control

Which leads us to the issue of how restricted dogs are identified.  Veterinarians, police, animal shelter workers and private citizens are expected to reliably identify the dogs that are subject to state and/or local restrictions; but are consistently unable to make these visual assessments.  This is particularly so when they are called upon to apply restrictions to mixed-breed dogs.  A 2013 study found that people working in dog-related fields were able to identify the primary breeds of dogs only fifty percent of the time, with very little agreement among respondents.[xxvii]  A 2015 study of animal shelter staff found that they could not reliably identify “pit bulls” and tended to label dogs as pit bulls who were found to be primarily other breeds through DNA analysis.[xxviii]  And a 2014 study of shelter workers in the United States and the United Kingdom found very little consensus in identifying dogs that would be subject to breed restrictions.[xxix] A comprehensive review by the National Canine Research Council concluded that visual identification of dog breeds is “inconsistent and unreliable.”[xxx]  This difficulty in identifying dog breed is compounded by the fact that mixed-breed dogs rarely have much physical resemblance to either of their parents.[xxxi]

The difficulty in identifying restricted dogs in further complicated by the poor definition of these animals.  In the case of “pit bulls”, this is an umbrella term that is used to cover a “type” of dog, which has been defined in various jurisdictions as including Staffordshire terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, the pit bull terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, American bull terriers, American bulldogs, English bull terriers or any mixed breed parented by one or more of those breeds.  Essentially, a “pit bull” is a dog that someone believes resembles a “pit bull.”  Based only on outward appearance, these dogs are considered dangerous in a number of jurisdictions.

The United Kingdom’s recently enacted “XL Bully Ban” is an example of banning dogs according to their physical “type”.  In response to a public outcry over highly publicized reports of maulings and deaths attributed to dogs that had been marketed and sold as “XL Bullys” or “American XL Bullys”, these dogs have been banned.  However, unlike pitbull bans which specify dogs that belong to specific breeds, the XL Bully ban is imposed on dogs that meet a very subjective physical description, which includes a general description as a “large dog with a muscular body and a blocky head”[xxxii], followed by criteria for height, head shape, body, hindquarters, tail, etc.  and a statement that “A suspected XL Bully breed type does not need to fit the physical description perfectly. If your dog meets the minimum height measurements and a substantial number of these characteristics, it could be considered an XL Bully breed type” and that this definition includes “cross breeds that look more like XL Bully dogs than any other type of dog”.    Based on this law, it is now “illegal to breed, sell, advertise, exchange, gift, abandon or allow these dogs to stray.”[xxxiii] Any people who own a dog that is considered to be an XL Bully are required to have the dog leashed and muzzled when out in public and must obtain a certificate of exemption in order to keep the dog.  This certificate requires that every dog must be neutered, microchipped, and the owners must pay a fee of £92.40 and obtain third-party liability insurance for each dog.  The owner must present the certificate of Exemption whenever asked by a police officer.   Further, all animal shelters or rescue organizations are prohibited from adopting or fostering these dogs, meaning that any of them in shelters at the time of the ban must be euthanized.

As I mentioned earlier, these bans on breeds or “types” of dogs are rationalized by the belief that certain of them are inherently predisposed to aggressiveness and to violent attacks on humans and other dogs.  However, this belief has been repeatedly demonstrated to be false.  Recent studies of aggressive behavior in dogs has shown there is a wide variation of behavior among individuals of each breed and that a dog’s breed is not a predictor of its behavior characteristics.[xxxiv]  The differences between dog breeds are primarily physical characteristics, with little or no inheritable behavior traits;  a dog’s breed is found to be a poor predictor of disposition or behavior.[xxxv]  A study compared the aggressive behaviors of restricted dog breeds with those of golden retrievers, considered to be among the best-natured and gentlest of dog.  This study found no differences between the breeds tested, concluding that “a scientific basis for breed specific lists does not exist.”[xxxvi]

As discussed earlier, the data concerning dog bites and the effect of BSL is weak and generally drawn from questionable sources.  However, the information we have from regions with dog breed restrictions has shown there is little or no difference in the bite cases or dog-related hospitalizations.[xxxvii] The 2018 Denmark study found that restricting breeds and the required use of leashes and muzzles had very little effect on the number and severity of bite injuries.[xxxviii] The implementation of BSL in Missouri was found to have no effect on bite-related cases requiring visits to emergency rooms.[xxxix]  The overall ineffectiveness of BSL is demonstrated in a 2010 analysis of dog bite data, which concluded that it would be necessary to ban 100,000 dogs in order to prevent a single hospitalization due to dog biting.[xl]

si.cover.dec29.2008.jpg

Sports Illustrated, December 28, 2008

The XL Bully Ban aside, BSL is slowly losing popularity.  This is due to a recognition that the laws are ineffectual and unfairly target dogs that are not actually dangerous, and to changing perceptions about the dogs that are targeted.  For example, in 2008, twenty-one years after Sports Illustrated’s famous “Beware of This Dog” cover story,[xli] that same magazine published a highly sympathetic cover story about the plight and recovery of the dogs from Michael Vick’s dogfighting ring.[xlii]  As of April, 2023, seventy-three municipalities in the United States had repealed their BSL bans,[xliii] and twenty-two states have enacted laws to ban the implementation of BSL, with some of them going to far as to prohibit insurance companies from restricting dog breeds of policy holders.[xliv]

 

Among the many organizations that oppose BSL are the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the National Animal Control Association, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the American Bar Association, the American Kennel Club, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the British Veterinary Association, and other professional organizations with expertise in canine behavior and welfare.  Hopefully, this trend will continue and more dog breed restrictions will be repealed in favor of laws that target irresponsible or criminal dog owners and in public education regarding dogs and animals in general.

[i] NAIC (April 13, 2023).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation (naic.org)

[ii] Petolog, retrieved from Full banned dog breeds by countries updated 2023 XL Bully UK (petolog.com)

[iii] PBS Pet Travel, retrieved from https://www.pbspettravel.co.uk/blog/uk-favourite-dog-breeds-which-are-banned-in-other-countries/

[iv] Weiss (2001).  Retrieved from Breed-Specific Legislation in the United States | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)

[v] Alain, J. (2023).  Retrieved from Restricted or Banned Dog Breeds in Each State (thepetzealot.com)

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Wisch, R. (2022).  Retrieved from Overview of States that Prohibit BSL | Animal Legal & Historical Center (animallaw.info)

[viii] Leefeldt, E. and Danise, A. (October 3, 2023).  Forbes Advisor.  Dogs Breeds Banned by Home Insurance Companies.  Retrieved from Dog Breeds Banned By Home Insurance Companies – Forbes Advisor

[ix] Patronek, G. J., Slater, M. and Marder, A., (2010).  Use of a Number-Needed-to-Ban Calculation to Illustrate Limitations of Breed-Specific Legislation in Decreasing the Risk of Dog Bite-Related Injury.  Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 237 (7).

[x] AVMA.  Why Breed-Specific Legislation is Not the Answer.  Retrieved from Why breed-specific legislation is not the answer | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

[xi] Arluke, A., Cleary, D., Patronek, G. and Bradley, J. (2017).  Defaming Rover:  Error-Based Latent Rhetoric in the Medical Literature on Dog Bites.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 21 (3).  doi: 10.1080/10888705.2017.1387550

[xii] DogsBite.org.  Legislating Dogs.  Retrieved from Appellate Court Decisions Affirming Pit Bulls are Dangerous (dogsbite.org)

[xiii] Barnett, K.  (2017).  Post-Conviction Remedy for Pit Bulls:  What Today’s Science Tells Us About Breed-Specific Legislation.  Syracuse Law Review 67 (24).

[xiv] Brand, D. (July 27, 1987).  Time Bombs on Legs:  Violence-Prone Owners are Turing Pitbulls into Killers.  Time.

[xv] Swift E. M. (1987).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/1987/07/27/the-pit-bull-friend-and-killer-is-the-pit-bull-a-fine-animal-as-its-admirers-claim-or-is-it-a-vicious-dog-unfit-for-society

[xvi] UPI (July 23, 1991).  TV Reporter on Trial for Staging Dog Fights.  Retrieved from TV reporter on trial for staging dog fights – UPI Archives

[xvii] Delise, K.  (2007) The Pit Bull Placebo:  The Media, Myths and Politics of Canine Aggression. Anubis

[xviii] Barnett (2017)

[xix] Linder, A. (2018).  The Black Man’s Dog:  The Social Context of Breed Specific Legislation.  Animal Law (25) 51. 51-74

[xx] Cecchi, F., De Toni, G. and Macchioni, F. (2022) A Survey on the Number of Dog-Induced Injuries Inflicted by Pure-Breed and Mixed-Breed Dogs in Italy.  Dog Behavior 7 (3). doi: 10.4454/db.v7i3.143

[xxi] Creedon, N. and O’Suilleabhain, P. S. (2017). Dog Bite Injuries to Humans and the Use of Breed-Specific Legislation:  A comparison of Bites from legislated and non-legislated dog Breeds.  Irish Veterinary Journal 70 (1).  doi:  10.1186/s13620-017-0101-1

[xxii] Wyker, B. and Gupta, M. (2023).  Emergency Department Visits for Dog Bite Injuries in Missouri Municipalities With and Without Breed-Specific Legislation:  A Propensity Score-Matched Analysis.  Research Square 1 (2023).  doi:  10.21203/rs.3.rs-3411634/v1

[xxiii] Nilson, F., Damsager, J., Lauritson, J. and Bonander, C. (2018).  The Effect of Breed-Specific Dog Legislation on Hospital Treated Dog Bites in Odense, Denmark -A Time Series Intervention Study.  PLOS One.  doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0208393

[xxiv] Slater, E.(2017)  Deed or Breed?  Evaluating Bite Reports and Breed Specific Legislation in South Australia.  Flinders University.

[xxv] Creedon and O’Suilleabhain (2017)

[xxvi] Delise (2007)

[xxvii] Voith, V. L., Trevejo, R., Dowling-Guyer, S., Chadik, C., Marder, A., Johnson, V. & Irizarry, K. (2013).  Comparison of Visual and DNA Breed Identification of Dogs and Inter-Observer Reliability.  American Journal of Sociological Research 3 (2).  17-29.  doi:  10.5923/j.sociology.20130302.02

[xxviii] Olson, K. R., Levy, J. K., Norby, B., Crandall, M. M., Broadhurst, J. E., Jacks, S., Barton, R. C. & Zimmerman, M. S. (2015).  Inconsistent Identification of Pit Bull-Type Dogs by Shelter Staff.  The Veterinary Journal 206 (2).  197-202, doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.07.019

[xxix][xxix] Hoffman, C. L., Harrison, N., Wolff, L. and Westgarth, C. (2014).  Is That Dog a Pit Bull?  A Cross-Country Comparison of Perceptions of Shelter Workers Regarding Breed Identification.  Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 17 (4). 322-339 doi:  10.1080/10888705.2014.895904

[xxx] NCRC (2021) Visual Breed Identification.  Retrieved from Visual Breed Identification – National Canine Research Council

[xxxi] Scott, J.P., & Fuller J.L. (1965). Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press

[xxxii] DEFRA (November 22, 2023).  Retrieved from https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/official-definition-of-an-xl-bully-dog/official-definition-of-an-xl-bully-dog

[xxxiii] Blue Cross.  Retrieved from https://www.bluecross.org.uk/advice/dog/wellbeing-and-care/xl-bully-ban-explained

[xxxiv] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022). Comparison of Behaviorl Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications.  Evolutionary Applications 15 (11). 1806 – 1819.  doi: 10.1111/eva.13479

[xxxv] Morrill, K. et al (2022). Ancestry-Inclusive Dog Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592). doi:  10.1126/science.abk0639

[xxxvi] Ott, S. A., Schelka, E., von Gaertner, A. M. and Hackbarth, H. (2008).  Is There a Difference?  Comparison of Golden Retrievers and Dogs Affected by Breed-Specific Legislation Regarding Aggressive Behavior.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 3 (3).  134-140.  doi:  10..1016/j.jveb.2007.09.009

[xxxvii] O’Suilleabhain, P. (2015). Human Hospitalizations Due to Dog Bites in Ireland, 1998-2013:  Implications for Current Breed Specific Legislation.  The Veterinary Journal 204 (3). doi:  10.1016/j.tvjl.2015.04.021

[xxxviii] Nilson. F. et al

[xxxix] Wyker & Gupta

[xl] Patronek et al.

[xli] Swift, E. M.

[xlii] Gorant, J.  (December 29, 2008).  Sports Illustrated.  Retrieved from https://vault.si.com/vault/2008/12/29/happy-new-year

[xliii] NAIC

[xliv] Wisch

Dog Fight Prevention and Preparedness

If you have more than one dog, sooner or later they’ll probably have a falling-out.  This can take the form of a minor confrontation during which one of them will give ground without any actual fighting, or it might involve one of them snarling and snapping.  In some cases, their conflict can escalate into a full-blown fight.  There is plenty of good information available on how to break up a dog fight, So I’m going to focus on prevention and preparedness.  Hopefully, I can help you to recognize when your dogs are building up to a fight and head it off beforehand; and to be ready if one does occur.

You should keep in mind is that if your dogs do have a fight, that is not a reflection on you as an owner.  Dogs are complex animals with full emotional lives and communication skills.  They can easily get on each other’s nerves.  The good news is that they generally communicate their tension in advance of any real confrontations.  You can often tell if your dogs are heading for a confrontation by being aware of their body language.

Watch your dogs interact with each other.  If one of them is stiff and tense, giving the other dog a hard stare, holding his tail stiffly, possibly holding his head lower than his shoulders, those are aggressive signs.  His face may also be tense with a wrinkled forehead.[1] He may also be wagging his tail in a short, stiff motion instead of his usual relaxed wag.[2]  These are signs of a confrontation that you need to head off before it escalates.  The question is how to do this without endangering yourself or unintentionally triggering a fight.

If you think your dogs are getting aggressive to the point that a fight may erupt, the first thing to do is interrupt them.  Do this by putting yourself off to one side and calling them in a relaxed, happy way.  Don’t yell at them or make noises that would increase their excitement, just call them as if you want to take them for a walk or play with them.  Above all, don’t just grab at one of them and try to pull him away.  Depending on their arousal and stress level, physical contact could be the last straw that puts them over their behavioral threshold.  The key is to present yourself as relaxed and happy, which will help to reduce stress and antagonism on their part.  Once you’ve interrupted them, follow up with some play or petting for a few minutes, or even leash them up and take them for a walk.  You want to completely change their mood. And walking a pair of dogs together is one of the best ways to reinforce socialization between them.  Don’t offer them any food or toys until they calm down and relax.

There are things you can do to reduce the risk of conflict between your dogs.  First off, forget any advice regarding “alpha dog” behavior or “pack mentality”.  Do not try to identify a hierarchy among your dogs and do not try to reinforce one.  They don’t exist.  Dog’s aren’t pack animals and don’t have an alpha.  If you try to create that kind of relationship with your dogs, you’ll only create conflict between you and them, and among them.[3]

Second, set them up for success.  Arrange things to avoid potential sources of conflict among them.  For example, establish feeding times and place their bowls so that they aren’t eating in each other’s line of sight. One way to do this would be to feed each dog in his own crate, or by putting their bowls around different sides of a kitchen counter.  Free-feeding can work very nicely in a single-dog household, but it is a potential source of conflict when more than one dog is sharing the space where food is present.  Also, pick up their bowls when the meal is over.  This reduces the possibility of guarding behavior between them.

Third, watch for signs of resource guarding.  This occurs when a dog “claims” something and acts aggressively towards dogs or humans who approach it.  This can happen with a favorite toy, a bed, or even a person; and when it happens it should be addressed early.  With the right resources, a dog owner can address this problem and prevent it from becoming serious.  Jean Donaldson wrote an excellent short book on the subject, titled Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs.  However, if the problem persists, or if the dog exhibits actual aggressive behavior as part of resource guarding, a qualified canine behavior professional should be consulted.

Lastly, watch your dogs when they play.  If one of them begins to get over-excited, his play biting and wrestling can escalate into something more serious.  Alternatively, if one of them gets tired and stops playing, the other dog may start getting on his nerves.  So look for signs of either over-excitement or of one dog wanting to stop playing for a while.

The fact is that even a very good dog can have a bad day and forget his manners, or he could be a little bit grumpy with his housemate, so a fight can break out.  This is no different than having human children in a house – the difference being that dogs will use their teeth.  Again, there are plenty of good sources of advice on breaking up a fight once it starts and I suggest that all dog owners be familiar with them.[4] [5]  However, dog owners need to be prepared to implement that advice.

Knowing that fights can break out in a multi-dog household, there are certain materials that owners of multiple dogs should keep on hand:

First, if your dogs regularly play in your yard, keep a hose with a spray nozzle connected to your outside tap.  Experts advise owners to spray fighting dogs with a strong jet of water, but that advice is wasted if you don’t have a ready source of water on hand.

Second, a loud sound maker ready at hand.  This can be a whistle, or an air horn, anything that can startle and interrupt them.

Third, have a can of citronella spray on hand.  This can be sprayed on the face and mouth of a dog that is grabbing and biting another one.

Fourth, have a barrier ready to put between the dogs and keep them separated.  This can be a board or baby gate, or anything that gets in their way.

You can also keep a blanket handy to throw over a pair of fighting dogs.  However, while this can work, it can also prevent you from trying any other method of stopping the fight.

And, lastly, keep a canine first-aid kit on hand.[6]  Have the your vets’ contact information ready, as well as the phone number and location of the nearest emergency veterinary clinic for any bite punctures or serious injuries to one of your dogs.  Puncture wounds and lacerations resulting from a fight can be worse than they initially appear, are prone to infection, and should be treated by a vet.

An isolated fight among your dogs generally isn’t any cause for concern.  They rarely result in actual injuries.  However, if your dogs repeatedly fight or if a fight results in injuries to one or both dogs, then they should be kept separated from each other until you have consulted a canine behavior professional.   Your veterinarian may be able to recommend a behaviorist, and qualified professionals in your area can be found on the websites of bother the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, www.iaabc.org , or the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. www.apdt.com .

[1] Coren, S. (2014).  How to Speak Dog.  New York, NY:  Atria

[2] Kane, G. (January 19, 2019) AKC.  Watch for Warning Signs of an Aggressive Dog.  Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/warning-signs-aggressive-dog-fight-bite-barking/

[3] Tufts.  September 17, 2021.  Your Dog.  The Myth of the “Alpha Dog”.  Retrieved from https://www.tuftsyourdog.com/dogtrainingandbehavior/the-myth-of-the-alpha-dog/

[4] Gibeault, S.  (November 9, 2023).  AKC.  How to Break up a Dog Fight.  Retrieved from https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/stopping-dog-fight-confrontation-fighting-dogs/

[5] Madson, C.  (August 6, 2023).  Preventive Vet.  How to BreakUp a Dog Fight Safely.  Retrieved from https://www.preventivevet.com/dogs/how-to-break-up-a-dog-fight

[6] ASPCA Pro.  (nd). How to Make a Pet First Aid Kit.  Retrieved from https://www.aspcapro.org/resource/how-make-pet-first-aid-kit

Increases in Dog Bites – What to Make of it?

I have recently been involved in several discussions regarding the increase in dog bite incidents in both the United States and United Kingdom.  These incidents, often termed “attacks”, have been much in the news – particularly in the UK.  The increase in dog bite incidents in the UK has received a lot of media attention and has resulted in calls for the banning of “XL Bullies”, which is described as a new breed of huge pitbull terriers.  A casual search through social media will show that this subject is a highly emotional one; so much so that any scientific research is taking a backseat to clickbait articles about specific cases of dog “attacks”.  I have touched on the issue of biting behavior before Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd, but not in the context that we’re seeing today.

To my thinking, this issue involves several related questions requiring answers:  Are serious dog bite incidents actually on the rise?  Are specific dog breeds prone to violent attacks on humans?   If serious dog bites are happening more frequently, what is causing this?  Are specific dog breeds prone to violent attacks on humans?  And, lastly, what to do about either the rate of biting incidents or the dog breeds in question?

In answer to the first question:  The answer appears to be yes.  In both the US and the UK, the numbers of reported dog bites have been increasing in recent years.  The exact figures for the US in the years since 2019 are unclear – most of the available information on dog bites in the US is found on websites belonging law firms specializing in accidents and injuries – however the best available studies[i] indicates a definite upward trend, particularly in bites involving children.[ii]  Statistics in the UK are more definitive on the subject:  A BBC study of reports from 37 police agencies[iii] indicated that bite incidents increased by 34 per cent between 2018 and 2022.  The British Medical Journal reported a sharp increase in fatalities from dog bites, with a total of 10 reported in 2022[iv].

from: Pixabay

Regarding whether this increase can be attributed to a specific dog breed, there is no consensus.  After excluding articles and reports from websites and organizations with obvious agendas either for or against specific dog breeds, I found that there are peer-reviewed studies that indicate certain bulldog types are more prone to bite people than others[v] and are more likely to inflict serious injuries on humans.[vi]  There are also media reports of an increase in serious injuries and deaths resulting from bites or “attacks” from dogs described as “American Bullies” or “XL Bullies”.[vii]   However, there are also many studies which conclude that a dog breed, or perceived dog breed, is not an indicator of increased aggression or dangerous behavior[viii], many other environmental factors are involved in canine aggression[ix]and that breed stereotyping ignores the complex factors behind animal behavior.[x]  Frankly, the issue of

The issue of whether particular breeds of dogs are to blame for attacks on humans is a highly emotional one and governments have become involved.  Breed bans have been put in place in the UK and in many jurisdictions in the US, and some states have enacted legislation prohibiting restrictions on breed ownership.  The argument has become polarized, and the available literature is loaded with motivated thinking and mis-used statistics.  However, the fact remains that there is no clear indication that any specific breeds of dogs are more likely than others to attack humans.  It may simply be that large and powerful dogs are more capable of inflicting serious injuries when they do bite.

So, given that the is an increase in humans being injured or killed by dogs in recent years, and since it appears that a specific dog breed is not the primary cause, what is the reason for this?  One factor may be that more people own dogs.  During the pandemic, dog ownership surged in both the US[xi] and the UK;[xii] more dogs in homes may simply mean that more people are bitten.  However, this seems to be doubtful, as the number of bite incidents per capita increased disproportionately higher than the increase in dog ownership.

It would seem that the pandemic impacted pet ownership in many ways.  A survey of UK pet owners indicates that 25 percent of owners had acquired their dogs during the pandemic, and that 39 percent of these were first-time owners and that these new owners were more likely to live in urban locations.[xiii]  The increase in first-time dog ownership was also reflected in surveys of animal adopters in the US.[xiv]  There was a distinct boom in both the purchase of dogs and the adoption of dogs from shelters.  The pandemic-driven demand for pet dogs even created a wave of dog thefts and kidnappings.

This is widely considered to be a contributing factor to the increase in bite incidents.  More homes had dogs, often as single pets,[xv] at a time when the world was experiencing a pandemic.  The dogs were subject to lockdowns along with their human owners, meaning that they had fewer chances for training, exercise, enrichment and socialization.  They were not exposed to the usual number of people, either outside or visitors to their homes.   Then, when the pandemic restrictions were lifted and we all went back to work and school, the dogs were suddenly expected to cope with the outside world and unfamiliar people.   Even dogs who were part of households before the pandemic were affected:  Their world was turned completely disrupted and all of their rules were changed.[xvi]    Added to this is the general inexperience and lack of knowledge by dogs’ owners on canine emotions and communications.[xvii]  Uneducated and inexperienced dog owners often view their pets through and anthropomorphic lens, misinterpret their dogs’ communication of stress and anxiety.  The dogs are simply pushed to the point that a bite occurs, in spite of the dogs’ best efforts to avoid the situation.[xviii]

This would certainly make sense:  We shut down our society and our homes, disrupted our world repeatedly for over two years, and then opened it everything up again; leaving our dogs unequipped to cope with the stressors in their lives.[xix]  But that really doesn’t seem to be the whole story.  The simple truth is that our dogs don’t live in a vacuum and we can’t look at them as individuals.   We are their natural habitat and their natural companions, and the pandemic has changed us.  We have become more violent, fearful and reactive; and it completely to expected that our dogs become as reactive as their owners.

Since the pandemic, domestic violence has dramatically risen in both the US[xx] and the UK, with forcible sexual violence also sharply increased.[xxi]   The number of violent assaults in mass transit systems in both the US and the UK also sharply rose during the pandemic. [xxii] [xxiii]  Violence in schools has increased during the pandemic.[xxiv]  The FAA reports that incidents of “air rage” sharply increased during the pandemic.[xxv] Perhaps most disturbing, animal cruelty cases have seen a sharp increase during the pandemic years in both the US[xxvi] and the UK[xxvii] [xxviii].  As a whole, our society and our families have been severely stressed during the pandemic.  The COVID-19 virus, coupled with lockdowns, isolation, economic uncertainty and the restrictions on our daily lives have resulted in an overall increase in our own reactivity and our propensity to violence.[xxix]  Is it surprising that the dogs who live in our homes might also be similarly stressed?

Dogs look to their owners, and to human strangers, for social referencing; that is, they look to us to provide behavioral clues on how to behave towards unfamiliar objects or people.[xxx]  They will mirror their owners’ behaviors and attitudes in these encounters.[xxxi]  If we have become “fearfully aggressive”, it is only natural that our socially-isolated dogs would also adopt this behavior.  We became increasingly defensive and antisocial during the pandemic, and we took our dogs along with us.[xxxii]

It may very well be that the increase in dog bites in recent years is not a separate phenomenon, limited to dogs; but merely one aspect of a far greater societal problem.  Instead of a problem with dogs, or breeds of dogs, it seems to be an indicator that we are facing a looming social problem that is much worse and far more dangerous.

 

[i] Habarth-Morales, T. E., Rios-Diaz, A. J. and Caterson, E. J. (2022). Pandemic Puppies:  Man’s Best Friend or Public Health Problem?  A Multi-Database Study.  Journal of Surgical Research 276 (2022).  203 – 207.  doi:  10.1016/j.jss.2022.02.041

[ii] Dixon, C.A.  and Mistry, R. D. (2020).  Dog Bites in Children Surge During Corona Virus Disease – 2019:  A Case for Enhanced Protection.  The Journal of Pediatrics 225 (2020) 231 – 232.   doi:   10.1016/j.jpeds.2020.06.071

[iii] Dog Attacks:  34% Increase Recorded by Police in England and Wales. (2023) BBC.  Retrieved from Dog attacks: 34% increase recorded by police in England and Wales – BBC News

 [iv] Rising Fatalities, Injuries, and NHS Costs:  Dog Bites as a Public Health Concern (2023).  The BMJ.  Retrieved from Rising fatalities, injuries, and NHS costs: dog bites as a public health problem | The BMJ

 [v] Salonen, M., Mikkola, S., Niskanen, J. E., Hakanen, E., Sulkama, S., Purrunen, J. and Hannel, L. (2023). Breed, Age and Social Environment are Associated with Personality Traits in Dogs.  iScience 26 (106691).  doi:  10.1016/j.isci.2023.106691

 [vi] Essig, G. F. Jr., Sheehan, C., Rikhi, S., Elmaraghy, C. A. and Christophel, J. J. (2019).  Dog Bite Injuries to the Face:  Is There a Risk with Breed Ownership?  A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis.  International Journal of Pediatric Otorhinolaryngology 117 (2019).  182-188.  doi:  10.1016/j.ijporl.2018.11.028.

 [vii] Hussian, D. (2023, June 8).  EXCLUSIVE – Why more people will die unless the XL Bully is BANNED: Experts warn the American cross breed can kill in 60 seconds and UK deaths will soar as breeders ‘create monsters’ by changing DNA of the animals to give them ‘enhanced muscles’.  Daily Mail.  Retrieved from American Bully XL: The killer breed behind record number of fatal dog attacks | Daily Mail Online

[viii] Hammond, A., Rowland, T., Mills, D. S. and Pilot, M. (2022) Comparison of Behavioural Tendencies Between “Dangerous Dogs” and Other Domestic Dog Breeds – Evolutionary Context and Practical Implications.  Evolutionary Applications 15 (2022). 1806 – 1819.  doi:  10.1111/eva.13479

 [ix] Casey, R. A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G. A. and Blackwell, E. J. (2013). Human Directed Aggression in Domestic Dogs (Canis Familiaris):  Occurrence in Different Contexts and Risk Factors.  Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science 152 (2014). 52 – 63.  doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2013.12.03

 [x] Dowd, S. E. (2006). Assessment of Canine Temperament in Relation to Breed Groups.  Retrieved from Matrix Canine Research Institution (PDF) Assessment of Canine Temperament in Relation to Breed Groups (researchgate.net)

 [xi] Megna, M. (2023, June 21).  Pet Ownership Statistics 2023.  Forbes Advisor.  Retrieved from Pet Ownership Statistics and Facts in 2023 – Forbes Advisor

 [xii] Mills, G. (2022).  Assessing the Impact of Covid-19 on Pets.  VetRecord 191 (1).  Retrieved from Assessing the impact of Covid‐19 on pets – Mills – 2022 – Veterinary Record – Wiley Online Library

 [xiii] Hooker, R. (2023).  PAW 2022 Animal Wellbeing Report.  Retrieved from The PAW Report 2022 – PDSA

 [xiv] Rover.com (2022).  The Year of the Pandemic Pet.  Retrieved from https://www.rover.com/blog/pandemic-pet-adoption-boom/

 [xv] Megna (2023)

xvi] De Vise, D. (2023, August 14).  Blame the Pandemic:  Dog Bites are on the Rise.  The Hill.  Retrieved from Dog bites are on the rise, with pandemic partially to blame (thehill.com)

 [xvii] Parkinson, C., Herring, L. and Gould, D. (2023) Public Perceptions of Dangerous Dogs and Dog Risk.  Edge Hill University.  Retrieved from Dangerous_Dogs_Report.pdf (edgehill.ac.uk)

 [xviii] Owczarczak-Garstecka, S. C., Christley, R. and Westgarth, C. (2018).  Online Videos Indicate Human and Dog Behavior Preceding Dog Bites and the Context in which Bites Occur.  Scientific Reports 8 (7147).  doi:  10.1038/s41598-018-25671-7

 [xix] DVM 360.  (2022, May 31).  New Study Shows Increased Levels of Anxiety in Pets Since the Covid-19 Pandemic.  Retrieved from New study shows increased levels of anxiety in pets since the COVID-19 pandemic (dvm360.com)

 [xx] Statistica (2022).  Total Violent Crime Reported in the United States from 1990 to 2021.  Retrieved from U.S.: reported violent crime 2021 | Statista

 [xxi] Office for National Statistics (2023).  Crime in England and Wales:  Year Ending March 2023.  Retrieved from Crime in England and Wales – Office for National Statistics (ons.gov.uk)

 [xxii] Statistica (2022).  Number of Crime Events in the Public Transportation Systems in the United States in 2021, by Type.  Retrieved from U.S.: number of public transit crime events, by type | Statista

 [xxiii] Transport for London (2022).  Crime and Anti-Social Behavior Summary.  Retrieved from Quarterly Customer Services and Operational Performance Report – Quarter 2 2022/23 – Crime and Anti-Social Behaviour (tfl.gov.uk)

 [xxiv] Stanford, L. (2022, July 08).  School Crime and Safety:  What a Decade of Federal Data Show.  Education Week.  Retrieved from School Crime and Safety: What a Decade of Federal Data Show (edweek.org)

 [xxv] Street, F. (2021, 6 September).  Dread at 30,000 Feet:  Inside the Increasingly Violent World of US Flight Attendants.  CNN Travel.  Retrieved from US flight attendants endure increasing violence 30,000 feet in the air | CNN

 [xxvi] Roesser, B. (2023, 25 July).  Severe Animal Cruelty Cases Rising Post-Pandemic, Say N. Y. SPCA Leaders.  Spectrum News 1.  Retrieved from Animal cruelty cases rising post-pandemic, say SPCA leaders (spectrumlocalnews.com)

 [xxvii] RSPCA (2022, Feb 08).  New Figures Reveal an Increase in Dog Cruelty Since Start of the Pandemic.  Retrieved from Details | rspca.org.uk

 [xxviii] Kingsley, T. (2022, 03 August).  Dog Cruelty on the Rise Since Covid Pandemic as RSPCA Gets 10 Reports of Abuse an Hour.  The Independent.  Retrieved from:  Dog cruelty on the rise since Covid pandemic as RSPCA gets 10 calls of abuse per hour | The Independent

 [xxix] Khazan, O.  (2022, 30 March).  Why People are Acting so Weird.  The Atlantic.  Retrieved from Why People Are Acting So Weird – The Atlantic

 [xxx] Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E. and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2012)  Dog’s Social Referencing Towards Owners and Strangers.  PLos ONE 7 (10). E47653  doi:  10.1371/Journal.pone 0047653

 [xxxi] Merola, I., Prato-Previde, E. and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2011).  Social Referencing in Dog-Owner Dyads?  Animal Cognition 15 (2).  175-185.  doi:  10.1007/s.10071-011-0443-0

 [xxxii] Cox, D. (2023, 17 July).  What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America’s Social Capital.  American Enterprise Institute.  Retrieved from What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America’s Social Capital | American Enterprise Institute – AEI

Temperament Testing in Animal Shelters

I have been doing a lot of research lately about animal shelters’ use of behavioral evaluations for dogs in their care.   These tools are frequently employed to help the shelter staff handle the dogs, from both a personal safety and animal welfare standpoint, as to aid in the placement of these dogs in suitable homes.  However, although these “personality tests” have been used extensively for multiple purposes, their validity and reliability in shelter environments has never been established and is widely debated – if not disparaged.  Although I have posted on methods that I have implemented in modifying shelter dogs’ behaviors (September, 2022 | The Animal Nerd), the process of evaluating dogs as adoptable or as part of their welfare and handling is much complicated.

There is a fundamental problem with testing dogs in a shelter.  The majority of tests were developed for the purpose of determining if certain dogs were suitable for work, such as assistance, police work or hunting.[i]  This not only limited the environment in which the dogs were tested to one in which they were familiar and comfortable, with people they knew, it limited the testing to certain breeds and ages.  However, shelters are a completely foreign and highly stressful environment, full of strange humans and dogs.    Some research has concluded that in-shelter tests only determine how the dog is reacting to its current unfamiliar and possibly frightening situation,[ii] and cannot predict how they will act under normal conditions in a home.[iii] Although, additional research has indicated that testing may predict how dogs will react to conditions in the shelter – which may be useful for shelter staff.[iv]  However, the high rate of inaccurate results found in in-shelter testing is leading to dogs being incorrectly assessed as aggressive, which is an impediment to their adoption and can lead to unnecessary euthanasia; or it can lead to highly reactive dogs being placed in adoptive homes.[v]

In addition, there is very little scientific rigor associated with the work that has been done on temperament testing.  The majority of tests have very little follow-up, and the few that do have a high level of disagreement between the in-shelter testing and the reporting from adoptive owners. Also, there is no standardization among the tests being performed,[vi] to the point that there is often no correlation or agreement as to what traits are being tested.[vii]  It is extremely difficult to assess whether any of the temperament testing methods used by shelters are of any value, simply because there is no standardization of test conditions, terminology and, most of all, the meaning of the behaviors being observed.[viii]

The ASPCA has determined that there is no conclusive evidence that temperament testing is useful in assessing dogs’ behavioral traits or in helping to move dogs from a shelter into a compatible home and may erroneously identify aggressive tendencies in tested dogs.  Their position is that testing should be just one of many tools used to aid shelters in handling dogs and determine the dogs’ eligibility for adoption.[ix]  This position is borne out by the available research, which has generally recommended against reliance on in-shelter testing.

There is some consensus among researchers that the best indicator of post-adoption behavior is to obtain a detailed history from the persons surrendering their dog[x].  However, some researchers caution against taking this history in a face-to-face interview, as this places pressure on the surrendering owners to be less than candid, either due to perceived social pressure or to try and improve their dogs’ chances of adoption.  The recommended method of taking a history is through a detailed questionnaire, two of which have been assessed as having a high degree of reliability:  A modified version of the C-BARQ personality assessment[xi] and the Match-Up II test developed by the Animal Rescue League of Boston.[xii]

When the surrendering person is unwilling to provide a history; or if the dog is taken to the shelter by animal control or transferred from another shelter without much accompanying information, the most accurate means of determining the dogs’ in-shelter behavior is to have multiple persons perform an assessment at various stages of intake, to include the Animal Control Officer, the shelter veterinarian and qualified shelter staff.  These assessments should use a consistent process and criteria.[xiii]  Although this methodology does little to predict dogs’ behavior in adoptive homes, it does aid in their handling and welfare while housed in the shelter.

Testing a dog for food guarding, using a fake human hand. (The Science Dog (2013)

Although the research on behavioral testing is generally inconclusive, there are indications that shelters can eliminate or modify certain commonly-tested items.   Researchers have found that food-guarding in shelters does not indicate that it will occur in adoptive homes,[xiv] or that an absence of food-guarding in a shelter means that the dog will not develop that behavior after adoption.[xv]  One study determined that discontinuing testing for food-guarding had no impact on the safety of shelter personnel and did not increase the rate of dogs returned to the shelter.[xvi]

Observing a dog’s reaction to other dogs under controlled conditions, is a more effective method of assessing their sociability with other dogs than the use of a training dummy.

Additionally, it seems that the use of dummies and dolls to simulate human children and other dogs, is of very limited value in assessing a shelter dog’s propensity for aggression.  Dogs are generally not fooled into thinking that dolls are real dogs or children and may simply react to them as plush toys.  And dummy dogs do not provide the body language and feedback that is an essential component of in-species communication.[xvii]  However, even though the use of dolls and dummy dogs is not useful in detecting aggressive behavior, it may aid in assessing dogs for anxiety or fear of novel and unfamiliar objects.[xviii]

Lastly, a recent study of dogs’ behavioral characteristics vis-à-vis their genetic makeup indicates that a dogs’ breed, or perceived breed, is not a factor in whether a dog is prone to aggressive or fearful behaviors.[xix]  This would indicate that dogs should not be considered to be more prone to bite, or ineligible for adoption, based on their breed.[xx]

Summing it up:  Behavioral evaluations are one tool among many in determining whether a dog is a good candidate for adoption and in helping shelter personnel care for them.  However, the shelter environment is not a good environment for performing these tests, which leads to highly inaccurate results.  In many cases, the tests consist of trying to provoke a highly stressed dog into displaying some kind of aggressive behavior.  The best way to assess a dog’s propensity for fearful, guarding or otherwise aggressive behavior is to take a detailed history on intake.   If this information cannot be obtained, then shelters should implement a standard assessment form for use by multiple persons during intake, veterinary exam and subsequent handling by shelter staff.  Lastly, current research indicates that certain items that have been included in behavioral assessments (the use of dummies to simulate children and other dogs, and tests for food-guarding) have been highly inaccurate and should be discontinued.

[i] Taylor, K. T. & Mills, D. S. (2006). The Development and Assessment of Temperament Tests for Adult Companion Dogs.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 1 (3).  94-108.  doi: 10.1016/j.jveb.2006.09.002

[ii] Kawczynska, C. (September 1, 2020). Should Shelter Dogs Be Subjected to Behavioral Tests?  The Wildest.  Retrieved from Just How Accurate Are Canine Behavioral Assessments? · The Wildest

[iii] Patronek, G. & Bradley, J. (2016).  No Better Than Flipping a Coin:  Reconsidering Canine Behavior Evalations  in Animal Shelters.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 15 (2016).  66-77. doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2016.08.001

[iv] Haverbeke, A., Pluijmakers, J. & Diederich, C. (2014). Behavioral Evaluations of Shelter Dogs:  Literature Review, Perspectives and Follow-up with European Member States’ Legislation with Emphasis on the Belgian Situation.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior 10 (2015). 5-11.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2014.007.004

[v] Christensen, E., Scarlett, J., Campagna, M. & Houpt, K. A. (2006).  Aggressive Behavior in Adopted Dogs that Passed a Temperament Test.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 106 (2007), 85-95. doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2006.07.002

[vi] Diederich, C. and Giffroy, J. (2006). Behavioural Testing in Dogs:  A Review of Methodology in Search of Standardization,  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2006), 51-72.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2005.11.018

[vii] Patronek, G. J., Bradley, J. & Arps, E. (2019). What is the Evidence for Reliability and Validity of Behavior Evaluations for Shelter Dogs?  A Prequel to “No Better than Flipping a Coin”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 31 (2019).  43-58.  doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2019.003.001

[viii] Diederich, C. and Giffroy, J. (2006). Behavioural Testing in Dogs:  A Review of Methodology in Search of Standardization,  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 97 (2006), 51-72.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2005.11.018

[ix] ASPCA (nd). Position Statement on Shelter Dog Behavior Assessments.  Retrieved from https://www.aspca.org/about-us/aspca-policy-and-position-statements/position-statement-shelter-dog-behavior-assessments

[x] Segurson, S. A., Serpell, J. A., & Hart, B. L. (2005),  Evaluation of a behavioral assessment questionnaire for use in the characterization of behavioral problems of dogs relinquished to animal shelters.  Journal of the American Veterinary Association 227 (11).  doi:  10.2460.javma.2005.227.1755

[xi] Duffy, D. L., Kruger, K. A. & Serpell, J. A. (2014).  Evaluation of a Behavioral Assessment Tool for Dogs Relinquished to Shelters.  Preventive Veterinary Medicine 117 (2014).  601-609.  doi:  10.1016/j.prevetmed.2014.10.003

[xii] Dowling-Guyer, S., Marder, A. & D’Arpino, S. (2010).  Behavioral Traits Detected in Shelter Dogs by a Behavior Evaluation.   Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 130 (2011), 107-114.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2010.12.004

[xiii] Menchetti, L., Righi, C., Geulfi, G., Enas, C., Moscati, L., Mancini, S. & Diverio, S. (2019). Multi-Operator Qualitative Behavioural Assessment for Dogs Entering the Shelter.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 213 (2019).  107-116.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.02.008

[xiv] McGuire, B.  (2019).  Characteristics and Adoption Success of Shelter Dogs Assessed as Resource Guarders.  Animals 2019 9 (82). doi:10.3390/ani9110982

[xv] Marder, A. R., Shabelansku, A., Patronek, G. J., Dowling-Guyer, S. & D’Arpino S. S. (2013).  Food-Related Aggression in Shelter Dogs:  A Comparison of Behavior Identified by a Behavior Evaluation in the Shelter and Owner Reports After Adoption.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 148 (2103).  150-156.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2013.07.007

[xvi] Mohan-Gibbons, H., Dolan, E. D., Reid, P., Slater, M. R., Mulligan, H. & Weiss, E.  (2017).  The Impact of Excluding Food Guarding from a Standardized Behavioral Canine Assessment in Animal Shelters.  Animals 8 (27).  doi:  10.3390/ani8020027

[xvii] Shabelansky, A., Dowling-Guyer, S., Quist, H., D’Arpino, S. S. & McCobb, E. (2014).  Consistency of Shelter Dog’s Behavior Toward a Fake Versus Real Stimulus Dog During a Behavior Evaluation.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 63 (2015).  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2014.12.001

[xviii] Barnard, S., Siracusa, C., Reisner, I., Valsecchi, P. & Serpell, J. (2012).  Validity of Model Devices used to Access Canine Temperament in Behavioral Tests.  Journal of Applied Animal Behavior Science 138 (2012).  79-87.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2012.02.017

[xix] Morrill, K. et al (2022).  Ancestry-Inclusive Genomics Challenges Popular Breed Stereotypes.  Science 376 (6592).  doi:  10.1126/science/abk0639

[xx] Bollen, K. S. & Horowitz, J. (2007).  Behavioural Evaluation and Demographic Information in the Assessment of Aggressiveness in Shelter Dogs.  Journal of Applied Animal Behaviour Science 112 (2008), 120-135.  doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.07.007

 

Behavior Modification for Shelter Dogs

As a Canine Behavior Consultant, I encounter a lot of obstacles in developing and implementing behavior modification plans for dogs that are housed in shelters and rescues.  When I’m working with an individual in a home environment, I can develop a detailed plan with a schedule, incremental steps, instructions for consistently tracking the problem behavior(s), etc., all of which contribute to tracking the dog’s (and the owners’) progress.  However, a shelter is a completely different environment with a combination of busy staff and volunteers:  The dogs are under constant noise and stress, the staff generally works in shifts, the volunteers are dedicated, but are on sight inconsistently and have varying levels of expertise.  All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult to implement a consistent plan or track results.

In the past, I’ve posted articles about the shelter dogs that I’ve worked with on an individual basis[i], and how I have involved shelter personnel in these treatments[ii], but these single cases are far outnumbered by the dogs with mild-to-moderate behavioral problems that we routinely encounter.  I’ve been looking for a way to have more people involved in helping dogs by reducing their anxiety or reduce the issues that are getting in the way of adoption.

A few months ago, I found an article in the IAABC Journal describing a program that the Singapore SPCA had implemented to help volunteers train and rehabilitate shelter dogs.[iii]    This program is very impressive; it provides volunteers with training and forms them into teams to work with individual dogs by targeting specific behaviors with low level training and games.  Although my shelter lacks the resources to put together a program as comprehensive as the one described in the article (like every other shelter, we are emerging from the pandemic with a reduced volunteer cadre and are working hard to rebuild this vital component of shelter operations) it seemed to me that we could implement something on a smaller scale for our “problem” dogs.

Recognizing that there was no way I could implement a formal behavior modification program, I began experimenting with ways to draft plans that:

  • Identify dogs with specific behavior problems that interfere with successful adoption.
  • List specific games or training steps intended to address those behaviors.
  • Provide detailed instructions on how to implement those games or training elements.
  • Provide some form of feedback on the effectiveness of these steps.

Teaching a correct “heal” as a means to encourage the dog to stop pulling when on leash

My goal is to include relatively inexperienced people with a set of consistent steps towards resolving our dogs’ behavior issues, that can be easily implemented.  In the case of our shelter, this is aided by having a formal training program for volunteers and having the volunteers organized in grades according to their level of experience and training.  The dogs are also placed in corresponding groups, according to their assessed difficulty of handling (volunteers are not allowed to handle dogs with bite histories or indications of aggression).  This assessment is based on their behavior during quarantine and upon the histories that are provided during intake into the shelter.  The challenge is to identify helpful activities that an inexperienced person can implement during a walk or play session. 

 The program we’ve established follows these steps:

  • An individual dog’s behavior issues are identified, along with the events that trigger the behavior(s) (antecedents) and the events that typically follow it (cons
  • equences).  This is typically anecdotal reporting from shelter staff and volunteers.
  • The shelter behavior team performs an assessment of the dog’s behavior, verifying and baselining those reports. Once the behavior is baselined for severity and its triggering events are identified, the behavior team confers and develops a set of games or training activities for the staff and volunteers to use when handling the dog.
  • The behavior staff also drafts clear instructions on implementing these treatments, the use of reinforcers, etc., for staff and volunteers to follow during walks, play time or other opportunities to implement the treatment plans.
  • These activities and instructions are published in an online chat forum used by shelter personnel. Paper copies are posted in the cubby holes used to store the individual dogs’ leash and harness.
  • Staff and volunteers provide feedback via the chat forum.
  • The behavior team performs reassessments on a regular basis.

Formal metrics are not being kept at this time, due to the varied personnel who are implementing the behavior management activities and our current inability to regularly schedule treatment sessions.  Hopefully, as more volunteers go through the shelter’s onboarding and training process, we will be able to migrate to a more formal behavior modification program for dogs with serious issues.

I’d appreciate feedback from any other shelters that have implemented low-level behavior modification programs using volunteers.  It would be great to compare notes.

 

[i] Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Toby | The Animal Nerd

[iii] One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs | The IAABC JOURNAL

Mouthy Shelter Dog

I’ve been working with a pit mix named Sonny who likes to use his mouth too much.  He’s a large young mail dog, who was intact when he was transported in from another shelter.  He’s a handsome boy, with a cinnamon-colored coat and a big head, with a few scars on it – apparently bite marks from other dogs.  When he arrived, the shelter staff and volunteers noted that he had a habit of putting his mouth around peoples’ hands and arms and gently holding them without applying pressure.  A lot of people considered this to be endearing and a sign of affection.

However, in recent weeks, this behavior has escalated.  Now, when people enter Sonny’s run, he actively grabs at their hands and clothes.  No one has been bitten yet, but he is progressively applying more bite pressure and, the fact is, he has a mouth like a hippo.  I am a big guy, and he can wrap his mouth completely around my forearm.   In recent visits with him, I found that he becomes very excited and mouthy when I take him out of his run, to the point that it is very difficult to harness him and attach the leash – he grabs any hand that comes near him.  Naturally, this is an impediment to getting him adopted – and he is an otherwise friendly and gentle boy.

I theorized that there are two factors contributing to this behavior:  First off, the shelter personnel are bribing him with treats whenever he gets grabby, just to do their essential care-taking jobs of cleaning, feeding and socializing him.  This has the effect of reinforcing his mouthiness.  Secondly, he becomes very excited when being handled, and responds to that with him mouth.  I also noticed that he ramps up his excitement level very quickly in response to minimum stimulus.  His grabbing behavior can be triggered simply by a human handler reaching out towards him.  So, he has a pre-existing tendency to use his mouth when interacting with humans which has been reinforced by shelter personnel rewarding that behavior.  This problem behavior becomes more pronounced when he is in a state of excitement.

Although we try to make the shelter as positive and pleasant as possible for our animals, it is still a very stressful place to be a dog.  They are bombarded by unfamiliar sounds, scents, excited dogs, strange humans who stand and stare at them, and a constant stream of other stimuli that keep them on edge.  Sonny is no exception.  He seems to be in a constant state of tension and arousal, which puts him over his behavioral threshold whenever he is being visited or handled by shelter staff – and which seems to be eroding his bite inhibition.

In an earlier post, I discussed Aggie, another pit-mix with a mouthiness problem.  We addressed her issue by providing her with safe objects to grab and mouth, with no human interaction – thereby removing the reinforcement of that behavior.  After just a few days, the problem behavior lessened dramatically Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd.  In Sonny’s case, this treatment wasn’t an option.  He wasn’t seeking an outlet for stress, he was seeking human contact by an inappropriate means – his mouth.  Sonny was attempting to reach out and touch people, but his over-excited state was getting in the way.  He had no inclination to grab anything but people.

I tried a two-fold approach with Sonny:  First, I instituted a tug-o-war game to his exercise.  I got him a stiff, knotted rope toy, and enticed him to grab and hold it, while I tugged on the other end.  He caught on quickly and began playing.  I began offering him the tug toy and playing with him when first entering his run and harnessing him up.

He was content to calmly watch other dogs and people.

I also added a gentle voice correction and a negative reinforcement when he tried to grab my hands.  I responded to his attempts with a sharp “Eh!”, stopped interacting with him and put my hands behind my back.  If he persisted, I would stand, cross my arms and turn my back for a few moments.  This, coupled with offering him an alternative (the tug toy) allowed me to put on his harness and leash.  (Note:  In general, I do not encourage people to correct shelter dogs’ problem behaviors.  Not only can this have the wrong effect on fearful dogs, it can also add to the overall stress they feel just by being in a shelter.   However, after getting to know Sonny, I felt that he was not fearful of people and would accept a correction, if it was followed with positive reinforcement of the appropriate behavior – in this case, redirecting to a tug toy.)

Secondly, I drastically reduced the excitement level of our time together.  Instead of taking him to a play area full of toys, I took him on a walk and let him set the pace and destinations.  I let him sniff anything that he wanted to, examine anything that was safe, and let him decide what was interesting to him.  Then I found a quiet, shady spot and sat down with a paperback book, keeping a good hold on his leash but otherwise ignoring him.

After a few minutes, I felt him lay down on my feet.  He was relaxed, soft-eyed, and simply taking in the sights, sounds and smells around us.  After a few minutes, I reached down and touched him on the side of his face, and his only reaction was to lean in for a pet.  After a while, other people and other dogs came into view, and his only reaction was to be interested in watching them.  When I brought him back to his run after an hour, he was calm and relaxed.  He became somewhat aroused and mouthy when I was removing his harness, however I attribute that to the treats that his handlers had been bribing him with during this process.   In the picture, there are several people and dogs out of frame, but he was maintaining a calm and interested demeanor, well within his ability to control his reactions.

All in all, I’m pretty sure that Sonny doesn’t need any formal desensitization to reduce his biting behavior.  Instead, he needs to have his overall stress level reduced and have calmer interactions with people.   Coupled with differential reinforcement – in this case, encouraging him to interact with people by playing tug with an approved toy, we should be able to reduce his problematic mouthiness.  I recommended that his handlers reduce the number of treats offered while handling him, reduce his playtime for a while, and concentrate on quiet walks and quiet sessions outdoors.    We need to help him find his “off switch” so that he can calmly interact with potential adopters and cope with the stressors he encounters.

Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties

In recent months, I’ve been seeing a lot of dogs come into the shelter with extreme anxiety and symptoms of neophobia.  These dogs have been fearful of new people, new places and new experiences to the point that they will not willingly leave their runs to go for walks with volunteers.  The dogs have each been completely shut down and either actively or passively avoiding contact with every human that cares for them or walks by.  I’ve had cases of dogs that were extremely reluctant to leave their kennels, avoiding contact with new people, or refusing to go for any distance on walks and constantly trying to return to their “safe space” inside the shelter.

There is no consistent background for these dogs.  Some of these dogs were surrendered and some were transported from other shelters, and their histories are often incomplete.  That said, I must wonder whether this is related to the pandemic:  they had limited experiences, socialization and contact with people because their owners were pretty much housebound.  In any case, they’re here now and we have to help them get past their stress and anxiety.  And it is incumbent on us to do accomplish in a way that reduces their overall stress and increases their interactions with potential adopters.

There are a couple of techniques that I’ve developed that help dogs overcome these behavioral issues.  The basic thought behind them is to give the dogs time to work through their anxieties and become accustomed to their surroundings and to strange humans.  Give them a chance to solve their own problems without forcing them to perform any specific tasks.

First off:  When a dog is nervous about meeting new people, don’t force the issue or insist on leashing/harnessing him up in your first meeting.  When I am working with a dog for the first time, I don’t enter his run right away.  Instead, I spend a little time outside his run, turned sideways to him and not engaging.  Having some reading material helps.  When I enter the run, I stay turned sideways to him and kneel to reduce my apparent size.  If he doesn’t approach, I don’t force the issue; I just scatter some treats and ignore him for five or ten minutes, then leave.  I then wait an hour or so before returning and then repeat the process I outlined above.  Eventually, he’ll become more confident and start approaching for pets and more treats.  When he accepts contact, pet him briefly on his chest and the side of his neck and then pause with your hand nearby to see if he initiates more contact (consent signal).  Let him get as close as he wants.

The dogs in the above pictures (Jack and Yoda) are showing signs of being anxious upon our first meeting.   Note that they retreated to the rear of their respective kennels, and laid down with stiff postures, ready to run away from me.  Please also note the tightness of their mouths and around their eyes.  In both cases I scattered high value treats in the space between them and me, and did not attempt to force contact.  The picture on the above right was taken on a second visit with Jack, when he was a little more comfortable with my presence and was taking treats from my hand and accepted petting.  After I paused petting, he nosed my hand, seeking more contact.

When he is comfortable with you petting him with both hands at the same time, you can try putting on a leash and harness.  Take it slowly, as this involves a lot of contact and handling.  You may find that, at first, simply putting the harness over his head without fastening is all that he can tolerate.  Watch his eyes and facial expression to gauge his level of stress and discomfort (ref); stop and remove the harness when you think he’s had enough.   Eventually, he’ll allow you to snap the harness in place.   Note:  For dogs with a high degree of anxiety, I always clip the leash to the front ring of the harness as well as to the Martingale collar.  The harness and collar are only as strong as their plastic clips, which can break, and you don’t want to risk him panicking and bolting.  By using the leash and harness, you can retain control of the dog even if one of them breaks.

 

You might find that the anxious dog is unwilling to leave his run after being leashed.  In my experience this is pretty common:  The corridor is full of unfamiliar smells, noises, other dogs, strange people, etc., and once the dog learns that his kennel is a safe space, he may be very reluctant to leave it.  I never force the dog to leave the run.  Instead, I prop the door open and sit just inside it, facing in any direction except towards the dog.  I scatter some treats around and outside the door and wait for him to muster enough courage to leave the run in order to reach the furthest treats.  Be patient, this can take multiple attempts.  They key is to not put any pressure on the dog and let him decide when he’s ready.

Once you’re outside with the dog, you might find that he is very fearful and wants to go back inside.  When this happens do not force him to go in any particular direction but don’t go back inside right away.  Just sit with him for a while and relax.  After a few minutes he’ll start to notice new sounds and smells and will probably start sniffing around and taking in his surroundings.  This provides some enrichment and helps him to get familiar with the area outside.  Keep an eye on his posture and expression and watch to see if he begins to relax.  When he begins to investigate his surroundings, look at his eyes, ears, posture and tail position to see how he enjoys it.  When he starts to relax, move a little further away from the entrance door and give him the option of joining you.  In my experience, he will eventually want to relieve himself and leave scent marks, which will allow you to take him further away from the building.  By degrees, you can increase his distance and time outdoors.  Again, let him get comfortable with being outdoors before moving further along.  In an earlier post, I gave a pretty good example of desensitizing a dog that was fearful of being outdoors (Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd).  In the picture to the right, you’ll see Yoda is anxious and stressed by being outdoors, but is slowly becoming engaged in his surroundings.

If he’s willing to walk with you for some distance away from the building, you might find that he suddenly stops and refuses to move in any direction except back the way you came.  If you think that you can go further without causing him serious distress, there is an easy way to get him to continue the walk.  Holding the leash In your right hand, approach his right side while taking up the slack in the leash with your left hand (just shorten the leash without pulling it tight).  When your left leg is alongside his right shoulder, make a turn to your left across the front of his body, so that you are guiding him in a tight turn.  Once he’s started turning, walk in any direction that you choose.  You may have to repeat this a few times.   Never try to force him to go in any direction, just make it easy for him to accompany you.

The point of all this is to help the dog to become habituated to new people and new surroundings without increasing his stress and anxiety.  You want to make meeting people and going on walks as routine as possible for him.   Once he’s relaxed in your company and you have established a trust relationship with him, you can introduce positive training and some playing.

 

Toby

Now that I’ve finished working with Jack Final Update on Jack | The Animal Nerd, I’ve begun handling a new dog at the shelter.  Toby is a large, handsome, one-eyed (his injured eye was recently removed) mixed breed with a number of behavioral issues that need to be addressed.

Prior to my meeting him, all I knew about him was that he had shown a distinct tendency to grab and bite his leash, and that he was inclined to treat handlers’ clothing as a tug toy.  So when I started working with him, I took him outside for quiet walks (no excitement or play) with an appropriate tug toy for him to grab and carry.  I limited the time that I held onto the tug, or that I engaged in play with it, to control his excitement level.  He began each session acting like a tornado, almost impossible to harness, pulling on the leash and grabbing at me, but the treatment worked and he calmed down after a while.

When he calmed down and we sat for a while, I noted that he was actually very insecure.   When we found a bench in a quiet area, he sat with his back to me and pressed up against my leg for security, while watching everything that went on around him.  He was showing signs of being a little apprehensive, but had it under control.

He began sitting with his back to me, pressed against my leg for security.

 

It became clear that his problem behaviors were not “learned” but was a reaction to the stressors of being in the shelter, being handled by strangers and (probably) the changes in his vision.  It also became plain that he likes people and readily affiliates with new handlers.   This made his treatment very easy.  In our next session, upon entering his run I spent ten minutes just being quiet, friendly and positive with him, kneeling down close to his eye line; when he began to ramp up, I added calm pets and body rubs, then quietly worked on straightening out his twisted Freedom Harness.  By the time I was done, he was sitting quietly, ready to go.  His walk went much more smoothly with no leash biting or grabbing, and he interacted with me in a normal way.

Volunteers and handlers have reported that he is doing much better with this approach and is becoming more relaxed in general.  I think this is a positive outcome and that he’s ready for adoption.

 

My New Project Dog

My latest “project” dog is a small mixed, breed named Jack – I’m guessing that he’s a chihuahua/border collie cross.  I’ve had one session with him so far, consisting of two thirty-minute visits with a one-hour break in between.  Jack is neutered and it about 18 months old.  He came to us from another shelter with very little information.

After a little while, he was able to lie down in the furthest corner, but was tense and ready to bolt if I approached any nearer.

When I entered his run, Jack fled to the back corner and gave me a warning growl along with some other distancing signals[i].  He was extremely stressed and alternated between pacing and being frozen in place.  I responded by turning 90 degrees to him and sitting down, making myself as small as possible.  I didn’t initially engage with him or speak to him, but simply relaxed and gave a few calming signals (yawns, deep sighs)[ii].  After about five minutes, he relaxed enough to lie down in the far corner.

He eventually accepted light petting on his chin, neck and chest, and began giving small consent signs for further contact.

At this point, I tossed some high value treats in his direction.  He sniffed, sampled and left them on the floor.  I got a little closer, within arm’s reach, while staying in a seated posture facing away from him.  He allowed me to touch his chin, throat and chest, and accepted petting.  After a few times, he gave small consent signs when I paused, eliciting more contact.  However, he still startled and retreated every time I moved.  At that point I considered that I had made enough contact and ended the session.

When I returned an hour later, I found that he had eaten the high value treats that I had left scattered in the run.  I entered and sat down as I had before, whereupon he approached and started sniffing my clothes and shoes.  He began taking treats from my hand and ate them immediately.  He was less inclined to accept petting and would retreat when touched, but immediately returned for more treats.  At this point, I began interacting with him by speaking in a light, positive fashion and looking directly at him.  I showed him a leash and Easy-walk harness, which I placed over his head without attempting to fasten it.  He responded by freezing in place, at which time I removed the harness and put it out of sight.  By the time I ended the session, he was approaching within a few inches of me and accepting treats from my open hand but would still startle and retreat when I moved.

At this point, Jack is less afraid of me but is not comfortable with my presence.  He’s begun to associate me with high-value treats but hasn’t progressed much further in socializing with me or with men in general.  I can touch him, but I am nowhere near being able to put a harness on him without overstressing him.

My treatment plan is to continue to treat-bomb him and gradually increase my interaction with him to the point that I can touch him with two hands at the same time (a necessary step to harnessing).  Then I’ll reintroduce the harness while giving him treats.  At that point, I’ll introduce more postures, such as standing, before taking him for walks and seeing how he interacts with outside stimuli.

[i] https://pethelpful.com/dogs/-Distance-Increasing-and-Distance-Decreasing-Signals-in-Dogs

[ii] Rugaas, T. (2006).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise

Trigger Stacking – How to keep your dog from getting overwhelmed and overloaded.

You probably already know what trigger stacking is.  If you’ve ever seen a small child have a melt-down at an event or a party, or seen a co-worker go ballistic over a seemingly small incident, you’ve already seen and understood what it is.  Trigger stacking is the cumulative stress and excitement that results from a consecutive series of events[i].  It becomes a problem when that person’s accumulated stress reaches a level at which he is overloaded and goes ballistic.

The same thing happens with dogs.  Like us, they encounter a certain amount of stress in the course of their day and probably get excited about a few things, and their level of general arousal builds. Then, probably at the most inconvenient time, they encounter that “one last straw”, their excitement level exceeds their behavioral threshold, and they lose all self-control.  This doesn’t have to be the result of adverse or negative experiences; their overall arousal level can just as likely result from a series of very positive experiences. This has been touched on in previous posts on problem behaviors (Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd  ), and their causes.

For example, I worked with a shelter dog recently who had a very difficult time with triggers getting stacked. “Cal” is a people-friendly pit mix who had a tendency to become over-excited when being handled by volunteers or staff.  When he became so aroused that he went over his behavioral threshold he would start frantically trying to grab and tug anything that the volunteer was wearing, including shoelaces, pants cuffs, gloves, sleeves, hoodie drawstrings, etc.   Simply standing up and not responding didn’t work, as he would keep grabbing anything on the handler was wearing.  Walking him was not possible, as he would continually grab for the leash or his handler.  I should note that there was nothing aggressive or fearful in his behavior, he was just excited past his ability to interact with this handler and listen to commands.  However, there was legitimate concern that this tendency to go over the top would result in him losing his bite inhibition.  And, even if it didn’t escalate further, this over-excited behavior was a potential hindrance to getting him adopted.

So, why was this happening to a friendly and playful dog?  Consider his environment:  He was in a shelter – an environment filled with unfamilia

r and stressed-out dogs, unfamiliar smells and sounds, strange people, etc.  Strange humans would approach him and stare at him from outside the door and windows of his run.  Often, when the shelter staff entered his run, it was to give him food.  And handlers would often give him treats to occupy him while he was being harnessed and leashed up.  So, he was constantly in a stressed and excited state; when a handler entered his run to take him for a walk or play session, that would be the final trigger that sent him over his behavioral threshold.  So, what to do?

Cal and his therapy tug toy.  By giving him an approved outlet, he could control his mouthy impulses.

First, I recognized that I couldn’t do much about his baseline stress level from simply being in a shelter environment.  So, I concentrated on reducing the stimuli that accompanied being taken out of his run.  I began by making sure that I had his harness ready to go before I even started, so that I wouldn’t be fiddling with it while in the run with him.  Upon entering the run, I didn’t face him directly or remain standing – I turned sideways and knelt down.  I gave him a durable tug toy to mouth and shake – satisfying his grabbing impulse and giving him an appropriate alternative to a handler’s clothing.  Lastly, throughout this interaction I moved slowly and I did not use any treats or use excited “baby talk”.  I petted him on his sides, chest and under his chin, and spoke to him in a calm and friendly tone.  By doing all this, I was able to help him manage his excitement level:  He accepted the tug toy and acted in a friendly and excited manner – accepting pets and signaling that he wanted more contact.  He was still excited, and was practically vibrating like a guitar string, but he never went over his behavioral threshold.  Harnessing him and leashing him up was much easier and, by allowing him to carry the toy during a walk provided an outlet for his impulse to grab and tug.  After a while he began dropping the toy in order to investigate smells and relieve himself, then coming back and reclaiming it with decreasing excitement during the course of the walk.  When the shelter volunteers adopted this treatment, he was able to control himself while being handled.

 

Cal was just one example that illustrates how we can reduce the triggers that can accumulate and lead an already-excited dog to lose control of himself.

First:  Be mindful of the dog’s stress and excitement level.  Before any interaction with him, watch his body language for signs that he is stressed[ii].  Get an idea as to how much more excitement he can handle.

Second:  Check your own emotional state.  Are you calm, relaxed and operating in the moment, or are you focused on aggravations and frustrations that you’ve encountered during the day?  If so, you are contributing to his stress level.  Dogs use us for social referencing and will read your expressions and body language to determine your mood and respond to it[iii].  If you’re acting angry or stressed, he will be on edge as well.

Third:  There’s no hurry.  Take your time when you’re interacting with an excited dog.

Fourth:  Be mindful of your own body language.  Don’t engage in a staring contest, approach him directly or bend over him.  Stand, sit or kneel sideways to him at first without looking in his eyes.  Don’t reach over him when leashing or harnessing him.

Fourth:  Be mindful of his body language.  He will give you signals as to how you are making him feel.  If he starts giving calming signals such as yawning, lip-licking, etc., then stop what you’re doing.  You’re freaking him out.  Let him decide when to approach you[iv]

Fifth:  Don’t add any stimuli that aren’t necessary.  Don’t act excitedly, give treats or give commands that aren’t needed.   Don’t prompt him for behaviors that he has been given rewards for performing.  Just let him calm himself down.

Lastly:  Monitor his behavior the whole time that you’re working with him.  If you are walking him and he stops, freezes and focuses on a person or another dog, then calmly walk in front of him, block that distraction with your body and take him in another direction.  Make his time with your interesting and provide enrichment that let him bring down his excitement level.

Once he’s calm and relaxed, you can start adding toys and playtime, or engage in some training.  But sometimes, the best thing you can for a dog is to just relax with him and help him to bring down his stress level[v].

 

[i] McMullen, D. (nd). “He Never Does That.  Positively.  Retrieved from “He Never Does That!” | Victoria Stilwell Positively

[ii] Center for Shelter Dogs.  (nd). Dog Communication and Body Language.  Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine.  Retrieved from https://centerforshelterdogs.tufts.edu/dog-behavior/dog-communication-and-body-language/

[iii] Merola, I. et al, (2012).  Dog’s Social Referencing Towards Owners and Strangers.  PLoS One 7 (10). doi:  10.1371/journal.pone.0047653

[iv] Rugaas.T.  (2006).  On Talking Terms with Dogs:  Calming Signals, 2nd Ed.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

[v] McGowan, R.T.S. et al (2018). Can You Spare 15 Minutes?  The Measurable Positive Impact of a 15-Minute Petting Session on Shelter Dog Well-Being.  Applied Animal Behavior Science 203 (2018).  42-54