I have a bunch of dogs, and most of them had an imperfect, or downright awful, start in life. I constantly work to give them a good life now. I won’t pretend that any of them are what’s commonly called “well behaved”. Several have atrocious recall, and not a single one of them would pass a Kennel Club ‘Good Citizen’ exam.
This evening I was walking three of my dogs down a country lane. In a field at the roadside were two large mastiffs, loose. Knowing that mine are often dog-reactive, I put in place the counter-conditioning routine that I’ve spent hours, days, weeks and months working on. It doesn’t always work, but it was working today. Just as I was about to reward them for calmly walking past, one of the mastiffs burst through a gap in the fence and attacked my 14kg terrier (see below), dragging him across the tarmac. I tried to hold onto the leads as my strongest dog piled onto the mastiff. The mastiff’s owner dragged it off and commenced to beat it with a whip.
That’s right- he beat it with a whip. As he was doing so, the second mastiff found its way out of the field and attacked the same, smallest, dog I had with me. Luckily I’m a vet, educated in dog behaviour and physically fit, not an old or infirm person strolling along with a teacup chihuahua on a lead or a toddler under my feet.
I see some horrendous dog attack injuries in my job. Fortunately, no blood was even shed on this occasion. I have no issues with the Bull Mastiff as a breed- in fact, I quite like them. But those chunky faces and thick necks are like that because they’re made of solid muscle. These dogs have the physical capacity to kill an adult human, never mind a small dog. However, most of the ones I’ve met have been gentle and docile. It’s like a car parked in the garage- potentially harmful, but only when driven by a moron.
In what world do people think dog aggression is treatable with physical violence? This world, sadly. You don’t see many people carrying a riding whip in public to ‘train’ their dog, but the belief that punishment is an effective solution is widespread. I asked this man why he was whipping his dog, and his reply was: “He has to know he has done wrong”.
Here’s the thing: dogs don’t know the difference between right and wrong. It’s a human construct. They don’t have a moral compass, they don’t have ethics, and they don’t go away and reflect on things. They have behaviour, and they have an ability to learn. And they won’t learn not to attack another dog by being whipped for attacking a dog. They’ll learn that meeting other dogs is scary, painful and threatening. Aggression increases when the threat is increased. Reduce the threat and reduce the risk of an attack. You can train your dog to relax when it sees another dog- you really can! And if it’s too damaged to manage this you can still reduce the risk, take measures to keep other dogs safe, and give it a cracking good life. You don’t ever need to punish it for being a dog.
The near universal cause of dog-on-dog aggression is anxiety, caused by poor socialisation, a bit of genetics and a staggeringly poor understanding of canine behaviour on the part of too many dog owners- setting up a vicious (no pun intended) cycle of fear and learned responses. Owners who love their dogs profoundly, but nevertheless do not understand what makes them tick. Almost no one thinks they’re that person until it’s too late, so if you are struggling alone with an aggressive dog, please ask an APBC-qualified behaviourist for help, or buy a book by someone who has taken the trouble to research actual evidence, not fling out some media-friendly soundbites based on a theory they made up yesterday. Learn about your furry best friends and how to help them be happy. Please.