Breed and Behavior

Photo courtesy of PetPlace.com

In Dangerous Deeds, residents are divided by a proposed ordinance to ban what some consider “dangerous dogs” in the county. Those in favor of the ordinance believe some breeds can never be trusted, while others disagree and refuse to endorse the proposal. When asked her opinion, dog trainer and owner of Waterside Kennels Maggie Porter has this to say:

“Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s only breeds on somebody’s banned list that can be dangerous. Any dog that’s not properly trained or supervised or exercised regularly is capable of harming others. The answer isn’t a ban. The answer lies in better training for dogs and education for everyone in the community.”

Maggie’s stance on Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) is similar to the positions held by the American Kennel Club and the American Veterinary Medical Association. The AVMA’s published position statement argues that “breed does not predict behavior” and offers a thoughtful and comprehensive review of BSL and offers cogent alternatives.

And while some people think bans are limited to what they consider dangerous breeds, research by groups such as the Responsible Dog Owners of The Western States suggests at least 75 breeds are listed as either banned or restricted. You might be surprised to learn that two of the most popular breeds—the Golden Retriever and the Labrador Retriever—are included on the list. Even more troubling, many bans extend beyond named breeds and instead rely on physical descriptions. Consider this excerpt from the article Why Breed Bans Affect You published by the AKC this year:

Does your dog have almond shaped eyes? A heavy and muscular neck? A tail medium in length that tapers to a point? A smooth and short coat? A broad chest? If you said yes to these questions, then congratulations, you own a “pit bull” …At least according to the City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Animal Care and Control.

The American Kennel Club takes exception to this generalization. In fact, AKC does not recognize the “pit bull” as a specific breed.  However, across the country, ownership of dogs that match these vague physical characteristics are being banned – regardless of their parentage. The City of Kearney, Missouri, for example, only requires a dog to meet five of the eight characteristics on their checklist before they are banned from the city. Would your pug with its broad chest and short coat be in danger of getting banned under these requirements?

Whether you support or oppose breed bans, I hope you’ll agree that responsible ownership can go a long way toward improving the quality of life for people and dogs alike.

Responsibilities evolve over the lifespan of your dog. Check out the AKC’s 75 Ways to Be a Responsible Dog Owner for a comprehensive overview. A great read for anyone new to sharing their life with a dog, and a great reminder for all of us!

Photo courtesy of AVMA.ORG

Dangerous Deeds

One of the most common questions asked of writers: “Where do you get your ideas?”

As a professor and research geek, I love this question. Maybe I’m genetically wired this way; my dad was brilliant with crossword puzzles and my mother excelled in finding creative solutions to vexing problems. That’s as good a reason as any to explain why I’m prone to wonder who and how and why and what if. I might see a headline, visit someplace new, overhear a conversation, sift through photographs, encounter someone unusual, or dream a tall tale—any or all of these  become grist for the proverbial mill. For me, the answer to  “Where do you get your ideas?” changes from one writing project to the next. The idea of breed bans as a plot for Dangerous Deeds (book #2 in my series) started with news headlines.

The Plot Challenge

Breed specific legislation (BSL) has been a controversial issue in many communities, including mine. A nearby town’s efforts to ban pit bulls caused an argument that went on for months. When unleashed dogs attacked cyclists and joggers on roads and trails, elected officials were challenged to reconsider the county ordinance. They struggled to find reasonable common ground, balancing owner’s rights with public safety. Not an easy task! These and similar events prompted me to wonder how the folks in my fictional world would react to a proposed ban.

Search the Internet and you will likely find hundreds of articles and stories and websites focused on this issue. Tempers run hot on both sides of this controversy, and the thought of researching a topic steeped in such graphic violence left me downright queasy. Still, the idea lingered. I spent months searching for credible information about BSL from advocates and opponents alike, trying to figure out how to tackle the issue in a way that wouldn’t offend readers or my own sensibilities. The AKC’s issue analysis of BSL published in 2015 gave me the hook I was looking for. Read on for a glimpse of how the AKC position and citizens’ comments at public hearings inspired the primary plot line of the book.

Excerpts

There’s a scene early in the book where the sheriff warns my protagonist, Maggie Porter, about a sleazy local attorney:

“Simon Tate claims to have a client whose dog was attacked at the county park.  No witnesses, mind you, and no injury to the dog according to the vet. Still, the suit claims negligence on the part of the county, and he’s demanding we outlaw what he calls vicious breeds. He convinced the Quorum Court to hold a public hearing. My gut tells me he’s after a whole lot more than just a county ordinance, but darned if I can figure out his motive here. Gotta say, that worries me some. Seems like whenever Simon Tate profits, somebody loses.”

Fast forward to the public hearing, where Maggie does her best to explain her opposition to breed ban.  She’s blindsided, though, when Simon Tate uses the event to attack her reputation with a barrage of lies and innuendo. Here’s an excerpt from the end of the scene:

“These breeds have a known history of attacking others. Killing machines, that’s what they are, and you let them in your kennel, side by side with beloved family pets.” Turning to face the crowd, he had to shout to be heard. “Until we get the Dangerous Dog Ordinance signed into law, I challenge everyone to take a stand, show your support for our community. Vote with your wallet—boycott any place that puts profit over safety! Don’t take your business to any animal clinic, pet shop, groomer, or kennel that won’t stand up for our pets, our children, our community!”

Simon pointed to Maggie. “We’re going to shut you down.”

***

Maggie soon discovers the boycott is just the start of trouble. When a body is found on her property, suspicion turns to Waterside Kennels where everyone has motive and nobody has an alibi. Can Maggie unravel the web of deceit in time to save herself and everything she loves?

Dangerous Deeds is scheduled for publication this year. Stay tuned!

At the Crossroads (Again) of Fact & Fiction

In a previous post I mentioned the issue of breed-specific legislation is a key part of the plot in  Dangerous Deeds (#2 in the Waterside Kennels mystery series).  In that fictional world, community members take sides over a proposed “dangerous dog” ordinance to ban specific breeds, and the kennel staff is caught in the crossfire. For the record, my protagonist Maggie Porter agrees with the AKC that breed-specific legislation (BLS) is not a viable solution.

In the real world, breed bans and similar dog control measures continue to cause controversy in many communities and countries. The latest  comes from Ireland following the death of a woman attacked by dogs.  (You can read the entire article here.) Whatever your personal opinion of dog control laws might be, we can all benefit by being informed about the issue.

In The Irish Times article, correspondent Tim O’Brien reports increased interest in a review of current legislation concerning control of dogs. He cites Professor Ó Súilleabháin with the National University of Ireland at Galway (NUIG) who notes breed-specific legislation is falling out of favor in some areas of the United States as well as Europe. According to the professor, “This is because there is evidence to show that dog breed is not a factor in what caused dogs to attack.” Summarizing the professor’s remarks, O’Brien writes:

Dr Ó Súilleabháin said there was substantial peer-review research available that showed any type of dog could show aggression. The animal’s behaviour and training were closely connected with the behaviour of their owners.

However, he did not think a law requiring owner and dog training to be undertaken before a dog licence was issued was a good idea. Instead, he called for measures to create a community where dog owners would act responsibly and where those who did not educate themselves and train their dogs would be targeted by enforcement officers.

He said it should be possible for an individual to report a dog behaving aggressively, leading to a visit from a dog warden who could order the owner and animal to undertake education and training. The media had some responsibility in creating misguided calls for a ban on specific breeds, when a dog mauls someone, he added.

Some research suggests that legislation controlling dangerous breeds may actually make the problem worse. If you’re interested in a historical overview of this issue in the UK, check out https://www.bluecross.org.uk/if-looks-couldnt-killHere in the United States, the American Kennel Club published an issue analysis in 2013 and contends BSL is ineffective; you can read that online at: http://www.akc.org/content/news/articles/issue-analysis-breed-specific-legislation/.  And more recently, the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior published a position statement opposing breed-specific legislation. The policy statement includes statistics and evidence from myriad countries, including the United States, Canada, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands. Key points from the position statement:

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB) is concerned about the propensity of various communities’ reliance on breed-specific legislation as a tool to decrease the risk and incidence of dog bites to humans. The AVSAB’s position is that such legislation—often called breed-specific legislation (BSL)−is ineffective, and can lead to a false sense of community safety as well as welfare concerns for dogs identified (often incorrectly) as belonging to specific breeds.

The importance of the reduction of dog bites is critical; however, the AVSAB’s view is that matching pet dogs to appropriate households, adequate early socialization and appropriate  training, and owner and community education are most effective in preventing dog bites. Therefore, the AVSAB does support appropriate legislation regarding dangerous dogs, provided that it is education based and not breed specific.

….

Results of Breed-Specific Legislation Breed-specific legislation can have unintended adverse effects. Owners of a banned breed may avoid veterinary visits and therefore vaccinations (including rabies) to elude seizure of the dog by authorities and/or euthanasia. This negatively impacts both the welfare of dogs and public health. Similarly, owners may forego socializing or training their puppies, which increases the risk of behavior problems, including fear and aggression in adulthood.

….

Aggression is a context dependent behavior and is associated with many different motivations. Most dogs that show aggression do so to eliminate a perceived threat, either to their safety or to the possession of a resource. In other words, most aggression is fear-based.

 

The narrative is well-supported by reasoned evidence and information from nearly 40 sources and concludes with this compelling statement:

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior invites you to share this position statement on breed-specific legislation to discount common fallacies of “easy fixes” that are often based on myths, and instead promote awareness that will reduce the prevalence of aggression toward people and promote better care, understanding, and welfare of our canine companions.

In the book Dangerous Deeds, myths and falsehoods abound. What’s true is that, just as in the real world,  community members’ opinions vary widely on the subject, and the resulting tensions can escalate quickly and may ultimately set the scene for murder.

 

It’s a Dog-Meet-Dog World

I’m editing scenes from Dangerous Deeds in which my protagonist Maggie Porter is leading a Good Dog! class to help owners and their dog prepare for their Canine Good Citizen test. I first wrote those scenes before Sasha came into my life, so I had to rely on information from the AKC, training blogs, and YouTube videos. And while the test items seem relatively simple, achieving consistent results with a dog of my own is a bit more complicated than I envisioned.

Take, for example, test item #8, Reaction to Another Dog. If we take our test indoors, Sasha will (probably) pass this one with flying colors. She’s been close to other dogs in indoor training situations and in retail stores, and she’s been calm and quiet every time. And those of you with Shelties know quiet isn’t common behavior!

But life as we know it isn’t confined to indoor interactions, and many evaluators prefer outdoor venues as shown in the video above. We’ve made progress in reducing Sasha’s over-the-top reaction to leashed dogs but there’s still work to be done. If I see the dog in time I can move us out of the way and put Sasha in a down-stay or a sit-stay until the dog and handler pass by. (Mind you, she usually has something to say, but she tends to mutter rather than bark.)

Our current challenge, though, is the off-leash dog.

Maybe that’s happened to you in the local park, along a trail, or even in your own neighborhood. We’ve been accosted by off-leash dogs on multiple occasions, and most recently just this past week.  We were less than a block from home after enjoying a casual afternoon walk. Two Australian Shepherds bolted through an open garage door and came in low, fast, and silent. If I’d known they were in there I would have crossed the street to give us some distance, but I didn’t see them in time to take evasive action. They ignored their owner’s commands and came straight for us. They’re young, well-muscled, and already bigger and heavier than Sasha. And she most definitely Did. Not. Like. Them.

It didn’t help to hear the owner say “They’re friendly. Just stand still.” Seriously? I have no interest in taking advice from an irresponsible owner. I saw nothing to suggest this was a friendly meet-and-greet, so I backed Sasha up while staring down the dogs. The owner struggled to get handfuls of hair (no collars!) and held them long enough for me to get Sasha safely past them.

In the days since, I’ve worked to reduce Sasha’s renewed hyper reactions around dogs in general and I’ve done my best to keep her away from known trouble spots. Just this morning, though, we came across a dog who was loose in an unfenced yard. Sasha saw him as he headed our way and, predictably, reacted by barking fiercely. The dog’s body language suggested interest but no overt aggression, perhaps because we were in the street and about 20 yards away. I put Sasha in a sit-stay between my legs, held up my hand in the classic “Stop” gesture and said “NO! GO BACK!” The dog halted and immediately turned away when his owner called him. (Excellent recall demonstrated there!) Other than her initial outburst, Sasha sat quietly and, once we moved along, looked to me for approval—which of course she received, along with lavish praise and treats. She looked back just once (a big improvement over previous behavior), tossed out one last bark and then moved on.

If you come across off-leash dogs in your own neighborhood or park, you may find a flexible response strategy to be the most helpful. Consider, for example, these excellent suggestions offered by Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA in her 2015 dogster.com article “What to do when an off-leash dog approaches your leashed dog.”  And you can find more suggestions at VetStreet.com, where dog trainer Mikkel Becker talks tactics in her 2013 article “Managing confrontation with an off-leash dog.

We’ll keep working to build Sasha’s confidence when meeting dogs, whether they’re leashed or loose. Every day brings new encounters with different dogs, and that’s great training for my Canine Good Citizen in training!

cgc badge

 

***

Dangerous Deeds, the second book in the Waterside Kennels mystery series, weaves a tale of mischief and mayhem that sets neighbor against neighbor and disrupts the quiet life Maggie Porter longs for. A major part of the plot revolves around a proposed ‘dangerous’ dog ordinance that’s based on breed-specific legislation (BSL) enacted in hundreds of communities across the country and in multiple countries around the world.

For the record, my protagonist Maggie Porter shares the AKC position that BSL doesn’t work, in part because it fails to address the issue of owner responsibility. Unfortunately, some nefarious community members have targeted Maggie’s opposition to the proposed ordinance to further their own agenda. Their efforts generate ripples of dissent throughout the community, leading to boycotts, threats, and death too close to home.

Dangerous Deeds is on track for publication this year. Stay tuned!

Breeds & Bites

This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week.  As I edit a scene in the forthcoming Dangerous Deeds, I’m reminded that many people assume it’s always the dog’s fault. Even more often, people assume specific types of dogs are aggressors and push to enact breed specific legislation. Like the AKC, my character Maggie Porter will tell you that breed bans don’t address the real issues of owner responsibility and training. (Read the AKC issue analysis here.)

Having been bitten as a small child I can personally testify it’s a scary experience, but in my own case I was the guilty party. I put myself and the dog at risk. Thinking back, I’d agree with dog trainer Victoria Stillwell’s assertion that many dog bites are the result of  “a perfect storm of situation and circumstance and environment.” She reminds us to focus on the behavior, not the breed. Here’s the entire clip, which I found posted to the AKC website:

This fact sheet, courtesy of the AKC, highlights key facts and statistics we should all know:

AKCDL_DogBite_2015_Infogfx650Here are a few links to help make your community a safer place for people and dogs alike:

Some dogs need space: get the facts

Dog bites: 10 risky situations to avoid

The Yellow Ribbon Project: tie a bow against dog bites 

10 risky situations to avoid

Education and awareness, combined with basic common sense, can help prevent dog bites. The scar on my right arm is a daily reminder to respect dogs and take responsibility for your own behavior.

Take the time today to share this information with your family and friends. And remember: focus on behavior, not the breed!