Monday, April 11, 2011

Breeds, Pit Bulls, Aggression and BSL

A couple of weeks ago a woman in Yarmouth, a town in the province I presently reside in, was mauled by a dog. Badly mauled. So badly that she had to be airlifted to the province’s capital hospital. The dog who did the mauling was, according to media reports, a pit bull type. Often the media jumps to premature conclusions whenever a dog inflicts newsworthy injuries, but it appears that in this incident it was indeed a, what’s broadly understood, pit bull. I say broadly, cause while some dog insiders differentiate between the American Pit Bull Terrier, the American Staffordshire Terrier, the Staffordshire Bull Terrier, and the American Bull Terrier, the general public tends to lump every stocky-built, thick-muscled and block-headed dog into the pit bull category, and in this post for reasons of simplification, I’ll do the same.
As expected, because that always happens when a pit bull attacks, the evolutionary cream of the crop connects da brain cells what to do about that breed in particular, and other dangerous ones in general. Which brings up the question, one I am periodically asked, if there are breeds inherently aggressive and dangerous.
I am professionally involved with dogs since 1995, met and handled many. Name the breed and chances are that I worked with at least a few members of it - fewer rare and tiny ones, but plenty of popular purebreds, mutts and pit bulls. The two humane societies I volunteered for had a mandatory assessment policy for every incoming pit, Rottweiler and German shepherd, exactly because of the perception and hyper-fixation the public has with these dogs. One shelter had several volunteer assessors, for the other one I did most of the temperament evaluations.
A common comment I get from people I meet socially and professionally is that I must get bitten a lot, considering my line of work and all. The answer is no. I am not, actually, mainly because I comprehend and heed dogs’ subtler communication. Only 6 dogs throughout my career drew blood, and none of the bites warranted a trip to the hospital. They were:
1 Pomeranian
2 Lhasa Apsos
1 teacup poodle
1 Australian shepherd
1 Malamute
After some time, I was able to work safely with every dog but the Pomeranian. No, I am not kidding. Of course, I could have overpowered him physically, but that is not my style. Fueling aggression with aggression doesn’t change how the dog feels about life.
Several other dogs are firmly stuck in my memory because they made me feel very uneasy, but either were managed well and didn’t have the chance to bite, or were self-controlled and didn’t follow through when I responded “appropriately” to their warnings, or I was able to redirect with a motivator that was higher valued than biting me. They were:
1 Malinois
1 Tervuren
1 Maremma
1 Shar Pei
1 Wheaten terrier
2 Rottweilers
3 German shepherds
1 Newfoundland dog
1 shepherd/Lab cross
1 shepherd with whatever cross
1 Cocker spaniel
1 golden retriever
2 beagle crosses
1 Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever
1 husky/shepherd cross
2 Border collies
1 Australian shepherd
5 pit bulls
1 Greyhound
1 Tibetan mastiff
1 Akita
After spending some time with the dog, I was comfortable with: one of the Rottis, one of the German shepherds, the Cocker spaniel, the toller, the Aussie, one of the Border collies, the Wheaten, the golden, the Greyhound, the Terv, one of the beagle crosses, two of the pit bulls, the shepherd with whatever cross, and the Akita.
So, quantitatively more iffy shepherds and pits than any other breed, but keep in mind that proportionally I meet many more pit bulls and shepherds than Tibetan mastiffs or Shar Peis.

Let’s turn this around and focus on the opposite. Dogs fascinate me and I enjoy working with all of them, regardless of breed, but sometimes I meet one who stands out and I fall in love with. In love, for me, means that the pooch is so amazing that someone needs to tie my hands or I’d stuff him in my pocket on the way out. Naturally, in love happens a lot with dogs I have an affinity for: the herders, shepherds and giants, but I there are also a few others that breed-wise aren't necessarily my type to own, but individually made such an impression that I wished I could have. Rufus, the pit bull/Chow cross who belongs to a friend; Frosty Boy, the Greyhound right off the tracks we fostered; Jude, the biggest and sweetest Rottweiler-with-a-tail I had the privilege to work with at one of the humane societies, and two pit bulls whose names I forgotten because I met them only once, and that a few years ago.
These two pits were especially sweet and trustworthy, but truth is that most I meet I like a lot, because they are friendly with humans and very gentle; so soft-mouthed that I rarely feel teeth when they take a treat. That, by the way, includes many I assessed at the shelters and I knew were raised by, or at one time lived with, well, let’s call them shady characters.
If that is so, then why do we have a problem big enough that some jurisdictions across North America and parts of Europe already ban them, and many others are contemplating it?
Dogs, especially selectively bred ones, can have genetic, hardwired behavioral traits that are sometimes profound and deep-rooted. For example:
Herding dogs and sight hounds can be motion sensitive and react to anything that moves;
Field dogs hyper-stimulated by the environment and pumped when outside even without additional triggers present;
Small and midsize dogs used to confront or control feisty animals of different species can be quite tenacious;
Scent hounds governed by their schnoz –
And dogs bred for fighting can be hyper-aware of, and reactive to whatever animal they’ve been bred to fight.
Predisposition means genetic propensity. For the behavior to surface it needs the corresponding environment, but even then it doesn’t automatically spell trouble. Breed specific drives are an asset when channeled properly. That’s why people bred dogs in the first place: to establish behavioral characteristics exploitable for human purposes.
The pit bull’s purpose, traditionally, was (and we sadly still have dog fights everywhere in North America) to come out on top when fighting another dog, thereby making his owner a ton of money. The best, the winners, not only live to see another day but also procreate to bring forth more potential winners, much like people breed the best race horses, working Border collies, pointers and so on.
What traits do people want in a fighting dog? Strength, determination, persistence, courage, endurance, lack of inhibition, pain insensitivity, and a willingness to confront, and pit bulls can possess all of those. In addition, because they work with humans and against dogs, they are human-oriented, loyal and highly motivated to please their owner. None of these hardwired behaviors are bad ones, unless the dog ends up with an aggressive human. Then, taking his person's lead, his powerful predispositions can become disastrous to others.
And here comes the really bad news for pit bulls. Because they sport an intimidating exterior and a bad reputation, they are more attractive to human aggressive humans than a lolling retriever is, and that’s why they are in news more often than goldens.

In May, the town where the horrific attack happened plans for a public hearing to discuss dog issues and a new dog bylaw. I’d be all for legislative changes if it were centered on the real causes why dogs attack, all dogs, not just pit bulls. In essence, it is dog welfare, or rather the lack thereof, that should be addressed. Presently our lawmakers consider food, however substandard, a doghouse, and a heated water dish at the end of a chain good enough. Not only the laws thinks it good enough, but many people do as well, and that’s why my dog welfare bylaw would include mandatory education, a “Behavior and Dog Requirement 101" weekend course for every new dog owner, and everyone cited for bylaw violations. A dog welfare bylaw must guarantee that every dog has social acceptance and inclusion, training and, specific to breed and individual, mental and physical stimulation. A dog whose welfare is good might not be perfect, but won’t escalate into the blood-orgy, rip-fest aggression that happened in Yarmouth.
The dog welfare bylaw must absolutely stipulate who is allowed to breed and sell dogs, and have a provision that a dog whose owner fails to manage him properly, misjudges situations and endangers others, could be seized and placed with humans better equipped.
Obviously, such legislation has to allow, no demand, that charges-with-bite are laid against anybody who intentionally fosters aggression directed against other dogs or humans. Scum who deliberately, sometimes successfully, turn a dog into an alive weapon; a booby trap for house and property, ought to be charged with weapon offences, and should lose their right to own a dog. Ever. Period.
Although such a bylaw would take care of the dog problem at its core, it’s unlikely that it’ll be discussed, let alone implemented. Not here; pretty much not anywhere. I am betting my best leather leash that the upcoming talks will hub around BSL – breed specific legislation that scapegoats the dog and deflects from incompetent humans; picks the easiest solution to pacify public outcry, even if it’s a superficial one.
When people ask me if I am for or against BSL, I answer against with a “but” attached. Against, because it is so wrong to punish responsible “bully” owners and their wonderful representatives of the breed, and there are many of them. Good dogs and good people would suffer, while bad people and their made vicious dogs flourish underground, cause 100% enforcement is unlikely. In addition, the argument can be made that mean people simply choose another breed they’ll make mean, and that our lawmakers, not long after one breed is banned, would sit around the table again scratching their heads what could be done about the dangerous dog problem. Plausible, right?
Right in theory, cause the reality is, and that’s where my “but” comes in, that an aggressive pit bull is more powerful, more unstoppable, and more uninhibited than many other breeds. Reality also is that well-meaning, good-hearted folks can underestimate and misjudge the pit’s power, and the dog becomes a liability because of that. I base that opinion on more than 15 years of training, assessing, consulting and field research. Trust me, I much rather deal with a let-loose basset than a let-loose pit bull. I wasn’t too concerned when our neighbor’s undersocialized and always penned-up Labrador escaped once and charged at Will. I could stop him. I am also able to stop the dog-aggressive shepherd mix at the end of the street. Would our other neighbor’s pit bull exhibit the same behaviors, I’d be much more worried and alert.

Dog welfare legislation is too complicated a task for the self-proclaimed intelligent masterpiece, and that’s why I think that sooner or later pit bulls will be banned in more places than they are permitted. Unjustified as it is, perhaps they need to be. Because we’re not creating laws that prohibit negligent, useless and ham-fisted people from breeding and owning dogs; because we don’t expect, legislate and enforce that each dog lives in an environment that doesn’t make him dangerously anxious, aggressive, panicked, vicious or insane, we have to get rid of the breeds capable of inflicting the most damage.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Smartest Dogs

Will is probably the smartest pooch that ever crossed our doorstep. I admit that I am bias, but there are so many actions I witnessed her do, too many to line up in this post, that confirm to me that she is special. Once, at the dog park, her buddy Kiwi had a stick she badly wanted. Kiwi was still a pup then, weaker and submissive, but nevertheless Will heeded the golden rule that possession equals ownership and did not force it from her. Instead, she walked a few feet away and sniffed the ground so intensely that Kiwi joined in, dropping the stick in the process, which Will instantly ran to and snatched. Another time she took ingenuity a step further: swimming side by side with another dog, she raised her paw and dunked his head under water to make him release the stick he was retrieving back to shore. Again, she grabbed it the moment her friend let go of it, swam to shore and placed it right in front of my feet – grinning I swear.
In my line of work I frequently hear tales of canine tricksters that hoodwink to get what they want. A common one is the pooch barking out the window at nothing to entice his canine cohabitant off the sofa, so he can hog the cushiest spot himself. Anecdotal evidence regarded with skepticism by science purists, but I believe because I meet many dogs with exceptionally connected brain cells – and lately more often than I used to.
It appears that dogs are smarter these days, and not just the intelligent poodles, collies and shepherds. Pure-blooded ones of all breeds, and mutts, are in Dr. Phil’s words plugged in. They are attentive, coiled for action, and learn in a flash. Perhaps, I pondered, this is an evolutionary result of humans beginning to perceive dogs differently? Not like brawny, status-challenging predators, but more… here it goes, what heresy, anthropomorphically?
What shouldn’t surprise anybody is that the smarted dogs have smart owners who understand and take an interest in their dog, and invest the time and effort it takes to achieve whatever they’re aiming for. Think about David Hartwig and his amazing Australian Cattle Dog Skidboot. Labeled by his previous owner as a problem, David saw the potential in the handsome heeler and took trick training to the 11th degree. As amazing as their acts were, Skidboot was also David’s steady companion and working partner.
And there is Bama, a search and rescue trained Labrador retriever who demonstrated incredible self-thinking. I first read about Bama in 2008, in the Fall issue of Animal Behavior. The article by Gary Wilkes discussed false positives in tracking dogs, which is when the dog indicates without actually having found anybody - fibbing so to say. That is more common than one might think, because dogs are reinforced when they locate a lost person, and if that takes too long during a difficult search they can become frustrated and signal anyway to elicit the beloved ball, or whatever else their reward is for a job done as expected. Of course, false positives are undesired. In life or death search operations the dog has to be reliable. Bama’s owner, Theresa McPherson, had a brilliant idea how to solve that problem, and it involved teaching her a new "word".
Bama already knew two signals to discriminate between having found the person alive or dead. Alive was a bark, and someone dead she marked with a quiet lay down by her handler’s feet. The new signal she was about to learn was to touch a stick on her owner’s belt to indicate that she hadn’t found anybody yet, and for which she was also rewarded. That allowed Bama to return frequently to McPherson and inform her on the status of the search, and because she was reinforced for reporting correctly, and not just for finding someone, the frustration stopped and with it the false positives.
Bama’s own brilliance became evident when, during a training exercise, she was confronted with a dilemma. Her task was to locate the scent of a dead person that was planted in a building. Bama obligingly searched, found and returned, but then apparently made a profound mistake. She lay by McPherson’s feet and barked, conflictingly telling her that she found someone who's dead and alive. Naturally, that is impossible and had McPherson puzzled, but she followed her dog to the building anyway and, through an open window, heard people talking outside. The clever Lab, when she found the dead person’s scent, obviously heard or smelled the alive humans too and accurately informed her owner that she found the dead one, but also alive ones. Reporting correctly required that she combined two separate signals into a compound word – and that’s remarkable.
The newest member of the “gifted canine club” has got to be Chaser, and if you google “Border Collie Chaser” you find a whole bunch of articles and video clips. The gist of it is that Chaser comprehends 1,022 proper nouns and 3 verbs. No kidding, and verified that it is not a Clever Hans type hoax. Chaser’s human, 82-year-old retired psychologist John W. Pilley, accomplished that by showing her an object and repeating the name up to 40 times. During daily sessions the collie learned 1-2 new words, and recapped the already known ones. Aside from the unbelievable vocabulary Chaser accumulated, how Pilley taught caught my attention.
The continuous repetition of commands, both in the learning phase and after a dog connects a certain word with a behavior or object, is a big no-no with the dog-training crowd. Immediate, one-command obedience is the mantra, and command repetition during the exercise almost blasphemous. But maybe we need to rethink that, now that Pilley demonstrated that this is exactly the way to teach a dog to comprehend many, many words.
Talking with your dog is okay? More than that, essential if you want a really smart pooch? I am strongly leaning toward it. Not ceaseless chatter; not flooding with non-stop and meaningless acoustic sound, but teaching precise verbal information the dog can use as tools to succeed; words humans use and you need to repeat patiently until the dog gets it. How many repetitions it takes depends on the dog. 40 with Chaser the Border collie; likely a few more if you own a beagle or Saint Bernard.
I never counted how many words my dogs comprehend, and never scientifically tested if they, indeed, understand the spoken word or are just excellent readers of my micro-expressions. But I am certain their intelligence goes beyond prompted actions. I believe that to be true for all dogs. If they were but cute stimulus-response machines, many of us wouldn’t love them the way we do. And if we recognize and foster cognizance some, like Bama who created a new word, and Chaser who is able to pick out an unknown object by distinguishing it from all the familiar ones, leap to a level science is just beginning to explore.