Monday, March 26, 2012

Maclean's Article: When did crating your dog become a crime

When Maclean's asked me to contribute to an article about tethering dogs, I was beyond thrilled. I mean, it’s Maclean's calling. I was elated and appreciated the opportunity to have my voice heard in our national mag. The article is on the shelves now, and you can find it here.
It, the comments, and a radio interview with Charles Adler at CJOB 68 in Winnipeg that followed on March 19, you can find it on itunes under “the-new”, provoked me to open my mouth some more, or rather put my fingertips to the laptop.
Let me start by saying that I am not unhappy with the article, even though I doubt it’ll advance dogs’ welfare. I am not unhappy because at least it might get a broader discussion started. I reckon a national mag has to point out opposing views, be balanced so to say, and I speculate because I don’t know for sure. I am not a journalist, but when I talked with Alex Ballingall, the author of the article, my impression was that his interest was genuine, and yet the article, I feel, fell a bit short in exposing the reality of permanently confined dogs.
The title: “When did crating your dog become a crime”, was the first thing that annoyed me. I understand that a headline is supposed to draw readers in, but did it really have to be one that implies that a bunch of animal rights activists are out to criminalize dog owners for safekeeping the pup in a crate for a couple hours? And just to clarify, I am neither involved with PETA, nor an animal rights activist. You could say I am someone who respects all life, but has a very strong affinity for dogs. I am a dog advocate because I live with them and know their potential, and at the same time witness their suffering when humans mistreat them.
Mistreatment comes in many forms, but certainly includes solitary confinement on chains, and in crates and dog runs. Day in and day out, and at night, and for life is the reality for many dogs in North America.
There are 5 within a 15-minute walking distance from our home, which is situated on an acre lot, typical for our bedroom community of about 1000. One dog is chained, three are in tiny dog runs, and one in a larger fenced yard. None of them has a dog buddy outside, and none of them has a working job, but they are all fed, have water and a doghouse. There was one more chained dog, a German shepherd, but she was euthanized a couple of years ago because she “suddenly” turned vicious and attacked her owner: “Something wrong with her brain”, he said seemingly perplexed. She was 4 when she died.
The dogs in our ‘hood resemble the majority of dogs that are kept outside, and thereby segregated from the rest of the family. Most are not livestock guardians, herding border collies or driving cattle dogs, or happily running sled dogs you see on tourist brochures. Unlike these working dogs, the ones Joe Frontporch owns and keeps outside lack purpose and mental stimulation. They are usually alone, without the companionship of other animals, and they are denied social acceptance, inclusion and guidance, crucial for any social animal. Dogs like that have very poor welfare, even if they get physical exercise; fence chasing, charging after things whatever distance the chain allows, or running behind the pickup truck or ATV on a Saturday afternoon, can’t take the place of quality actions and interactions with members of the social group who owns him.
Unattended dogs are often taunted: deliberately by youngsters, or inadvertently by passersby, other dogs or wildlife. That instills fear and anxiety, and when it happens a lot the dog is sensory overwhelmed, becomes hypersensitive to any movements or sounds, and is in a constant aroused state expressed in reactive barking and lunging.
And that is not all. Dogs given a choice, and before they are damaged by life’s experiences, want to get closer to someone they see: to play, to greet, or to investigate. They seek to collect intelligence what this or that person or dog is all about, what meaning s/he has. A chain and fence disrupt that natural behavior, and if the dog is fitted with a choke or shock collar he, in addition, feels pain in association to people and dogs. Pain on home turf destroys a dog’s sense of safety, and lack of control causes restraint frustration, and extreme frustration is anger. The result: the initially friendly or curious dog becomes aggressive. When those dogs break free, and that happens more often than you might think, the risk is high that they chase, attack and inflict injury. Chained dogs are rarely trained, so won’t come on recall or heed any commands.
Of course, dogs forced to live outside are subject to the elements. Unless they hide away in their doghouse all day, they are exposed to scorching heat and freezing cold, hail, rain, snow and ice-pellets – and insects. In rural Nova Scotia black flies appear in May, sometimes earlier in the year, are followed by mosquitos and then pestering deer flies. Quinn, the dog mentioned in the article, had many infected sore spots all over his body. Biting and scratching, initially triggered by an itch, often turn into an unceasing, self-soothing habit the dog continues in the absence of insects.
Such neurotic, obsessive behaviors that include spinning and self-mutilation are also common with dogs that are crated for hours on end. The worst I witnessed was an adolescent border collie, surrendered to the humane society I volunteered with, who had chewed part of his tail off. An industrious dog bred to work, he was unfortunate to be born to the kind of breeder who doesn’t give a damn about his puppies and sold him to a family who didn’t have enough time for goldfish. They crated him for 10 hours a day, and all night, and drove him to insanity.
Around the same time two other dogs were surrendered: 18 months old littermate Australian shepherds. A local agility trainer acquired them for the sole purpose of competing in that sport, and kept them in separate crates unless he trained them. The puppies weren’t allowed to play with one another, and deprived of interaction with anyone else. When they failed to meet the owner’s expectations, he got rid of the two, by then completely socially incompetent dogs, and bought another pup.
People, not chains, inflict cruelty, was Shannon DeBruin’s opposing argument in the interview with Charles Adler with CJOB. True, but chains, and no law that prohibits or restricts their use, make it really easy for people to neglect and abuse a dog. Ms. DeBruin is a breeder and sled dog operator, and I think it is evident why she wants to keep the status quo. Chained dogs are her livelihood. I have no financial interest one way or another; just care about dogs I see, and trainers everywhere see, and humane societies see - and she might not see because it is not the crowd she hangs with. I want to state unequivocally that I don’t make a judgment about Ms. DeBruin. I never met her and have no idea how she keeps her dogs, but how some sled dog operations are run we all got to see in 2011, when the slaughter of 100 dogs in Whistler, British Columbia made the news.
What to do with chained dogs when their humans don’t want them any longer opens up another can of worms. Life circumstances sometimes compel people to find a new home for their pooch, but dogs owned by folks who made the deliberate decision to deny training, deny socializing, and generally deny what a dog needs to become a good canine citizen, are much harder to place.
These dogs are mentally and emotionally damaged: aggressive, reactive, anxious and skittish, and often afraid of anything new. Neophobia is the reason why a dog is unwilling to enter a house after he’s been rescued. It is not that he LOVES his solitary life outside more than being part of the family, but rather that it is the only life he knows. Dogs don’t daydream of a better tomorrow. They don’t think conceptually what life could/should be like, so crappy as it is on a chain, it is familiar, and everything unfamiliar scary.
Behaviorally problematic dogs owned by unscrupulous humans are shot behind the barn or let loose in the country. People with somewhat of a conscience attempt to make the mess they created somebody else’s problem and might place an ad on Kjiji: “Free to a good, loving home. Realized we don’t have the time our dog deserves.” Often they find a na├»ve, kind-hearted soul who takes pity, and if all goes well has the financial and intellectual means to rehabilitate.
Many dogs end up at a SPCA or rescue group, together with seized sled dogs who lost their job, and puppy mill brood bitches that are no longer profitable or sellable because the local pet store stopped selling dogs. The dilemma with an anti-tethering law is that it possibly would create an even bigger strain on these cash-strapped organizations. When a law forces owners to make changes how they treat their dog or else he’ll be seized, I bet that most opt for the latter. These type of humans are also unlikely candidates to contribute some money to the dog’s future care. That is left to others: the generous donating public, and staff and volunteers that tend to the physical and emotional needs these dogs have. Good foster homes do wonders and patiently bring out the trusting and attentive companion, the dog every dog is meant to be and has the potential to become. But it can take time: weeks or months.
Living with a dog in the house and including him as a member of the family has nothing do to with anthropomorphism, the attribution of human characteristics to non-humans. That is silly, but I was not surprised to find that word in the article. It is often used by people who recognize suffering, but rather not deal with it. Sure, dogs are a different species. Yes, they have different drives and rituals, sniff butts or might find poop tasty, but the fact is that they share most of our hormones, neurotransmitters, nervous system and brain structures. Thus, it is illogical to believe they wouldn’t feel pain, fear and anxiety, frustration and anger, sadness, defeat and perhaps even depression. They do, and they clearly communicate it with vocalizations and in their body language, visible to anyone who cares to listen and look.
Dogs also share our Umwelt; our lives and theirs are intertwined, but they are the ones who are dependent on us. A welfare law is there to ensure that people acknowledge their responsibility toward the dependent they chose.
Lobbying for an anti-tethering law is not about forcing cattle rancher Tom to bring his heeler into the bivouac at night. It is not about criminalizing people who let their pooch play in the yard, tether him while they work in the garden or read a book in the lawn chair, or use a crate to help housetrain the puppy. That is even sillier than accusing compassionate humans of anthropomorphism.
What it is about is putting a stop to continuous chaining and permanent confinement that forces the dog to exist lifelong without aspects critical for his wellbeing: social inclusion, emotional safety and mental stimulation. Presently, where I live, there is nothing I can do to help the 5 dogs in my neighborhood, because there isn’t a welfare law that actually cares about dogs’ welfare. And that needs to change.
Thanks, Scott Saunders for getting the ball rolling, and thanks Alex and Maclean's, for caring enough to run the story and furthering the discussion - hopefully.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Chase, Predation and Aggression

When Davie was 5 months old, 4 weeks after we had rescued her, she chased and nipped a jogger in the multi-use off-leash park we visited often. I was still fairly green then, and her action not only completely took me by surprise, but also concerned me. Was she an aggressive dog? As it turned out, in a different context she was that too, but her chase‘n’connect had nothing to do with aggression.
Aggression, in a broad sense, is a forceful, hostile action to make an object or subject disappear: drive it away or eliminate. Although that is the intent sometimes when dogs go after things, often it is not.
Harming or getting rid of the jogger was not the reason why Davie charged after him, and it is not why most dogs chase. To the contrary, they want to catch up, decrease distance, make it halt. To eat it? Is the chase drive predation? Not exactly either.
In ecology, predation is an interaction between two species in which one hunts and consumes the other. Although some dogs do consume a small animal they manage to catch, as a species they don’t hunt for food, but live on what humans provide – purposely when they fill the bowl with kibble twice a day, or unintentionally by leaving food waste behind. Even feral dogs prefer garbage to hunting prey, and only kill if there isn’t enough waste. During a three-year field study that observed a feral dog group, they were observed to break into a chicken coop twice, and hunted a red fox once - unsuccessfully. They did scavenge on already dead farm animals. (When livestock was killed, it was done by owned dogs, not feral groups.) They were playful with horses.
So, when dogs chase, despite common belief, it is neither aggression because the intent is catching up, perhaps even interacting, not getting rid of, nor predation because the kill’n’eat part is missing. What is it then? Play? Yes, indeed. Running away or towards is perceived as a strong play signal the dog, instinctively, responds to with chasing or darting off. Movement gets most dogs’ attention, and chasing after it is a strong biological impulse.
But now it gets complicated: although chase is play in its nature, it can result in injury and even death. During normal play, there is a behavior cycle of: arousing, running and calming. There is a brief pause after a chase, and play signals that start it up again. Some dogs, though, don’t play right. They lack self-control, become frustrated if they’re too slow, or so worked up that they lose inhibition and are handler unresponsive. Then, play quickly changes into something drastically more serious: all aspects of predation except consumption: catch up – hold on – rip – kill, but not eat. In addition, such out-of-control hyperarousal is contagious, which means that other dogs might join in a pack-like fashion, like humans do in a mob.
That predatory drift can also kick in if a socially inept, or small dog, panics during a social encounter and runs, yelps, squeals or struggles, and sadly also when young children run, screech, flail their arms or mock-fall. There was an incident a few years ago in Alberta in which two otherwise well-mannered German shepherds grabbed a toddler they knew, and were never aggressive with before, by the neck and killed him.
Having that awareness, the question arises if we should allow dogs to chase at all? I mean, we love to watch them having fun, but are they strengthening predatory skills? Are we fostering a heightened sensitivity to everything in motion? A trait some dogs are genetically already prone to.
In my opinion, good welfare includes running and playing; dogs have to be able to feel their legs every so often. Withholding it is denying them part of their nature. The crucial ingredient that prevents that play gets out of “paw” is, once again, training.
Davie’s jogger problem was quickly solved with a ball and Frisbee. We also worked on halt – my “freeze right where you are and wait till I get there” command, and on impulse control when she played with other dogs.
Herding is structured chase, and working dogs are extremely well trained and have a solid not-chase switch: a slow-move, halt or down position they wait in until released again. The dog knows that access to the flock, or herd, is controlled by the handler, and because he really really wants to be on the stock, the motivation to be receptive to and obey the human’s directions is high. Herding dog breeds, working or not, are inherently attentive to their people, and fairly easy to train. Davie was no exception. She was extremely biddable and eager to please us, and agreeable to chasing a ball instead of charging after running humans. Like the human shepherd who makes access to sheep contingent on the dog’s behavior, I controlled access to the ball. Sticks are everywhere, and that allows the dog to control the game. With a toy, the game is always under the person’s control, not the dog’s.
As a side-note, do not play laser games. It is a sure-fire way to make a dog a neurotic light seeker and chaser. In a flash he’ll fixate and react to TV flickers, light shining through blinds, doors that open and close, ceiling fans, and shadows.
Remotivation can be a little harder to attain when a dog has a one-track mind and is zoned in on the environment and reactive to wildlife or pets. The reinforcement for impulse control and obedience can’t be to chase a flighty animal, and yet that might be exactly the dog’s biggest motivator. Even then, with a combination of managing and coming up with something really special to reinforce NOT chasing - hint: a “good boy” and shoving a treat into his mouth likely won’t do, success is possible with most dogs.
I see nothing wrong allowing a well-trained dog to chase squirrels, provided it is safe for both animals. The pooch should not pull or whine, but offer attention and wait for a release command, and follow when his person walks on or at least come when called. A dog who is completely fixated, tuning everything else out and continuing to bark up the tree even when the squirrel is long gone, indicates that there is potential trouble brewing in other chase contexts as well.
Davie’s drive to chase was channeled into appropriate outlets and she never went after a person again for the rest of her life - or cyclists, skateboarders and cars. But she did kill once – a tame rat that unexpectedly appeared in our fenced-in yard. It was the day after we moved into our home. The previous owner did not own the rat, but had fed it regularly and did not inform us of its existence. The kill was not preceded by a chase, there was no arousal before and afterwards, and Davie didn’t try to eat it. She grabbed it by the neck, shook it, and then flung it at hubby Mike’s feet. It was: I belong here and you don’t. It was aggression.