Last week, Dr Ian Dunbar, the world-famous veterinarian, animal behaviourist and author of multiple dog behaviour and training publications, voluntarily sent himself to Coventry – more specifically, Stoneleigh Park’s Kennel Club Building – for his stint of seminars made available to dog owners and professionals alike. Ian, who founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers back in the 1990s, is no stranger to public speaking, hosting nearly 1500 seminars and workshops over the past 40 years. His final seminar of the week, titled ‘Behaviour Programs for Dog Professionals’, focused on five key areas which Ian believes are in urgent need of a shake up with regards to improving the lives of dogs: breeders; veterinarians; pet store retailers; rescue centres and trainers.
From the outset, Ian emphasised that it is dog breeders and rescue centres which require the most attention. One of his ‘top 12 tips for prospective puppy owners’ is to know how to select an ‘above average’ breeder. But what does this actually mean from a Dunbar perspective? In short, it means a breeder which will produce the ideal companion puppy. According to Ian, the puppy should be taught basic manners and actually be housetrained by the time it is ready to leave the breeder. More importantly, however, is that the puppy is socialised, right from the very beginning of its life. While alarm bells will most likely be triggered amongst prospective puppy buyers at the first sign of ill health within the litter, Ian says that the most important aspect, that is, the dog’s temperament and what the breeder has (or hasn’t) done in order to influence it, is often overlooked. The “early approach, later avoidance” tactic of addressing puppy socialisation (even during the neonatal period in the form of handling by various strangers) is, according to Ian, likely to reduce the likelihood of problems in later life. Indeed, as he points out, every dog surrendered to a shelter due to behavioural issues started out as a tiny puppy. If there’s no vibrant behaviour programme in place, Ian states that buyers should walk away and find an alternative breeder.
When it comes to rescue centres, Ian is adamant that it is simply not sufficient to confine a dog to a kennel and not do anything to make it more adoptable. The concept of ‘Open Paw’, co-founded by Ian and Kelly Dunbar in 2000, was explained during the seminar. Open Paw consists of an in-house training programme made possible through the help of volunteers, and lots of them; Ian’s ideal rescue centre contains more people than dogs. With Open Paw, the shelter environment is transformed from endless rows of kennels containing bored and frustrated dogs to one which is a lively, happy place regularly holding social events and spending plenty of time with individual dogs, working on their basic training and keeping them stimulated. Even ‘Level 1’ of the programme, which consists of throwing treats into the kennel (classical conditioning), can make a dog more desirable to potential owners by teaching them to sit quietly, make eye contact and generally look cute. The frequent follow ups following adoption, also performed by volunteers, are equally important for improving the chances of the dog securing a permanent home.
Open Paw makes sense, which begs the question of why, almost eighteen years on from its inception, Ian is still having to stand in front of a crowded Kennel Club Building and explain the programme to a room full of dog lovers. Is the image of hundreds of volunteers flocking to assist their nearest shelter a complete fantasy? Well, if my local rescue kennels is anything to go by, not at all; there is actually a waiting list to become a voluntary dog walker at Birmingham Dogs Home. There are thousands of Animal Care, Animal Management and Animal-related degree students up and down the country who would relish the opportunity to gain their mandatory work experience hours quite literally playing with dogs in order to prepare them for life outside the four walls of the kennel block. The National Animal Welfare Trust (NAWT) was the first rescue organisation to implement the programme on UK shores, with excellent results – four out of the six dogs chosen for the programme were reserved within one week. The staff noticed a considerable change in the dogs’ behaviour, with the kennel block becoming a much quieter and calmer environment. The programme is now being used for both dogs and cats within NAWT’s centres. However, the Trust note that Open Paw is a costly project with its requirements for specialised training rooms and equipment. Perhaps Open Paw is itself in need of a few alterations in order to make the programme accessible to smaller rescue centres who simply do not have the money to spare.
In addition to training, another unique feature of Open Paw is the method of feeding for shelter dogs within the programme. All meals are served in Kongs in order to provide further mental stimulation and prevent boredom; during the talk Ian noted that the use of Kongs also helps to reprogram the dog’s brain by providing a reward for calm behaviour as the dog quietly lies down to work for their food. Indeed, the power of the mighty Kong received much praise throughout the seminar, as reflected in the mad rush to the dog toy stall at the back of the room at the beginning of each break (guilty as charged!).
The final part of Ian’s shake up plan is his approach to owner education. From pet stores providing correct information about the puppy products they are selling (can you imagine receiving thorough guidance about the appropriate way to crate train?), to veterinary practices sending free eBooks to their clients, Ian says that the time has come to ditch the waffle and instead present new puppy owners with solid advice. He even provides the information himself, which can be accessed free of charge at the Dog Star Daily website and distributed by any organisation, including dog trainers, using their own logo and contact details. When it comes to improving the lives of our dogs, education is certainly the way to go, and it makes sense for the distributors of educational materials to be those who we see on a regular basis and those we trust most with our pets. In the age of the internet, there should be no excuse for ignorance when it comes to basic dog training and socialisation, and so many problems can be easily prevented just by getting it right with your puppy from the start. Ian firmly believes that organisations should be doing more in the way of distributing canine information amongst their clients, both in person and via email subscription lists, as owners cannot be blamed for being ‘irresponsible’ if they simply weren’t given the correct information in the first place.
And in order to start tackling the issue of problem dogs, this is certainly an idea which should be welcomed with open paws.
The four day seminar was held at the Kennel Club Building in Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, and was organised by Dog and Bone. For more information on any similar upcoming events, please refer to the seminar section of their website.
It is a sad fact that children under five are the demographic group most likely to be on the receiving end of a dog bite. Perhaps even sadder – and certainly more frustrating – is that such attacks are often caused by a family member’s pet rather than a strange dog. But how can such incidents be prevented? How can parents spot the warning signs and teach their offspring the correct manner in which to behave around dogs? The brand new title from ethical animal publishers Hubble & Hattie, Babies, Kids and Dogs, attempts to address these concerns and offers practical advice regarding dog behaviour and training with an emphasis on ensuring that the family pet remains exactly that – an animal to be respected, loved and enjoyed by all members of the family, young and old.
Authors Melissa Fallon and Vickie Davenport both have degrees in animal behaviour and a wealth of experience in dog training, alongside being parents themselves. With a foreword from Steve Mann, the founder of the Institute of Modern Dog Trainers (IMDT), the book immediately promises to be a useful tool for all dog owners, with or without young children. In less than 100 pages, the authors manage to cram in a heap of information, including everything from the potential causes of dog bites and how to spot stress signals, to a breakdown of training exercises to work on prior to the arrival of a baby.
The layout of the book is arranged so that the majority of text is broken up by a variety of full colour photographs, making for easy reading. In the case of the explanation of training exercises, the images complement the text nicely by offering an insight into how the tasks should be performed. Subheadings, such as ‘Potential problem behaviours/scenarios’ and ‘Respecting your dog’s food/resources’, are organised into five chapters – Assessing your dog, Preparation, Introducing the new family member, Toddler training and Raising children around dogs. One small criticism is that the first chapter contains quite a wide scope of information which deviates from its description of ‘Assessing your dog’ – perhaps the majority of this chapter would have been better suited to an extension of the introduction – and the page which details how to manage a reactive dog on the lead would have been better suited to the ‘Building confidence’ section instead. Despite this, the assessment chart itself offers an excellent starting point for identifying any areas which may trigger behavioural problems by incorporating a traffic light system to mark how well the dog appears to cope with stimuli, such as the presence of children and baby-related items. Tasks such as on-lead walking and the ability to give up toys are also included in the chart, which is further organised into ‘The Six Essentials’:
- Build confidence
- Walks/ exercise
- Flexible routine/energy
- Avoiding temper tantrums
- To chew or not to chew
- Establish boundaries
An interesting part of the book is the inclusion of ‘Charlie and Champ’ illustrations by artist Natasha Thompson, designed to encourage discussion about safe dog interaction with your child (see example ‘How do we know Champ is unhappy?’ below). Most notably is the image of ‘Charlie’ hugging the dog – the so-called cute photographs widely seen across the internet of toddlers climbing on uncomfortable dogs recreated in cartoon form. While preventing children from teasing the family pet or pulling their tail is (hopefully) obvious, unfortunately many dog owners are oblivious when it comes to recognising the signs of stress or attempts at avoidance behaviour, making the more subtle body language that ‘Champ’ demonstrates a vital lesson for parents too.
Overall, Babies, Kids and Dogs offers an excellent insight into dog behaviour in relation to life with children. Its accessible format, with a successful balance between theory and practical training advice, makes the book a valuable resource which should be on the bookshelves of all parents and dog owners. It would not be unrealistic to say that this publication has the capability to educate the public and therefore have an impact on the reduction of instances of dog bites on children.
‘Babies, Kids and Dogs’ (Hubble & Hattie, September 2016) can be purchased directly from the publishers here.
I recently wrote a piece for anti Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) campaign group Born Innocent about the flawed Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 which can be viewed here.
Let’s get one thing straight. Viewers of Britain’s Got Talent vote for their favourite act. They vote for the routine that they like the best. So when it emerged that Jules O’Dwyer incorporated a ‘Matisse lookalike’ into her performance, why should anybody feel outraged, or worse, that they’ve been ‘conned?’
Sure, the act was billed as ‘Jules and Matisse’. But audiences were under no illusion that just one canine was involved, with ‘Skippy’ the three-legged Sheltie also making an appearance in the final. Viewers voted for Jules’ act because, quite simply, it was brilliant. Although comparisons to BGT 2012 winners Ashley and Pudsey are futile, since their act consisted of heelwork to music as opposed to the storyline style portrayed by Jules, it is safe to say that Jules and Matisse were one of the best dog acts seen in the show so far. I’ve never seen a dog perform a ‘pawstand’ before. And it’s not surprising that the performance was so successful – Jules herself is a professional Guide Dogs trainer based in Belgium.
Perhaps the people who feel that they’ve been conned by Jules do not realise how much time and effort goes in to training a dog to that standard. Each part of the routine has to be taught separately before being put together in a process known in the training world as ‘backchaining’, where each individual behaviour becomes linked to the next in a series of hidden cues. Months of dedication from both dog and owner goes into a short performance. Jules has said that she chose to use Chase, another dog belonging to herself, instead of Matisse for the tightrope act as Matisse didn’t cope well with heights and presumably she made the responsible and ethical decision not to force her dog into doing something he didn’t want to do. No doubt some of those outraged at Matisse’s stunt double were the same people who felt that the ‘dog ventriloquist’ act was cruel, because it involved putting an animal in an uncomfortable situation. By that standard, wouldn’t it also have been cruel if Jules had forced Matisse to perform the tightrope act?
Ultimately, a vote for Jules and Matisse wasn’t just a vote for Matisse. Do the people who said that they voted for him alone believe that Matisse would be able to create the routine all by himself? Although Matisse is undoubtedly a fantastic dog, it is Jules who has the talent and I personally hope that she achieves her goal of creating a children’s series with her dogs. So what if a different dog was used? Can your dog walk the tightrope? Mine certainly can’t. There was no fakery here – just ask any of the disabled people whose lives have been enriched by Jules and her dog training.
You can watch the winning performance by Jules and her dogs here.
Note about the blog:
I stopped working on Not So Dangerous Dogs after starting university in September 2014. Now under a new title, I’m hoping to continue the blog’s success by writing about canine topics on a broader scale than just breed specific legislation.
Thanks for all the views!
Two dog related programmes were shown on both BBC (‘Louis Theroux’s LA Stories: City of Dogs’) and ITV (in the two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’) in the past couple of weeks, with the latter in particular attracting a lot of attention amongst dog loving viewers, perhaps not for the reasons that ITV had originally been hoping for. Neglect and irresponsible ownership featured heavily in both programmes.
The first episode of Dangerous Dogs surrounded the working lives of Birmingham City Council’s dog wardens and the situations that they face on a daily basis. Two wardens in particular caused controversy with their handling of an abandoned Akita who refused to come quietly, leading many viewers to brand the programme ‘Dangerous Dog Wardens’. With cameras following their every move, the women were shown shouting at the frightened animal before struggling to drag it out of the property with the use of two catch poles, leaving the dog visibly distressed and physically exhausted. When dealing with potentially dangerous dogs it is always important to put human safety first, and the use of such equipment is certainly justified, however, seemingly due to the nerves of the wardens, the event took longer than perhaps it should have done, with one of the wardens initially panicking at the sight of a spider in the doorway. The constant opening and closing of the door, together with the shouting (and sometimes screaming) from the dog warden, surely must have heightened the dog’s fear, making his capture even more difficult. Perhaps this quote on how to approach dogs, taken from this RSPCA International publication on dog control guidance, should have been noted;
“Remember that any action from the catcher(s) will provoke the dog(s)… A catcher should adopt a non-aggressive body posture by presenting a low-profile on approach. Their movements should remain calm and slow.”
Louis Theroux’s programme, City of Dogs, also demonstrated the effects of animal abandonment with one animal control officer reluctantly collecting a Pit Bull Terrier to be euthanised. According to those interviewed, many dogs in Los Angeles are simply thrown out when they are no longer of any use for breeding or other money making activities. Without anyone coming forward to claim the Pit Bull, and hundreds more stray dogs requiring kennel space, there was simply nowhere for the dog to go. Unlike the Akita back in Birmingham, the Pit Bull did not show any signs of aggression as a result of its treatment, showing that an abandoned dog doesn’t always mean ‘dangerous dog’ (indeed, once the Akita was nursed back to health at Birmingham Dogs Home, it passed all temperament tests and was rehomed). What was obvious from both programmes was that irresponsible ownership is a leading factor of aggression issues within our dog populations.
In Dangerous Dogs, an owner with apparent alcohol issues had lost count of how many Staffie cross puppies he had in his flat, and, despite the advice from the warden, sold many of the puppies as early as four weeks old to “anyone who wanted them”. It is clear that anyone who would even consider buying a tiny puppy from a man down the pub would not be the sort of person to raise a well-balanced family pet, and the future is bleak for the puppies who are likely to become victims both to their poor early upbringing and their unscrupulous owners. In Episode two, a family living in squalor had numerous Staffies which were never given access to the garden nor walked, together with a litter of young puppies covered in their own excrement, cats and kittens locked in a filthy bathroom and various small animals in tiny cages, a murky substance in their water bottle their only source of liquid. It made for very upsetting viewing, and the frustration on the dog wardens’ faces was obvious. The dogs could not be seized under the Animal Welfare Act as they were physically healthy and were not deprived of food and water. Just as with the litter of puppies who were sold at four weeks, the wardens were powerless. The ‘owners’ agreed to hand over the rest of the animals, but the dogs stayed. These dogs may indeed become the next attack headlines, a result of the simple fact that they are unexercised, untrained and unsocialised. But because they are fed and watered, they can not be seized or rehomed to a suitable environment, and the owners are able to continue producing endless litters of dogs.
It seemed very wrong that the family, who could barely take care of themselves, were allowed to keep the dogs, particularly after witnessing the terrible conditions in which their other animals had been living (and the fact that one member of the family had previously received a five year ban from keeping animals). This was only made worse when the cameras showed Gunner, a friendly, well-cared for Pit Bull, being taken away to secure police kennels. Gunner, like many other family pets declared to be ‘type’, had presumably never shown any signs of aggression, and he was allowed to return to his owners as an exempted dog. Another Pit Bull type featured in the programme had been found straying, and was clearly not a danger to those handling it since it was not muzzled and there were no catch poles in sight. Yet because it matched the identification measurements, the dog was humanely euthanised – under the Dangerous Dogs Act it is illegal to rehome Pit Bull types.
While mistreated or ill-socialised dogs have the capability to become dangerous, many dogs in both America and here in the UK are actively trained to show aggression. In City of Dogs, a group of men demonstrated their protection training with a Dutch Herder. The dog had been trained to bite a padded sleeve in a display similar to police dog work but without the control that is achieved through the intense police training course. When the trainer gave the release command, the dog held on. If this apparent lack of control in a semi-professional environment seems worrying, consider the fact that ‘weapon dogs’ are now relatively common in the UK, with many dogs receiving ‘training’ involving physical violence in an attempt to cause aggressive responses. This results in a certain unpredictability, making so-called status dogs a danger to the public. Breed specific legislation has little impact on this trend as Pit Bull types are often used alongside legal breeds to convey status and intimidate others. In the first episode of Dangerous Dogs, a male with a severe attitude problem threatened the dog warden with violence as she was in the process of attempting to issue a fixed penalty notice after witnessing his partner let their Staffordshire Bull Terrier foul. The man, who heard the commotion outside his flat, came downstairs and threatened to “punch the face off” the warden before shouting a stream of profanities at the cameraman. Not, then, the actions of a responsible Staffie owner – the dog was clearly just another status symbol.
“If I rode around every day with a gun, I take the chance of going to jail if the police stop me. I can ride around with my dog all day long. He’s just like my pistol at my side.” – LA protection dog trainer
In both programmes we have seen dogs starved, thrown out on to the streets, deprived of exercise, forced to produce numerous litters and actively trained to bite or intimidate. The chance of any legal breed owned as a ‘weapon’ biting a member of the public is far greater than that of a Pit Bull type owned responsibly causing harm, yet dogs declared to be Pit Bull type are routinely destroyed even if they present no threat to public safety while dogs that are likely to cause problems in the future are not dealt with until after they attack. With no incentive to take care of their animals, and money to be made from the breeding of status dogs, at present there is no reason for irresponsible owners to change their attitude. Since punishments rarely equal their crimes, it is usually the dog that pays the highest price. Future laws need to concentrate on ownership, not breeds. The Dangerous Dogs narrator closed the programme by saying that as a nation we are falling far short of being able to call ourselves dog lovers. Until our laws are improved, this sadly remains all too true.
The two episodes of ‘Dangerous Dogs’ are currently available on ITV Player.
‘LA: City of Dogs’ is also available online and can be viewed via BBC iplayer until April 13.