Telling Tails

Would a dog by any other name still bark and wags its tail?

lucy embarking the pet dog

“It seemed just like any other day as we prepared to go out for our walk around town.  In many ways, it was the same but in one particular way it was a special day, it was the 4th of July.  This was the one day a year that our small little town of Blaine quadrupled in size.  The center of town is closed off for a car show that runs 3 blocks one direction and 5 another, a street fair with food and craft vendors. Live bands performing throughout the day, pony rides for kids, and a grand parade.  Then finally we close out the night with a large fireworks display over the harbor.  We’ve been going to this event for 5 years.

As we made our way through the crowds watching the parade, waiting in line for food, and admiring the cars we were greeted with compliments by strangers and familiars alike.  These comments were things we were used to hearing; “what a well behaved dog”, “she’s beautiful”, “such a nice dog” and so on.  While we are grateful for these compliments and love hearing them, however, there are the rare comments that stand out more than others.

While we stood in the middle of the crowd between the food trucks and craft vendors I saw a woman cutting through the people heading straight for us.  As she approached she hesitated and asked: “is that a Pitbull?” “Yes”, I responded, “her name is Lucy”.  The lady then explained that she is scared of Pitbulls but asked if she could say hello to Lucy, who was patiently hanging out next to me.  As she bent over to greet and pet Lucy she explained that her fears were based on media coverage and that she had never met a Pitbull in real life.  I told her that I admired her courage to come up and say hello and tell us her story.  I then sat back and watched the magic happen.  Lucy was perfect in her interaction with the woman, calm and gentle while she stood and allowed the lady to pet her.” 

 lucy embarking the pet dog 

It has been 2 years since the story above took place, and we still have similar experiences weekly while out on a walk.  I could’ve spent hours telling this woman all the reasons that she shouldn’t be afraid of Pitbulls or any other breed of dog.  Fear is irrational but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it exists.  I could go blue in the face telling you that you shouldn’t be afraid of heights but it wouldn’t take your fear away and make you feel confident about skydiving.  Quite honestly it may even stress you out further.  While my intentions would be to calm and encourage you, you may be perceiving the opposite by hearing “don’t be scared of heights, being scared of heights is stupid and unnecessary.  Get over it.”  So instead I remained silent and let Lucy do the speaking.  And she did.  Before walking away the lady exclaimed what a lovely dog she was and thanked me for allowing the interaction.  I have no doubt that Lucy has changed her view, to some degree, on what Pitbulls are really like.

This type of interaction has happened more times than I can count over the years.  And now I have two female Pitbulls that I walk around town, and neighboring towns in the county, on a regular basis.  As my girls are almost identical in looks and equally polite in public we still hear and appreciate the same comments.  It’s actually a rarity that I notice someone deliberately avoid interacting with my dogs, by crossing the street or darting out of the way, seemingly in fear or discomfort.  My experience with someone who doesn’t know the breed and isn’t sure about them is always similar the situation described above, they see my well-behaved dogs and ask what their breed is and then ask if they can pet them.  My dog’s do all the talking while I sit back and watch.

While my dogs do the talking on their own behalf and on behalf of the majority of their breed and dogs alike, they cannot speak for all dogs, just like I cannot speak on behalf of all humans.  As a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, I will admit that not all dogs have the ability to safely interact with humans, other dogs or animals.  That being said, we cannot clump these dangerous dogs into one group or breed type.  Introducing Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) laws just do not work, as proven by many cities across our nation.  I do, however, feel that we need to think smart with our legislation regarding dogs for the safety of the public.

Now you may be thinking “you’re a dog trainer, of course, your dogs are well behaved” and this is my point exactly.  If my dogs were at the end of their leash and jumped on everyone they came in contact with, even in an inviting and friendly manner, they wouldn’t be able to interact with and change the minds of those that fear them.  I may be a certified trainer and train dogs for a living, but my job entails far more people training than it does dog training.  Dog owners are the real dog trainers and it is my job to train them.  We do not need legislation that bans dogs, whether by breed or breed type, what we need are legislations that encourage education for both humans and dogs alike.

Here are some ideas that I propose we, as humans living on a planet with domesticated dogs, take into account when creating dog legislation:

  • We have to start with proper socialization when we get puppies. A well-socialized dog is a dog that is familiar with many different people, places and things in the world and knows how to behave around them.
  • We need to follow up socializing with proper training. Training should be based on the latest scientific research and be humane, meaning it shouldn’t damage or harm the dog mentally or physically.  The use of aversive methods in training (prong/choke/shock collars, alpha rolls, training with dominance theory) has been proven to cause more dangerous repercussions down the road because they suppress behavior rather than change it.
  • We need to be familiar with the bite scale, not to advocate dog biting, but rather to help in identifying the seriousness of the bite which would then allow us to properly identify a dangerous dog. For instance, bite level 1 on the scale is never, ever reported.  Why? Because it’s nothing more than an air-snap, where the dog snaps its jaws in your direction but does not make contact.  This a huge red flag, if the situation that drove the dog to air-snap is left untreated by an educated trainer, that bite level is only going to go up until the dog causes enough damage for it to be reported.  By then we may be too late to treat it.
  • Once we have used the bite scale to determine how dangerous the dog is, we then need ordinances that require the owner to take the proper steps in making sure the dog is not a danger to society. Charging the owner fines just doesn’t help, it does not educate, and it does not modify the dog’s behavior.

These steps would need to be specific to the bite level of the dog itself, not to the breed type.  Bite levels 1-3 should require immediate training with an approved trainer.  Bite level 4 is in the median, should require immediate training with a trainer as well as a specific management plan.  Levels 5-6 should require euthanasia, at this point the dog is mutilating or killing and no level of training or management is going to suffice.  The quality of life for both the dog and its owners will be poor.

When working with bite cases trainers are well aware that the biggest problem we face when working a behavior plan is owner compliance.  Whether they are following the training plan or not, it’s often the management plan that they slip up on “oops my toddler opened the gate” or “things were going so well I thought he would be fine with the plumber coming in the house”.  Having clear cut legislation will encourage people to take the appropriate steps and/or be honest with themselves about what they can and cannot handle.

  • Create stricter rules for dogs that reside outdoors, friendly or unfriendly, there should be specific caging rules for animals who are left outside all day when the owner is not home or even all night when they are. I, personally, do not advocate for dogs living outdoors and would suggest banning that all together.  However, leaving a dog unattended in a yard all day, fenced or tethered, is not a safe way to contain even the friendliest of dogs.  They get bored and find ways to escape, and when they do escape they often come into contact with things that overstimulate them or scare them and that’s when bites happen.

I am sure there are many other great ideas out there on how to implement safe dog legislation but these are my top 5.  Do I consider myself an advocate for Pitbulls and other commonly labeled “dangerous breeds”?  Yes, I do.  But most importantly I consider myself an advocate for all dogs and dog owners alike.  We don’t need to ban specific breeds of dogs.  We do need to educate our public on dog safety and awareness, require training for people that own dogs and make laws that actually keep people safe not ones that make people feel safe.

Amber Todd, CPDT-KA

Owner/Operator, Embarking the Pet Dog