The Inherent Flaws Contained in the Halifax Regional Municipality’s By-Law A-300 as They Pertain to Canine Behaviour

by Susan M. Jordan, Professional Pet Dog Trainer / Canine Behavioural Consultant 
PAWS for Family and Friends, Bedford, Nova Scotia
March 10, 2012

"As the law virtually deems it an offence to be a dog, it does not seem to provide a reasonable, fair, or just standard."

The purpose of this document is to sort out the inherent flaws of the wording or interpretation of the wording as they relate to the By-Law A-300 and true canine behaviour.

I recognize and respect that the intent of the Law is to protect the general public and their pets from harm. However, there is great potential for harm to people and animals if they are judged incorrectly by these current definitions. Therefore, it is to this end I address my comments.

1.) From the By-Law A-300, section 2, titled “Interpretation”: “Attack” and “Threaten”

2 (1) In this By-Law,

(d) “attack” means to injure or bite, or to threaten or give the impression of threatening
. . .
(ac) “threatens” means unmuzzled, leashed or unleashed, or unattended by it’s owner, or a member of the owner’s family, in a vicious or terrorizing manner, approaches in an apparent attitude of attack upon streets, sidewalks, any public grounds or places, or on private property other than the property of the owner

The entire Canine “language” is predicated upon preventing serious bites to one another and Humans through a well-defined and highly sophisticated series of signals. Dogs do not mediate by the terms of the Human standard: there are no letters to the newspaper or solicitors; no negotiators or round-table talks. Repeatedly, the top experts in the field try desperately to educate the general public to better understand and respect this instinctual canine response.

“If we are truly to understand a dog’s behaviour, then we cannot ever forget that all dogs are dogs…we have a sanitized view of our dogs… (and we) will be inevitably shocked, horrified and gravely disappointed by our dogs when they act in doglike ways…All dogs are the same kind of dogs – dogs who can bark, growl, snarl, snap and bite.” (pp. 188-189, “Bones Would Rain from The Sky: Deepening our Relationship With Dogs, Suzanne Clothier, 2005)

“In the dog’s natural world, it is taken in stride – it is simply how they settle all issues. Growls, snaps, nips, bites – it is the way they cope with perceived threats to themselves or their status. (By the way, with wolf packs, there are rarely ever serious bites or injuries in skirmishes amongst themselves. The majority of the time it is a threat display, as a serious injury would weaken that pack member and limit their ability to assist in the hunt. A well-socialized dog responds in the same manner, if left uninterrupted by the Humans.) (From a lecture given by Dr. Norma Guy, Atlantic Veterinary College, 2003)

Currently, one of the leading canine behaviorists, Dr. Kendal Shepherd, has created the “Canine Ladder of Aggression” and is used to assist trainers/owners/etc. with an improved understanding of canine escalation and posturing. These ritualized signals are designed to allow avoidance prior to the actual harmful “biting”. (Please see attached sheet for chart.) As one can see from the chart, there are ten steps prior to the biting response. Each stage is in place to send the “message” that the dog is uncomfortable and is reacting to the stress or threat s/he feels in that moment.

Yet another industry leader states it this way:

“The mental hurdle people seem to have is accepting that the dog decides what is spooky or threatening. This is a dangerous place to be anthropomorphic. …So, a major element of the culture clash between dogs and humans is differing perceptions of what constitutes a threat.” (p. 59, The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson)

If we strip our dogs of the ability to warn others, we will incur greater risk, as a dog denied his/her “language” cannot communicate successfully. If proper warnings are shut down, we will see an increase in “bite incidents”, as these animals will be accused of aggression “all of a sudden” and “for no reason at all” as perceived by humans. To expect this species to change its centuries-old complex manner of communication would be equivalent to removing the capacity to talk or write from the Human Species (and then wondering why there were suddenly so many misunderstandings).

Defining “attack” as “to injure or bite, or to threaten or give the impression of threatening” without further differentiation thus imposes an unscientific standard of behavior on dogs. If applied to all reported incidents and prosecute offences accordingly, as the law allows, it will almost certainly result in unfair decisions and treatment of both dogs and owners. As the law virtually deems it an offence to be a dog, it does not seem to provide a reasonable, fair, or just standard.

"As the wording currently stands, all of our domesticated dogs have broken the law."

2.) From the By-Law definition of “Bite”:

s. 2(1)(e): “Bite” – includes to penetrate the skin by a tooth or teeth.”

Our dogs use their mouths. It is a method by with they correct and instruct each other and it is learned from their mothers in the whelping pen. They use a range and variety of force. The name given to this is “bite inhibition”. Trainers strive to educate owners to heavily socialize their dogs so as to carefully develop and nurture this bite inhibition. (Behaviourists categorize these into different groupings, including Grab Bites, Correction Bites, Kill Bites, etc.)
“Also, puppy biting is both normal and absolutely necessary. In fact the more dogs bite as puppies, the softer and safer their jaws in adulthood.” (p. 43, Before and After Getting Your Puppy: The Positive Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, and Well-Behaved Dog. Dr. Ian Dunbar, 2004) 
“Good bite inhibition does not mean that your dog will never snap, lunge, nip or bite. Good bite inhibition means that should the dog snap and lunge, his teeth will seldom make skin contact, and should the dog’s teeth ever make skin contact, the inhibited “bite” will cause little, if any, damage.” (Dunbar, p. 136) 
“Poor bite inhibition - Should he bite, the punctures are deep and the damage is extensive. (Dunbar, p. 141) 
“Bite inhibition is one of the most misunderstood aspects of behavioural development in dogs (and other animals).” (Dunbar, p. 200)
To ascertain that a bite constitutes breaking of the skin and apply this standard to law enforcement on a consistent basis would result in the arrest and confinement of all young puppies. Their mouths have yet to be properly shaped and they frequently “offend” as they are learning correct bite inhibition skills. Often in dog-dog play, there is playful lunge/nip and a dog may receive a puncture/tear to an ear, lip, tongue or body. Yet this does not correlate to aggression or malicious behaviour on the part of the dogs, as it would be understood by trainers and behaviourists. (Do our children not have tumbles or incidents on the playground?)

“Dogs are animals who are able to kill, tear apart carcasses and crack bone with their jaws. They are also highly social. If they are to live among others with this kind of weaponry as standard issue, they need some means of preventing serious injury to each other during altercations. This is where ritualization comes in. A key ingredient to ritualized aggression is bite inhibition.” (p. 67, The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson, 1996)

A dog “bite” inflicted with the intention of dealing out serious damage usually translates into extensive/deep muscle damage and a lot of stitches. This type of injury occurs when a dog has never developed successful bite inhibition; the escalation of ritualized warnings have gone unheeded; the dog believes that the threat is inescapable; the dog is hunting for prey; or the dog has become so under-socialized that s/he has lost the bite inhibition skill altogether. As it stands now, the definition of “bite” is sadly lacking in its interpretation as pared with the scientific community’s understanding of canine behaviour. As the wording currently stands, all of our domesticated dogs have broken the law.

"It is essential to objectively assess which dogs are truly 'dangerous' and which are not... especially if it becomes the basis of drastic actions such as muzzling or seizing a dog and putting it down."

3.) From the By-law A-300 definition of “Dangerous Dog”:
(g) “dangerous dog” means any dog which:
(i) attacks or demonstrates a propensity, tendency or disposition to attack a human being or animal either on public or private property;
(ii) has caused injury to or otherwise endangered the safety of a human
being or animal;
(iii) threatens any human being or animal;
(iv) is owned or harboured primarily or in part for the purpose of dog
 (vi) is a dog for which a muzzle order has been made;
provided that no dog shall be deemed a “dangerous dog” solely because it
attacks or threatens a trespasser on the property of its owner, harms or
menaces anyone who has tormented or abused it, was at the time of its
aggressive behaviour acting in defence to an attack from a person or animal,
acting in defence of it’s young or is a professionally trained guard dog for law enforcement or guard duties;

It is essential to objectively assess which dogs are truly “dangerous” and which are not. The term should be especially carefully defined if a law provides for the label to become the basis of drastic actions such as muzzling or seizing a dog and putting it down.

Once again, however, we are at cross-purposes with the instincts of the dog and Human lack of knowledge of canine behaviours. Stress and fear are “the big ones” when it comes to canine reactions in their assessment of a situation. If a dog (either due to poor training, a negative imprint, or adverse conditions) feels there is a threat (as defined by the dog’s experiences), it will take action. This action is usually in the form of the same kind of “fight or flight” response present in all our bodies. There are chemical changes in the body and brain of the animal, and the learned responses are called upon. This is an emotional state and sets up a behavioural sequence in a certain situation and at a certain moment.
“The truth is that behaviour falls apart all the time. Behaviour is in constant flux. There is never a finished product.” (Donaldson, p. 113)
Dr. Ian Dunbar uses this “yardstick” to define “dangerous”:

"Calculate the dog’s fight/bite ratio by asking, ‘How many times has the dog fought?’ and ‘How many fights warranted veterinary treatment for severe bites?’ The observation (that the dog fights a lot of the time) and the assumption (that the dog is trying to kill other dogs) are quite contrary. If the dog is trying to kill other dogs, then obviously he is not that good at it, since he has had numerous attempts and failed on every occasion. On the contrary, a large number of fights and the absence of injury, offers proof the dog is definitely not trying to kill other dogs. (If one dog were truly trying to harm another dog, the physical damage from a single incident would be extreme.) Certainly he is undersocialized but he has marvellous bite inhibition.” (“Dog-Dog Aggression,” The Dog Star Daily Blog, Dr. Ian Dunbar)

Because our dogs are basically territorial (resourcing what is important to them – food, pack members, space), their natural response is to create distance between what they value and the imminent (perceived) threat. They are not aware of property boundaries as laid out by the provincial surveyors.

“A boundary (determined by the dog) will be actively defended against all parties that the dog decides are intruders.” (p. 112, Aggression in Dogs: Practical Management, Prevention, and Behavior Modification, Brenda Aloff, 2002)

In Conclusion:

"It is time to move away from emotion, anthropomorphism, and myth, and step squarely back into the place of reason and science."

The effort to create an adhesive relationship between dog, people and other dogs is desirable. Laws such as A-300 and statutes in the HRM Charter have been created to help a better and more cohesive society between human beings. However, as we become more knowledgeable in the science of human behaviours and their origins, we should continuously review, adapt, and change the laws to reflect our learning and insure fair and just treatment. (Significant examples would be our laws regarding racism, sexual preference and the status of women.) If we are to tout ourselves as an enlightened (and technically the smarter) species in comparison to dogs, then we must put these rules under the same scientific behavioural microscope to reflect the new science.

The ultimate goal is education of owners, the public, and the officers of the courts and related departments. Recognizing when a dog is “at risk’ versus “out of the owner’s control” is where we need to re-focus. (A young child stepping into the path of a car because the parent wasn’t watching is profoundly different than a driver deliberately aiming the vehicle at the child.)

I would like to end with the observations and wise words from Ms. Shepherd, written to The Times in January of 2008 (italics mine):

“The aim we must all keep in mind is how to manage and educate both children and dogs, and the adults whose responsibility they both are, in order that they can learn how to behave safely together. Contrary to popular assumption, similar numbers of thoroughly 'responsible' dog owners end up the wrong side of the Dangerous Dogs Act, as of less desirable sections of society, for the simple reason that people of all social backgrounds are equally incapable of predicting and controlling what their dog might do. There is evidence from other countries that there is no behavioural difference between Pitbull types and Golden Retrievers in normal social situations and that 'dangerous dogs' legislation both here and abroad has done nothing to reduce the incidence of dog bites. Simply creating more restrictive legislation, continuing to criminalise breeds, muzzling dogs or killing them, and punishing their owners, yet without any informed guidance as to how to move forward in a humane and educational manner, will not solve a thing.
Yours faithfully,
Kendal Shepherd, BVSc., CCAB (Certified Clinical Animal Behaviourist), MRCVS”
A correlated question is now, “What education should the people have, who decide on the fate of the dogs?”

It is time to move away from emotion, anthropomorphism, and myth and step squarely back into the place of reason and science.

Susan M. Jordan
Professional Pet Dog Trainer / Canine Behavioural Consultant
PAWS for Family and Friends
Member: Canadian Association of Professional Pet Dog Trainers; Doggone Safe, Inc.
Associate Member: Association of Pet Dog trainers (US)

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