Welcome to Canis BLOGus

Canis BLOGus – Dog blogging: making evidence-based fun

A critical thinking blog about all things dogs for owners, researchers and professionals.

I share insights and techniques about the cases I see in my dog behaviour therapy practice (Den Haag), I review dog books, I discuss findings of important research articles, and I discuss controversial issues. Bursting with pop science, scathing rants, vivid analogies and tongue-in-cheek illustrations.

Who am I

IMG_6610My name is Laure-Anne and I am an English-speaking expat in The Netherlands. I run an evidence-based dog behaviour therapy practice (Canis bonus) and dog training school (OhMyDog!) in The Hague. I graduated in Zoology (University of Newcastle), then specialized in applied companion animal behaviour (postgrad dip). When I am not working on rehabilitating dogs with behaviour problems, I relax by examining ideas in the pet and behaviour world critically.

For more about me, visit the homepage.

What the blog is about

This blog shares evidence-based information about dog behaviour in layman’s terms. I am on a mission to spread fact-based and thought-provoking information about dogs. So I relentlessly:

  • bust apocryphal stories, speculation, fallacies and biased tales;
  • promote responsible dog ownership;
  • question received ideas.

I enjoy delving into technical subjects and re-surfacing with an article that every dog owner can use to make intelligent decisions about their dog.

I cover many subjects, from comparative psychology to behaviour modification techniques, training school practices and dog welfare. And then of course, I interview interesting dog pros and tell you about my latest dog book review.

To find the articles

  • Click on a category (panel to the right) such as ‘Dog behaviour’ or
  • Enter your search terms in the search bar (top right)

Write a comment

I love comments, no matter how short, off-the-mark, (or contrary). You can leave a comment on each article by:

  • clicking on the title for the post you want to read, and
  • completing the comments form at the bottom of the article.

Order an article

I can also write for your magazine, blog or website on demand. If you want to order an article on a canine subject of your choice,  contact me and I’ll be happy to discuss your needs.

To find out more about my dog writing services, go to my Dog writer page.

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History of psychiatry: what’s it got to do with dogs?

Blog post by dog behaviourist Laure-Anne Visele, The Hague, briefly outlining the history of psychiatry
Written in: August 2017.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

What does psychiatry have to do with dogs?

As a dog behaviourist, I need a finger in every behaviour pie:

  1. Ethology: animal behaviour in their natural habitat,
  2. Behaviourism: how animals (humans included) learn,
  3. Comparative psychology: comparing human and canine behaviour disorders.

So I have basic knowledge of the signs of the major psychiatric conditions recognized in humans, particularly ones affecting fear, arousal and aggression regulation. So I practically jumped for joy when I found a tiny book on the history of psychiatry in an old bookstore. It fascinated me so much that I expanded the milestones written in the book into the combined list I compiled belowwith other psychiatry milestones. Here goes, welcome to my rough and ready psychiatry timeline.

A history of psychiatry

  • 1550 BCE – Rough symptoms of clinical depression are described on the Ebers papyrus (Egypt), a classification of known diseases at the time.
  • 872 – A hospital for the mentally ill is opened in Cairo, with Islam’s typical charitable attitude to the less fortunates. This is in stark contrast to Europe’s medieval ‘lunatic asylums’, where patients are believed to be under the influence of the devil and suffer base abuse. ‘Lunatics’ in Europe were often cared for by monasteries, and subjected to cruel treatment in the name of saving their souls.
  • 1377 to 1676 – Bethlem – aka Bedlam – was founded in 1247 but only started acting accepting patients with symptoms of mental illness in the 1370’s. The dispensary since became synonymous with the worst abuse of psychiatric patients known to history, with harsh physical abuse and solitary confinement, believing these to be therapeutic. Aside from schizophrenic patients (‘lunatic’ patients), it also accommodated for epileptic (‘falling sickness’) patients, dementia sufferers and people with learning disabilities.

1735 engraving by T. Bowles showing Bedlam patients being restrained

  • 1530 – Jean Fernel (Catherine de Medicis’ attending physician), drafts the first classification of mental disorders in his Medicina universa. He sorts them along four major axes: mania, melancholy, dementia, and idiots.
  • 1656 – Louis XIV (France) founds an institution for prostitutes and the mentally ill.
  • 1777 – William Cullen coins the word neurosis. Used today to mean an episode of intense stress whilst retaining a sense of reality. As opposed to a psychosis.
  • 1810 – The Code Napoleon (Napoleonic Constitution) absolves psychotic patients from criminal responsibility.
  • 1818 – The word ‘Psychiatry’ is born. Coined by Dr. Johann Christian Heinroth, German medical doctor. Not to be confused by Oskar Heinroth, one of the founding fathers of ethology. At the time, only the most severely affected in-patients fell under the realm of psychiatry. They were treated with inhumane and mostly ineffective measures.
  • 1828 – The Madhouse Act (UK) is the first attempt to regulate mental asylums and give a semblance of rights to psychiatric patients.
  • 1848Phineas Gage, a US railway worker, suffers severe damage to his left frontal lobe in a work accident. Subsequently, obvious behaviour changes are observed including loss of social inhibitions, quickness to anger and lack of ethical consideration. Nowadays, his proclaimed dramatic changes of personality are debated (see here and here) but his case was historical in the dawn of the brain localisation period in neuroscience, where every function was believed to have but one discrete location in the brain.

Phinneas Gage holding the bar that injured him

  • 1859 – Dr. Briquet (France) writes the ‘Traite clinique et therapeutique de l’hysterie‘, including taking a stab at aetiology. The book covers every affliction he equated to a neurosis, from vomitting, barking, catalepsy and mutism to hiccups.
  • 1867 – First use of the word ‘depression’ by French poet Baudelaire. This will only be used in psychiatry from 1970, finally replacing the term ‘melancholy’
  • 1870’s – Bromides were the sedatives of the day. This highly addictive compound was also prescribed to epileptics in the belief that it would lessen the sexual urges that were thought to be at the source of their mal.
  • 1870’s: A silver-staining method invented by Camillo Golgi, combined with microscopy, reveal the anatomy of the neuron.

Rabbit hippocampus by Camillo Golgi

  • 1887Elizabeth Cochran Seaman (pen name Nellie Bly) poses as mentally ill and stays for ten days undercover in a psychiatric institution in the US, revealing abject abuses leading to wide-ranging reforms.

Nelly Bly’s graphic rendition of her undercover work

  • 1888 – Santiago Ramon y Cajal puts forward that neurons are the central functioning unit of the brain.
  • 1893 – Emil Kraepelin’s describes the clinical signs of dementia praecox (precocious dementia): onset in late teens/early adulthood, chronic episodes, and loss of cognitive abilities. Today, these clinical signs are classified as schizophrenia.
  • 1895Josef Breuer and Sigmund Freud publish their Studies on hysteria, famously discussing the case of Anna O (Bertha Pappenheim, a pioneer for the feminist cause).
  • 1901Alois Alzheimer, German psychiatrist, documents his eponymous disease.
  • 1903Barbiturates, highly addictive anti-convulsants, are introduced and subsequently widely prescribed as hypnotics (i.e. sleeping pills) and later as sedatives (i.e. relaxants). Barbiturates had a narrow therapeutic range, in the sense that excess dosage could quickly lead to a toxic response – read overdose. Barbiturates also cause some of the most dangerous drug withdrawal reactions. Despite all this, they continued to be widely prescribed until the 1970’s.
  • 1905: PTSD-like symptoms labelled ‘battle shock’ in Russian soldiers. Later labelled ‘shell shock’ by British soldiers during WWI.

Australian soldiers in Ypres during WWI. Soldier at bottom left is represented as being shell-shocked

  • 1905: Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, French psychologists, develop the Binet-Simon scale to measure intelligence. This is the world’s first attempt at a standardized psychometric test.
  • 1908: Eugine Bleuler, Swiss psychiatrist (and director of a Zurich mental institution), coins the term ‘schizophrenia’
  • 1911 – First use of the word ‘autism’ by Eugene Bleuler, Swiss psychiatrist.
  • 1920 – John Watson (and his graduate student, Rosalie Rayner), conducts the famous Little Albert experiment whereby he permanently traumatises a baby by producing a loud noise upon presenting a white rat in support of his claims of classical conditioning being applicable to humans. Little Albert famously suffered from a lifelong phobia of small animals.

Photograph taken by John Watson himself, showing Litle Albert’s reaction to a white beard being tested

  • 1923Freud elaborates the school of psychotherapy and for the first time out-patients are treated. This marks a schism from biopsychiatry where patients are treated through dialog rather than medication. Freud’s patients are not as severely impaired as psychiatry’s traditional in-patients.
  • 1924 – German neuropsychiatrist Hans Berger develops electroencephalography, using non-invasive electrodes to record voltage fluctuations in the brain.
  • 1932 – Discovery by Manfred Sakel of insuline’s therapeutic effects on schizophrenic patients and thus birth of biological therapy: the idea that biological means could treat psychiatric conditions.
  • 1936 – Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine to Henry Hallett Dale (British neuroscientist) and Otto Loewi (German pharmacologist) for their discovery of Acetylcholine, discovering the first’s neurotransmitter (a chemical produced by an activated neuron and causing a biological effect on the next neuron, where it is released). Acetylcholine regulates, among other things, muscle stimulation and, more psychiatrically relevant, REM sleep. ACh also plays a role in encoding new memories.
  • 1938 – Invention of the eletroconvulsive therapy by Ugo Cerleti and Lucio Bini.

Bergonic chair used to induce seizure in a psychiatric patient

  • 1944 – Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is synthesized by Swiss chemist Leandro Panizzon. It was famously originally used to treat his wife’s low blood pressure. His wife’s name? Rita! Yes, that’s where the name ‘Ritalin’ comes from.
  • 1946Norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), is isolated by Ulf von Euler (Swedish biologist who goes on to winning a Nobel Prize for his work on neurotransmitters in 1970). Norepinephrine regulates a mental (and neurological) state of alertness, increasing heart rate and blood pressure, for example. It is also important for forming memories. Norepinephrine is the precursor to epinephrine, aka adrenaline. Adrenaline is depleted by stress and replenished by exercise.
  • 1948Lithium carbonate’s mood stabilising properties are demonstrated
  • 1949 – Donald Hebb’s book, Organisation of behaviour – a neuropsychological theory – shares his discovery of the neuroanatomy of learning and memory. We now know that memories are encoded over neural networks.
  • 1950 – Eugene Roberts and Jorge Awapara discover that GABA (gamma aminobutyric acid if you don’t mind), discovered in fungi in 1910, was also in fact a neurotransmitter. A GABA deficiency can lead to anxiety or even epilepsy. GABA is also involved in schizophrenia and sleep disorders. Famous substances activating GABA receptors are benzodizepines (with our famous Diazepam – Valium and Alprazolam – Xanax), alcohol and barbiturates (sometimes used for anesthesia but also recreationally). GABAergic drugs are used for their hypnotics, sedatives, tranquillizers (sedative-hypnotics) and anticonvulsants.
  • 1950 – Rhone Polenc invents Chlorpromazine (better known as Thorazine), an antipsychotic still used today on some schizophrenic patients. This anti-psychotic drug kick-started the large de-institutionalisation movement that has led to today’s mental illness crisis in the US, whereby severely mentally ill people were left to their own fate as institution after institution shuts down.
  • 1952 – Betty Twarog discovers serotonin is a neurotransmitter (in molluscs, initially). Serotonin is involved in the regulation of moods, notably the inhibition aggression and depressive states. Serotonergic drugs, including famous SSRI’s (serotonine reuptake inhibitors) like Fluoxetine (Prozac) are among the biggest selling drugs on the market. They are also the drug of choice for a flurry of canine behavioural conditions. Hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD or ecstasy, interestingly, are also serotonergic.
  • 1952 – Arvid Carsson discovers dopamine. He eventually got a Nobel prize for his work (in 2000). Dopamine is the precursor to its famous neurotransmitter cousin, adrenaline (and of course noradrenaline). Dopamine is involved in Parkinson’s disease. This was discovered by rendering rabbits catatonic through the depletion of dopamine at their nerve terminals. Injecting dopamine restored their previous motor function. Dopamine is also involved in the so-called reward pathways and, as such, plays a major role in generating and maintaining addictions and compulsions.
  • 1952 – Publication of DSM-I, the American Psychiatric Association’s first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. It contained just 106 ‘character’ disorders (or “reactions”) viewed as weaknesses of character due to faults in upbringing. It did not so much contain formal diagnoses as theories.
  • 1953Patient H.M. has parts of his hippocampus removed in an attempt to relieve him of his lifelong seizures. As a result, he develops near complete anterograde amnesia and loses the ability to create new memories. Experiments of his cognitive capacities revolutionised our understanding of memory and revealed two distinct mechanisms: declarative (that can be expressed with words) and procedural (automatic, classical conditioning, motor tasks) memory.
  • 1954 – Methylphenidate (Ritalin) is recognized as a Central Nervous System stimulant (Meier et al, 1954).
  • 1956 – Evidence of antidepressant properties of Iproniazid – previously used against tuberculosis. The birth of the world’s first anti-depressant (of the Mono Amine Oxydase inhibitor type).
  • 1957 – First precise mention of ADHD-like symptoms as ‘hyperkinetic impulse disorder’. In 1957 also, Thorazine [!] is used on “hyperkinetic emotionally disturbed children”
  • 1957Benzodiazepine’s hypnotic, muscle relaxant and anxiolytic properties are discovered by Laboratoires Laroche in the US.  Famous benzodiazepines are Diazepam (Valium) and Alprazolam (Xanax). Benzodiazepines are highly addictive – though not as much as barbiturates – but also highly effective at tacking phobias, panic, anxiety and insomnia. They are fast-acting, making them a drug of first-choice to curb predictable acute phobic episodes in dogs (like fireworks).

  • 1961 – ‘Histoire de la folie a l’age classique’ is published, a scathing critique of psychiatry and its chemical straightjackets.
  • 1963 – First study on Ritalin (methylphenidate) for ’emotionally disturbed children’ is published
  • 1964 – The first draft of the Declaration of Helsinki is signed, an ethical code for human experimentation.
  • 1968: DSM-II with 182 disorders and follows the structure of the broader International Classification of Diseases in an attempt to gain validation.
  • 1969: John Bowlby’s attachment theory reveals the possible role of maternal deprivation in the development of some psychopathologies.
  • 1970The word ‘zoopsychatrie’ is coined. Roughly translated from French, it means veterinary behaviourism.
  • 1973: Solomon Snyder and Candace Pert discover endorphins (endogenous morphine). Endorphins are a group of inhibitory neurotransmitters that generate feelings of pleasure, as well as having an analgaesic effect. They have a similar effect to opioids like heroine and opium. They depress the central nervous system depressant, they slow it down. They are believed to be involved in stress-related psychiatric disorders, severe depression, addiction disorders and schizophrenia.
  • 1974:  Allan Baddeley and Graham Hitch propose the model of working memory replacing the short-term/long-term memory model. This sheds light on the cognitive skills involved in retrieving and storing the information required to perform a particular task, distinguishing between verbal and visuo-spatial stores, for example.
  • 1975: The anti-Ritalin movement expands as several books are published, bringing the validity of the ADHD diagnosis into question.
  • 1980DSM-III: A radical change from the previous versions, with a marked departure from psychoanalysis to cognitive behavioural therapy terminology and a focus on measurable, observable symptoms. It bore 265 diagnostic categories. This more standardised version reflects psychology and psychiatry’s efforts to be recognised as valid scientific fields. Prior to DSM-III, the categories were so vague that they did not allow rigorous research. This led to a flurry of research into mental illnesses, which has greatly contributed in the destigmatisation of patients from weak and wilful to legitimate sufferers. A notable modern addition to the DSM-III: PTSD.
  • 1977-1985 – Development of SSRI’s, facilitating the treatment of depression, but also panic attacks, anxiety disorders, obsessive disorders and phobias. Fluoxetine is one of the most widely used behavioural drug on dogs today.
  • 1987DSM-IIIR
  • 1992: DSM-IV: 297 disorders. One major change from previous versions was the inclusion of the clinical significance criteria: the degree to which a sufferer is impeded from conducting a productive life is becoming a central diagnostic criterion. Concretely, it means that you can experience all the symptoms listed in a disorder but still not have the diagnostic. Perhaps disappointingly, the APA admits to the DSM-IV’s continued lack of internal consistency: “no definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of ‘mental disorder’… different situations call for different definitions”. It states that “there is no assumption that each category of mental disorder is a completely discrete entity with absolute boundaries dividing it from other mental disorders or from no mental disorder” (APA, 1994 and 2000).
  • 1994: Peter Usherwood discovers that Glutamate (discovered in Tokyo as a food flavor in 1907 and present in the famous monosodium glutamate!) is a neurotransmitter. It is in fact the most common neurotransmitter, present in nearly half of our neurons. Glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter. It is released when we perceive danger. It is believed to be involved in a number of psychiatric disorders, including PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), major depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia.
  • 2013: DSM-V: Quoting the number of discrete diagnoses in this edition is surprisingly controversial. The major changes in this version are an attempt to add biological correlates to the disorders (and famously failing to do so), and the merging of specific disorders into broader spectra (famously schizophrenia and autism, among others).

Where are we now?

Looking at the timeline, I am glad we live on this side of history. There’s still quite a bit to achieve before most human (and even more so, canine) psychiatric patients receive effective and humane treatments, are treated with dignity and understanding.

Today, many psychiatric patients still have to contend with much well-meaning but misguided advice from:

  • The ones who believe ‘tough love’ is the way to recovery, dismissing our human/canine patients as people who just ‘need to toughen up, and a bit of discipline’.
  • The medication detractors who find ‘It’s full of chemicals.’ and that our patients should just ‘use homeopathy/Reiki/quantum healing/…’  or simply do more sports.
  • The ones who see mental health patients as being weak, wilfulness, stupid, dangerous.
  • The skeptical doctors (/vets) who see behaviour/psycho- therapy as pseudoscience. The same doctors/vets who, while we fight to validate our profession with evidence, dispense unfounded behaviour advice because they saw it on National Geographic or once read a book about it…

Meanwhile some of our patients, human and canine alike, face:

  1. Confinement,
  2. Only partially effective medication with crippling unacceptable side effects
  3. The majority of first responders (police/dog shelters or doctors/vets), woefully under-trained in dealing with agitated or psychotic patients, frequently resort to violence when apprehending a patient.

So we still have a ways to go. I hope I can re-write the timeline in a few years and have some progress to report.

Illustration credits

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Can Dutch dog training schools take hordes of unwilling high-risk dog owners?

Blog post about the implications of the proposed 2018 Dutch Breed-Specific Legislation for dog training schools
Written in: August 2017. Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Breed-Specific Legislation from January 2018

You haven’t been living under a rock, right? So you know Breed Specific Legislation is around the corner again here in The Netherlands. A compulsory course for owners of ‘High Risk Dogs’ forms the cornerstone of the regulation. As the manager of a dog training school (OhMyDog! The Hague), I have some questions and worries about the proposed law.

If you have answers or comments, we’d love to hear from you. Click on ‘leave a comment’.

Many questions about the compulsory course

The latest proposed Breed-Specific Legislation in the Netherlands (I cover it here in detail) is causing quite a lot of anxiety in the High Risk Dog community and for dog training schools. The wording of is vague and raises many questions:

  1. What course do they mean specifically? A standard puppy and/or obedience classes? Or a targeted course for responsibly raising a HRD?
  2. Is the course compulsory before purchasing the dog? Or is it for existing owners too?
  3. What difference are they hoping the course will make? If people were going to be idiots about it, they’ll still do as they please at home.
  4. If the training school suspects abuse, neglect or endangerment, what recourse does it have? Can we withhold this ‘license for responsible dog ownership’? And then what? Must they give the dog back? To whom? Also, the very idiots the law is trying to target are the most likely people to intimidate schools into delivering the certificates. So how will the government protect schools against this harassment?
  5. Will all dog training schools be considered qualified to deliver these courses? I shudder to think of the advice that will be given by our less reputable colleagues…
  6. Is the school supposed to report on absenteeism or lack of cooperation?
  7. Who determines the criteria for successful course completion? Individual schools or government guidelines?
  8. What of dogs with an existing aggression problem? Attending a group course won’t fix that: these dogs need private training. Given the cost of private training, is the government going to make these services compulsory too? Will it subsidise these services then?
  9. Will the Government pressure schools to take on dogs or clients that are a poor match?
  10. Some schools turn down certain breeds (we don’t). Will these be forced to take on students they do not feel competent to teach?

These are huge concerns for Dutch dog training schools and we need answers.

Dog training schools rejecting high-risk dogs?

HRD owners tell me they are worried some training schools will reject them, running them afoul of the law through no fault of their own.

Right now, when a HRD dog registers, I high-five myself. So far, my HRD owners have generally been above-average responsive, well-informed, motivated and experienced. But these are the guys who chose to come to us, an expensive school with a reputation for modern courses and force-free methods. These are dedicated breed ambassadors.

Will I be high-fiving the team with each new HRD registration in January? I don’t think so. If anything, it will de-incentivise and stigmatise the fabulous HRD owners and it will prejudice training schools about their potential lack of motivation.

Will we reject HRD applications by default? Certainly not. Our policy is that only individual dogs who are temperamentally suited for group training are allowed to participate in group classes, regardless of breed. We recommend aggressive, over-agitated and fearful dogs follow private lessons. But one thing is for sure: I shall certainly be less willing to compromise on borderline cases if I am assailed with requests.

Do high-risk dogs need specialist skills?

This AD article (in Dutch) raises concerns that dog training schools won’t have the skills to give these courses, so will either reject applications or botch up the job. I wonder what breed-specific skills they believe are required?

Breed-generic risk management policies can cope: dogs who tense up in fear/over-excitement/hyper-focus/irritation (particularly large dogs) need close supervision and coaching on prevention skills, regardless of the breed. The prevention skills are:

  • (Management skill) Avoid known problem situations: restricted space and close proximity to trigger,
  • (Training skill) Teach the dog to calm itself down from excitement (on command),
  • (Training skill) Never EVER use force to raise them,
  • (Management skill) Avoid over-arousal like the plague, for any emotion, and
  • (Training skill) Socialise in a responsible way (not too much, not too little).

For these dogs, we have a staff (de)briefing before and after every lesson, and we give the owner a weekly status update on progress, preparing them for being rerouted to private lessons if the situation deteriorates.

Conclusion

It will continue to be OhMyDog!‘s honour to welcome all sociable dogs to our group courses, HRD or not. We are also willing and competent to help you with aggressive dogs – HRD or not – through private training.

But we will not train ourselves for breaking up serious dog fights with large, aggressive dogs – regardless of breed. We will not endanger ourselves or our clients for the misguided notion that a compulsory group course would make a difference. If these are the skills required, then no, we do not have them. Nor do we want them.

Illustration credits

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Dog book review: Dr. Dodman’s The Dog who loved too much

Shout out about new dog book review by Canis bonus. August 2017
Review author: Laure-Anne Visele

About the review’s author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

The dog who loved too much

Years after its publication, I finally got a chance to crunch my teeth into Dodman’s classic ‘The dog who loved too much.’

Published in 1996, it is obviously showing its age on a few topics but I have enjoyed my read and took a lot of clinical information out of it, particularly in psychopharmacology.  I highly recommend it for behaviourists looking for case studies with real-life owners, dogs and prognoses of common behaviour conditions.

For the detailed review, follow the link below.

Dog who loved too much (the)

Posted in Dog writing | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

2018 Breed Specific Legislation in the Netherlands: a critical review and suggestions

Blog post about the Breed Specific Legislation in The Netherlands to be put in place in January 2018: Praise, criticism and implications
Article by Canis bonus. July 2017. Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits and back links at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-poinAnne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog’s behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Breed-Specific Legislation in The Netherlands

Breed Specific Legislation will come into effect in the Netherlands again from January 2018, after a nine-year absence. In the post below, I explain what the law is proposing to do, what reasoning went behind it, and what elements do and don’t make sense in my view.

The points raised by the law that I discuss later in the post are indicated in bold.

The proposed law

For now, only two measures have been stated:

1. Owners of the 21 breeds listed below concerned will need to follow a ‘course on raising a dog’ (opvoedcursus).

2. Local municipalities will be allowed to put up regulations applying only to the listed breeds (but will not necessarily do so), such as:

  • Compulsory muzzle
  • Compulsory short leash
  • Ban from certain public areas where many childrenbea play

The Government is also working on additional future measures (so nothing concrete on these points yet):

  • A breeding and import ban
  • A central dog bite incident register (any breeds)
  • A central anti-social behaviour register by dogs and/or owners (any breeds)

What breeds are on the list?

They define High Risk Dogs (HRD) breeds as: “Dogs who were originally bred for fighting […] These dogs can display aggression inflicting serious damage. They frequently bite people.” (Government source here)

The breeds are listed on the official Government page as follow:

  1. Akita
  2. Alano
  3. American Bulldog
  4. American Pitbull Terrier
  5. American Staffordshire Terrier
  6. Anatolian Shepherd
  7. Bandog
  8. Boerboel
  9. Bull Mastiff
  10. Bull Terrier
  11. Bully Kuta
  12. Cane Corso
  13. Dogo Argentino
  14. Dogo Canario
  15. Fila Brasileiro
  16. Rottweiler
  17. Staffordshire Bull Terrier
  18. (Caucasian) Owcharka
  19. (South Russian) Owcharka
  20. Pitbulls, bullies and variants: pocket, micro, extreme pocket, regular, xl, xxl, rednose, you name it
  21. Tosa inu

(For technical reasons, I cannot attach source links to the pictures in the gallery itself. For full photo credits, including back-links, check Illustration credits at the end of this post.)

HRD crosses and look-alikes are will also be considered HRD’s but dogs with a *pedigree will not (*a valid Raad van Beheer pedigree. RvB = Dutch Kennel Club).

The Government warns they may add more breeds to the list.

The second list: listed but not considered high-risk

The government created a secondary list with breeds that were originally bred for fighting that are deemed lower-risk by the government:

  1. Boxer
  2. Dobermann
  3. Dogue de Bordeaux
  4. English Bulldog
  5. Mastiff
  6. Shar-Pei
  7. Mastino Napoletano

The breeds on the exemption list need to have a valid pedigree.

Now let’s start looking at my concerns, in no particular order.

High-risk crosses?

In the dog-fighting world, dogs get crossed for maximum dangerosity, granted but…

  1. Do all HRD x HRD mixes stem from the dog-fighting world?
  2. What of a HRD x non-HRD hybrids? I know a Staffie-Labrador cross (he’s a working dog, actually). Are they considered HRD’s? What of Chipits (yes, that’s a thing: Chihuahua – Pitbull)?
  3. What of distant ancestry? DNA testing can reveal 1/16th HRD and 15/16th non-HRD. Is the dog still HRD?

I am concerned by the grey areas raised by this question. I am curious: does someone out there know the answer to a couple of these questions? Include your source and I’ll credit you and update the post.

High-risk look-alikes?

What of the purebred/pedigree-less lookalikes like old English Bulldogges (not on either list), or complete mutts that look like a HRD like my own dog (Podenco x Labrador x German Shepherd).

Viewed from a certain angle even my Lab/Podenco looks like a Staffie

I heard stories of large-skulled Labradors being confiscated by law enforcement as they looked like an HRD, and the police being reluctant to return the dog even though a passport and pedigree was produced (this was back in the old Dutch Breed-Specific Legislation days)

So, will a DNA test be part of the identification process this time?

And how do you do that exactly with a banddog or a Pitbull (they are not even a breed)?

Why these breeds and not others?

This Government page (in Dutch) explains why they picked the breeds they did and this NRC article covers the question in layman’s terms (in Dutch).

In short, the reasons were:

  1. Originally bred for fighting skills
  2. Powerful, large, muscular
  3. Particularly dangerous biting style
  4. Often involved in serious attacks on people.

Dangerous biting style

The elements they took into account were:

a. Ability to sustain a hold-bite with unimpeded breathing 

Powerful jaw = more stable bite hold

High-risk dogs on the list have powerful jaws, no argument.

With unimpeded breathing?

This point sounds an awful lot like the lock-jaw super-power urban myth. Does someone out there know specifically what aspect of morphology would help what specific HRD breed to keep breathing whilst holding whilst other breeds cannot?

Steadfast bite as a psychological trait

Sustained bite ability is 10% morphology 90% psychology in my view. (Some) dogs with Bull ancestry can have behavioural tendencies for hold-biting. THAT is the concern, not some anatomical feature.

It boils down to the same (a dog who easily lets go vs. a dog who does not let go) but it’s still an important distinction or you’ll even be sticking English Bulldogs on the first HRD list next.

b. Tendency to aim for vulnerable body parts (e.g. throat) 

They do NOT aim for the throat in human attacks, unless trained specifically to do so

What I see when analysing the horrendous incidents involving HRD’s is impulsive aggression: opportunistic bites to the nearest body parts like the face for children and the hands, arms and thighs for adults.

They ALSO bite vital body parts in dogs, but not exclusively so

When it comes to attacking other dogs, the bites also, but not only, target the abdomen, femoral and neck regions, and can include shaking.

The bite locations also appears opportunistic in these frenzied dog-dog incident: the victim-dog is bitten with great force (no doubt about the intend to harm), but all over (not with the surgical precision implied by the ‘going for the throat’ statement).

What makes it pathological is that the attacker bites the vulnerable parts at all. Behaviourally healthy dogs tend to resolve their conflicts ritually, with a lot of show and dance but no bites to vital body parts.

Another worry in the types of aggression we see in these frenzied moments is the uninhibited use of force. My own dog (Lab size) has impressive jaws. He could inflict serious damage if he chose to. But he has a soft bite and stays cool. He caught a duck by the neck once. In my panic, I naively asked him to let go. And he did! He wasn’t worked up. He’d just had something in his mouth. The bird left unscathed! Now picture a typical Jack Russell in my dog’s place. He would have torn the duck to pieces.

The role of neurotransmitters

An attack with opportunistic and unrestrained bites is the product of a state of frenzy. Could it be that some certain (not all) members of some breeds are predisposed to (not bound to) to

  1. Reach this state of frenzy more easily (with less provocation) than the average dog?
  2. And that this state of frenzy lasts longer than for the average dog?
  3. And that this state of reaches higher peaks of intensity?

On all three counts, that would be a Yes. Yes, a tendency for 1-3 can be heritable.

During this state of frenzy, dog is blind to their victim’s appeasing signals, bites without inhibition, gets so excited that it will not feel attempts to pull it off, and it keeps attacking, taking a long time to calm down. These are the hallmarks of the attacks that are being reported in the press. The dog is ‘seeing red’.

ADRENALINE: In human terms, adrenaline has been (partly) involved in impulsive aggression, a type of aggression that looks an awful lot like these dog attacks in the press. Adrenaline also explains that the attacker is not perceiving its environment, just its victim. And that the attacker is seemingly oblivious to pain during a fit.

For a detailed look at the possible role of adrenaline, read my article on Pitbulls.

DOPAMINE: Dopamine too has been implicated in impulsive aggression (in humans, Oades et al, 2008). And yes, certain lines of dogs have been bred for ‘vechtlust’, a desire to fight. ‘Healthy’ aggression is reactive, defensive, a last resort. A dog who wants to fight pro-actively seeks opportunities because it feels good and the slightest excuse will be enough to trigger an all-out attack.

SEROTONIN: A dysfunction in the serotonin system has also been implicated in humans aggression (Bevilacqua and Goldman, 2013). Interstingly, it is also involved in canine ‘impulsive disinhibited aggression’ (Peremans et al, 2002), which may be the types of attacks we’ve been seeing.

Why am I talking of neurotransmitters? Because it’s the nature side of the nature-nurture arguments. It’s a biological mediator of a dog’s behaviour. It’s heritable.

Predisposition vs. certainty

Nature: Let’s start with killing the ‘It’s all about the owners’ argument. Some dogs can be predisposed to these problems. And some strains of some breeds (i.e. in fight and protection dog circles) are selected for frenzied aggression. You can raise these dogs with all the love in the world and still have an aggression problem (though a lot profound and intense than that showed by the neglected and abused dogs typically involved in bite incidents – Nurture).

Now the million dollar question. Are 2% of Staffies predisposed to frenzied aggression? Or 99%? From my daily practice (most are pedigreed pet dogs), most are extremely tolerant to humans. Are my human-tolerant guys the minority? The statistics are all over the place so we don’t know if it is (a) typical of a Staffie to be extremely aggressive, or whether (b) only deviant Staffies have the problem. From personal experience, (b) gets my vote but you don’t get to solid facts from personal experience.

The ones I see in my practice also show a predisposition (again, predisposition, not a certainty. Not all of the ones I see have the problem far from it) for unprovoked dog-dog aggression. This typically starts around the 18-months or two-year mark. These attacks are not frenzied, though, but they do seek out conflict.

c. Hard bite pressure, making it much harder to pry the jaws open

Psychology vs. morphology

Again, we are dealing with psychology as well as morphology.

I am not sure the bite pressure is solely due to their wide skull and strong muscles. A St Bernard has a respectable skull size, but his ancestors weren’t bred for clamping down onto a furious bull’s nose.

Remember: genetics are probabilistic, not deterministic

Not every Lab has a soft mouth and not every Bully has a hard bite.

Irresponsible ownership: fight training, abuse, neglect, neglectful confinement and lack of socialisation

Lastly: can we separate irresponsible ownership from biting styles? I don’t believe we can.

Most serious incidents I’ve read involved a status dog being kept in neglectful conditions, or a recently adopted dog of unknown origins.

In the circles where the dog is objectified as a status dog, he may be involved in casual or even professional fights, and thus trained like an athlete to have a quick, powerful and tenacious bite. These dogs undergo hours of training every day and are provoked and starved and beaten up.

Would your standard Staffie (who does not come from fighting stock and who isn’t abused) pose more of a danger than your standard Labrador? I sincerely don’t know.

Exempt breeds: muddy administrative exceptions

HRD breeds are exempt if they have a pedigree (so Staffies, Argentinos, etc.) and pedigreed dogs on the pre-exempted list (e.g. English bulldogs, Boxers) are all exempt. So no matter the breed, if your dog has a pedigree, he’s exempted.

The reasoning is unclear to me. If the 21 breeds are inherent dangerous, does the pedigree make them safer? I could in theory breed a few generations of pedigreed Staffies for fighting traits. Perhaps the pedigree clause is an attempt to legitimate responsible owners? But this is still going to affect hordes of responsible owners of unpedigreed dogs.

My beloved old dog, Rodgie, an English Bulldog/Fox terrier cross

Here is another point of confusion: what if you have an unpedigreed dog whose breed appears on the second list (e.g. English bulldog or a Boxer)? Is he then a HRD in the eyes of the law? And what of a cross between, say, an English Bulldog and a Fox terrier. Believe me, these crosses happen. I had one. Would my old dog have been considered an HRD?

Exempt breeds: lower risk?

It struck me that the Neapolitan Mastiff and the Dogue de Bordeaux were not appeared on the first list. Breeds on the second list (like the Neapolitan) were deemed lower-risk because (as reported by the Hondenbescherming here):

a. The aggression would have been ‘bred out of them’ (by Kennel Clubs and breeders)

Statistically speaking, I know how hard it is to get hold of decent data on aggressive tendencies at breed level. So how did they establish that the breeds on the second list (Neapolitan mastiffs, say), had lower aggressive tendencies, that it had been ‘bred out of them’?

What were the variables, sample population, sample size, comparison population, control group, etc. Or was it just a judgement call, a gut feeling, a bias, the result of pressure from interest groups?

Until I see where the data has come from, some first-versus-second-list choices will continue to feel arbitrary to me, invalidating the whole affair.

b. They would be involved in fewer incidents

There is 1 Neapolitano to every gazillion Staffies, so you’d expect more incidents with Staffies. That doesn’t mean Staffies (on average) are aggressive than Neapolitanos (on average).

The case for the English Bulldog is more easily made as they are couch potatoes, but I find the Neapolitanos and Shar Peis odd choices. From what I see in practice, I do not believe for a second that the propensity for dog-dog aggression has been ‘bred out of the Shar peis’.

Where are the German Shepherds?

On average, German Shepherds are more bite-prone than, say, Staffies. The average German Shepherds (particulary working line ones) tends to be sensitive to fast movement, mouthy, easily frustrated and easily spooked. Not a great genetic combination for a relatively large dog. So why didn’t they make the list?

I imagine the Shepherd’s bite style was (relatively) less problematic: they (tend to) flash-bite instead of hold-bite. All I can say is, as a dog professional, I am a lot more nervous if an off-lead German Shepherd comes bounding up to me than an off-lead Staffie.

The Sheps being such a popular breed, imagine the uproar if they got added to the list – as, ironically, some German regions have. They were discussed by a government report as a potential addition, mind (see RDA report), so watch this space.

Knowledge used to draw the list

According to this Government document, the list was put together based on the advice of 5 national and international experts. The High-Risk Dogs being a devilishly complicated tale of behaviour genetics, epidemiology and criminology, I’d love to know what experts were consulted. If you know, please share it with us and leave a comment.

According to the same document, they based their decisions on the following list of references. I am underwhelmed by the quality of the sources here: look at the ratio of valid research references vs. popular science vs. opinion piece.

  • Avner, J R, Baker, M D (1991). Dog bites in urban children. Pedriatrics, 88 (1),55- 58
  • Beasly, J.T. (2015). Misunderstood Nanny Dogs? North Charlesto: CreateSpace
  • Billmire, D.A. (25 augustus 2016). Opinion: There is no need for pitbulls
  • Coppinger, R, Coppinger, L (2001), Dogs, a new understanding of canine origin, behavior and evolution, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
  • Harding, S (2014), Unleashed: the phenomena of status and weapon dogs, Bristol: Policy Press
  • Jessup, D (1995) The working Pit Bull, Neptune City: T.f.h. publications
  • Kaye, A E, Belz, J M, Kirschner, R E (2009). Pediatric Dog Bite Injuries: A 5-Year Review of the Experience at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. PRS Journal, 551-558
  • Loewe, C L, Diaz, F D, Bechinsky, J (2007). Pitbull mauling deaths in Detroit. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 28 (4), 356-360
  • O’Brien, D C, Andre, T B, Robinson, A D, Squires, L D, Tollefson, T T (2014). Dog bites of the head and neck: an evaluation of a common pediatric trauma and associated treatment. American Journal of Otolaryngology – head and neck medicine and surgery, 36 (1), 32-38

Each of the valid papers came from bite treatment data from hospitals, with obvious breed identification limitations.

Where are the papers showing an inverse correlation between size and likelihood to attack (you can find a few here). Where are the papers showing the ineffectiveness of Breed Specific Legislation in reducing serious incidents? Regardless of the literature, having toyed with BSL from 1993 to 2008 (see Regeling Agressieve Dieren) and failed to reduce bite incidents, shouldn’t the Netherlands know better?

The original report: focus on the owner

If you look at this report from the RDA (a large panel of experts advising the government on the dog bite problem), the risk factors they identify are: owner first, breed second, context third (as in at the time of the bite, degree of provocation of the victim, etc.).

Source: Hondenbeten aan de Kaak gesteld. Aanbiedingsbrief of the RDA (Feb 2017)

This diagram shows the dog’s breed as a sub-point in the second risk factor, along with the character of the invididual dog. Why aren’t the measures focusing on all breeds? Or problem dogs – as identified pre-bite by neighbours, etc. raising concerns in a central database, and early intervention. Why does the current law proposal have such a focus on these 21 breeds?

Are dogs on the HRD higher-risk?

The risk calculation

To assess risk, you look at:

  1. Potential for injury: A furious Staffie will cause more damage than a furious Cocker Spaniel (but don’t underestimate the Cockers either), no argument.
  2. Likelihood of aggression: This point is A LOT more contentious. It is a mix of the dog’s state of mind at the time, the dog’s upbringing and the dog’s temperament. I discuss this prickly issue in details here.

Likelihood and genetic predisposition

As far as a genetic predisposition for aggression (i.e. point 2. likelihood) is concerned, I refer you to the points I made in the discussions on bite types:

  • Adrenaline hypersensitivity: Terriers were bred for responding quickly and fearlessly to fast movements and high-pitched sounds. Think of how a Jack Russell would treat a rat if  you want to picture the sort of mental state I am talking about.
  • Steadfastness: Dogs with bulldog ancestry may not let go easily.

Likelihood at bite records: minor bites

You can also estimate the likelihood of aggression by looking at bite records. What you need to know is there is no one standard way for first responders like family doctors, ER personnel or law enforcement to record the breed (or even the species in some cases) involved in a bite incident. When they do record the breed, this is often mis-identified. So our bite – breed records are very shoddy indeed. Bearing that in mind…

Let’s look at some bite epidemiology numbers from the Netherlands (Dutch Ministry of Finance’s advisory report, 2008). Note that these numbers have been corrected for the size of the breed’s population to avoid popular breeds becoming unduly incriminated.

Let’s start with minor bites. The researchers surveyed about 900 people who’ d been bitten by dogs (including benign bites that required no medical attention), then recorded the breeds involved and calculated a ‘bite index’ per breed. A bite index of one is how much individuals of an average breed would be implicated in bite incidents. An index much lower than one, like for the boxer (0.4), indicates a breed whose individual representatives bite much less than the average breed. Now take a look at the top of our list: 1. Weimarners (with a whopping 6.1), 2. Airedale terrier and 3. Bull terrier.

Table 6 of ‘hondenbeten in perspectief’ report, 2008

Before you scream for a ban on Weimerarner, remember to take these results with a pinch of salt as every study of this type gives you a different top 10. This points to very shoddy data and tells us that we still do not have a universal list of the top 10 ‘bitiest’ breeds. It is interesting to note that, out of our list of 21 HRD dogs, only 3 appear in this table: 1. Bull terrier (4th), 2. Rottweiler (5th), and 3. AmStaff (6th).

Likelihood and bite records: bites resulting in a criminal case

The same report analysed the data for a pilot project in Rotterdam in the early 2000’s (2000-2006) which recorded the breed in dogs involved in dog bite criminal cases.

Table 6 of ‘hondenbeten in perspectief’ report, 2008

This table is interesting in that it clearly shows Pitbull clearly stands out (technically, the Pitbull is many breeds put together, but let’s not split hair) with, respectively, 26 dog on person attacks and 13 dog on dog. This is closely followed by the Am Staff, then the Malinois, and back to a bunch of HRD breeds. 7 out of the 10 recognizable breeds are on the current HRD list.

Interestingly, look at the Staffie: 2 times, for biting a dog and not a person. This is what I see in my daily practice (a potential predisposition by some for dog-dog aggression but an incredible tolerance to humans). Again, we can’t draw many conclusions from such small numbers, particularly from police records (imagine the number of UNreported dog-dog incidents by all sorts of breeds, for starters), but it is interesting nonetheless.

What’s going on? Here we seem to have our criminal element influencing the data again. When you look at the types of breeds involved, most are status breeds, breeds popular in ‘hot’ neighbourhoods. Note also, 58% of the people whose dog ended up impounded to assess its potential danger to society, had a criminal record. I don’t know what the Dutch national average is for criminal record but I imagine it’s MUCH lower than that. There we have this critical variable again: problem owner – problem dog.

Likelihood and bite records: lethal bites

Let’s now look at lethal bite incidents (from police records, from the same report). There have been 29 between 1982 and 2006. Every year, 0 to 2 such incidents took place. As you know, data on the dog’s breed after such incidents can be hard to track so it was only possible to look closely at 14 of these 29 incidents.

Pitbull Terriers and Rottweilers were top of the list of dogs who inflicted fatal injuries to a person, with 3 victims each (over the course of 25 years). They are the only two breeds from the current HRD list. The other dogs each made 1 victim each. Staffies are nowhere to be seen but this may be due to identification issues. A Mastino napoletano does feature on the list, as do one St Bernard, one Malinois and one Jack Russell Terrier.

Table 2 of ‘hondenbeten in perspectief’ report, 2008

Again, we must be careful not to draw conclusions from this, before we go and add Bouviers and Malinois on the list. Fatal dog attacks are extremely rare (0.04 of non natural deaths in the Netherlands, same as lightning basically).

So the question of frequency is tough to answer, but when you look at the big picture and compare different studies you tend to end up with the larger breeds bite less often than the smaller ones. Look at this recent literature review by the National Canine Research Council to give you an idea of the big picture.

Now let me refer you back to the core question: how many individual HRDs have these predispositions to a concerning degree? 1% or 99% of them?

Bottom line on the likelihood question

The data is all over the place and we will never have accurate numerical records of an individual breed’s propensity for serious bite incidents. What we do know is that:

  1. HRD’s don’t rank that high in tendency to inflict bites (to people);
  2. HRD’s (particularly Pitbull breeds) are, together with shepherds, leading perpetrators in lethal attacks. But lethal attacks are thankfully extremely rare (although I appreciate that an average of 1x per year is 1 too many)
  3. HRD’s in general appear much more often than non HRD breeds in criminal cases (where someone submitted a complaint about the dog)
  4. Owners of impounded HRD dogs are much more likely than the average Dutch citizen to have a criminal record

The key factor: responsible ownership

Putting genetics aside for a moment, let’s look at the environment that could predispose a dog to severe aggression incidents:

  • People who use these breeds as dogs and encourage them to act intimidatingly.
  • People who purposefully fail to socialise their dog.
  • People who not only provoke, but highly train their dogs for aggression to other dogs (dog fights) and/or people (protection, revenge, status)
  • People who keep their dogs in neglectful and often abusive conditions. People who keep lots of bully dogs and barely feed and care for them. Who beat them up or worse when they underperform. This is sadly very prevalent in the dog-fighting underworld.
  • People who are unlikely to ensure their dogs are safety secured on a leash, behind a SECURE door or fence. Many horrendous attacks reported in the press involved a dog who’d escaped from his property into its victim’s gardenr by jumping over several fences.

Dogs who stacks up the size, genetics AND irresponsible owners odds are undeniably high-risk.

The crux is: how dangerous are dogs when raised by responsible owners? You’ve guessed it, we don’t know. There is no decent data.

Special local measures by municipalities

The local municipalities will have free range to enact local Breed-Specific measures (e.g. compulsory muzzles and leashes, or a complete ban from certain areas). This clause is causing anxiety among owners of HRD’s. They might be slapped with arbitrary restrictions at the whim of their local council from one day to the next. Should every HRD – no matter how sociable – be muzzle-trained already just in case the local council decides to pull the trigger?

Serious bite incidents involving children often involve dogs who either escaped their own property or the child’s own family dog (after the child was left unsupervised with the pet…). These were not incidents were Bullies were left to roam in children-heavy areas. What difference would a ban from local parks make for these incidents? Or leash or muzzle laws? .

A focus on containment measures, and this only for dogs who are giving their neighbours concerns (so not necessarily HRD) might be more effective and wouldn’t victimise countless sociable dogs. I am thinking of high, secure fences and so-called air-lock systems (think 2 front doors instead of one).

So what’s my take?

To me, the focus on breeds is like banning all kitchen knives because some are used as weapons. I appreciate you don’t want to wait until the first stab victim until you do something about someone, but not every kitchen knife is a weapon-in-waiting.

My position on the proposal is mixed: problems with status dogs are spilling into daily life at an alarming rate. Something needs to give. I hope the proposed change is a first step in the right direction. The text deserves praise in that it tries to focus on responsible ownership.

My bone is 1. the seemingly arbitrary choice of some breeds; 2. passing the buck to local municipalities for security measures, causing much uncertainty all around; and 3. the compulsory course that is supposed to change hearts and minds but that is as-yet undefined (I have written a whole post about my detailed concerns).

Bottom line: we are stigmatising 100 responsible owners to get to 1 irresponsible one, who, by the way, doesn’t stick to the existing laws so probably won’t obey the law change either.

Here are my alternative suggestions:

  1. A sort of ‘driver’s licence’ before anyone gets any dog. Anyone deemed high-risk during this process (e.g. objectifying the dog, documented risk-taking behaviour or a criminal record) would be denied their application.
  2. A ban on having a dog that is actually followed up on, and not ignored as it is today when the owner who had a dog confiscated can go get his next dog the day after.
  3. The fight-dog world crippled by a concerted police and governmental effort. Tied as it appears to be to the drugs and gambling world, I realise how naive my wish is.
  4. Animal welfare offences (abuse and neglect) being punished harshly, pushing these two risk factors a little further down the equation.
  5. Breaks in dog etiquette being treated as endangerment (they are): this includes, but is not limited to, allowing loose dogs to approach leashed dogs.
  6. Clear and enforced confinement laws (e.g. minimum fence heights, leash, muzzle) for individual dogs of concern. Concerns can be raised anonymously by members of the local community into the central database that is being worked on right now.

Between now and 2018, the best you can do is continue to be a great embassador for your breed and try to keep cool despite the rising pressure.

References

Additional bibliography

Illustrations

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Response

Dogs: a look at pro- and anti-harness claims

Blog post taking a practical look at pro- and anti-harness claims

Article by Canis bonus. July 2017. Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Harness zombies

Ever had an Apple/Mac zombie trying to suck your brains out to get you out of using Microsoft? The dog world is just as susceptible to product loyalties. Harness fans can be as fiercely anti-collar. Show a picture of your dog with a collar in some circles and you’ll get reported to Animal Protection.

So how much is the harness thing a fad and how much of it is serious? Here’s a sceptical look at the anti- and pro-harness wars.

The rise of the Apple zombies

This post is NOT a comparative review of specific brand models (you can find that here), a guide on getting your dog used to it (you can find that here) or fitting instructions (follow manufacturer’s guidelines).

Anti-harnesses claim: they encourage pulling through comfort

The theory: The collar can dig into the dog’s neck when the dog pulls hard, which feels unpleasant/painful. This could in theory discourage from leash pulling.

The reality: This is true for moderate leash pullers. Extreme pullers will pull to the point of choking, seemingly oblivious of the pain. Even leash jerks don’t deter them. Never mind self-inflicted choking.

Anti-harnesses claim: they encourage pulling through gravity

The theory: From a physics perspective, there is some truth to the claim. With (some) harnesses, the dog needs to work less hard to pull just as hard because the leash is attached lower, closer to their centre of gravity (the harness is clipped on the dog’s back, so (slightly) lower than the neck).

The reality: I am curious about how much (or how little) difference we’re talking here. From experience, I suspect this is a minor, imperceptible theoretical difference. Any physicists out there to quantify this?

Clear not all that deterred by the collar

I personally feel more control of the dog the more contact points I have with his body (so I am holding his back, abdomen and shoulders and not just his neck).

This, and the fact that no-pull harnesses also come with front-clip attachment, thus losing the position/lower centre of gravity argument.

Pro-harness claim: collars are a health hazard

The theory: You will have seen the Facebook memes (that great way of getting accurate information…) claiming that collars can collapse your dog’s trachea and damage his thyroid.

The reality: These claims are over-stated to say the least. Before the harness fashion, just how many dogs do you think vet clinics saw for hypothyroidy and collapsed tracheas? I asked my colleagues at the clinic and the answer is and was extremely few. Sure if you’re going to jerk violently on your dog’s collar – or kicking him in the throat, which I consider as barbaric – you might cause some damage.

Animal abuse is a far cry from the normal use of a collar. Even extremely avid pullers don’t come in for hypothyroidy (an extremely rare condition that has become one of the poster children of pseudoscience, with clients going to vet after vet until they get a positive diagnosis) or a collapsed trachea.

So do I need a harness?

Humane: My motto is LIMA: Least Invasive Method Available. If you choose your harness responsibly and get your dog acclimated to it, I consider the harness more humane than the collar for avid leash pullers.

Effective? Is it more effective at deterring pulling? I would say a little less than collars – emphasis on ‘a little.’ But I would also say that you will not solve pulling on the lead primarily relying on tools. Even prong and choke collars aren’t all that effective at deterring pulling, never mind your standard flat collar.

Combi-approach: a collar and a harness

Name tags: My dog has a collar which always stays on. It’s a thin band with his name tag/chip number/etc. on. When we’re on a walk, the leash is clipped to his harness.

Loose leash walking: We teach loose leash walking by playing the green-light/red-light game with dogs: when you pull on the leash, I’ll stop abruptly. When you stop pulling, I’ll walk again. This only works with saints who are never late for work, never walk whilst chatting to a friend or never have a bus to catch. Result? Dogs for whom pulling on the leash works sometimes (human walks along) and sometimes not.

 

My dog wearing his name tag collar

Solution? Go out with the dog wearing a harness and a collar. Then tell the dog the rules of the game. When the leash is on the collar, I might sometimes go along when you pull. When it’s on the harness, we are definitely playing red-light/green-light. Result? Dogs who learn a consistent rule quickly, and pull way less/not at all when on the harness.

Growing pups: I’d say don’t invest in your dog’s permanent harness before he’s fully grown. If your dog doesn’t pull that much, you have my blessing to keep using a collar (I’ll obviously be a downside less happy if you pick a choke or prong one) until he’s fully grown.

Basic features of a dog harness

At the very least, I want the dog harness to have these features:

  1. Padded linings and reasonable broad bands wherever the harness touches the dog. Nothing that will chafe or cut into the dog.
  2. Leaving the throat area free of pressure – otherwise, you might as well have a collar right? Think a deep ‘cleavage’ for the V-neck harnesses.
  3. A belly band going nowhere near the dog’s armpits, preventing chafing
  4. Steer clear of tightening harnesses that might pull into the dog’s rib or armpit area when the dog pulls. The whole point of harnesses is that they are humane. Getting a tightening harness would defeat the point somewhat, wouldn’t you agree?
  5. Reliable and solid: Get a harness made of solid material with tight stitches and solid clips.

Your ideas and comments

Are you pro- or anti-harness? Do you feel strongly one way or another?

What’s been your real-life experience with the collar/harness difference?

Illustration credits

Posted in Dog equipment | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Dogs also die of heat in Dutch cars and not just in the Summer

Blog post about the dangers of rising temperatures for your dog, even in The Netherlands. May 2017
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post.

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Bouvier dog dies of a heat stroke in Limburg

It’s happened again: yesterday, in Limburg (Netherlands), a Bouvier dog died of heat after being left in the car. Before you judge, bear in mind the assumptions the owner must have had: It doesn’t happen in the Netherlands and surely it doesn’t happen in the spring.

Wrong and wrong.

Here’s another assumption a friend of mine made, with heart-breaking circumstances. His dog, a large Rottweiler cross, loved napping in the back of my friend’s van. The van was in the garage (not even exposed to the sun) and the dog had complete autonomy of movement. The dog chose to nap there. During one of the hottest days of the year, two years ago, my dog found his dog dead in the back of the van.

Don’t make the same assumptions this dog owner did

Here are more assumptions I’d like to challenge. Surely the dog can’t overheat if…

  1. It’s just 20C outside, right? (wrong, the car turns into an inferno scarily quickly)
  2. I leave the windows open, right? (wrong, this barely makes a difference at all)
  3. I don’t make him exercise, he chooses to (wrong, some are so motivated to run that they will literally run themselves to death)
  4. I leave the air conditioning on, right? (wrong, the car can have a safety mechanism that switches it off when over-heated)
  5. I park the car in the shade, right? (wrong, it just happens a few minutes slower)
  6. I leave water for the dog, right? (wrong)
  7. I make sure of all of the above.  (wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security)

How quickly does the temperature rise in the car?

I made this graphic based on numbers released by AVMA. Bear in mind there some variables can affect this estimate, and they are a rule of thumb to give you an idea of how scarily fast the temperature inside a parked car can hike up.

The numbers are pretty scary: starting with an outside temperature as low as 21 degrees, the car’s temperature can rise up to over 30 degrees in about 15 minutes, and nearly 40 degrees (fatal for many dogs after a few minutes) after just over half an hour. Starting at an outside temp of 25 degrees, the car can reach 40 degrees (fatal for dogs in a matter of minutes) in about a quarter of an hour. On a hot day, say, 29 degrees, the fatal 40 degrees can be reached in a matter of minutes.

 

What to do if you spot a dog alone in a parked car on a warm day?

Call the police directly unless you can directly track the owner. Do not wait a few minutes as this can be fatal. You will look like an alarmist do-gooding drama-queen and the owner won’t thank you for it but a dog’s life is at risk. If you track the owner and they appear unconcerned and unrepentant, call the animal protection agency (call 144 in The Netherlands) so they can investigate whether the dog in chronically neglected and endangered.

What to do to avoid heat strokes in dogs

  • Do not leave your dog in the car, not even for five minutes, in temperatures above 17-18 degrees. If you must do it, then have someone staying behind in the car so they can leave the car if need be. You could leave the dog at home or adapt your plans and ask the dog be let inside when at all possible.
  • Be particularly mindful of short-nosed dogs like Boxers and pugs, and of dogs who are not in top form like elderly dogs or dogs with a known heart condition.
  • Be sure to get your dog to drink much more than usual on hotter days. You could drop some of your dog’s kibble in his water if he appears uninterested.
  • Do not allow your dog to run himself to death. Very motivated dogs will not listen to their body, high as they are on the joy of exercising. Enforce regular breaks and do not allow strenuous exercises.
  • Reduce the duration of your walks and go for more frequent, shorter walks. Pick less sunny times of day like the morning and early evening.
  • Let your dog walk predominantly on grass on hot days, as the asphalt quickly gets muuuuch hotter than the ambient air temperature. You could even consider protective dog boots, but be sure it still allows the dog to sweat through the sole of its feet, and be sure to condition the dog to them first.
  • Avoid fully exposed, sunny areas and pick a walk in the forest instead, where the dog will find more shade.
  • You could also try a cooling vest and cooling mat for the hottest moments of the day.
  • You could freeze your dog’s regular food in a food-dispensing toy like a Kong, and give your dog his frozen breakfast/lunch/dinner to lick out of the Kong.
  • You could drop some ice cubes in your dog’s water bowl.
  • If your dog enjoys swimming, replace your dog’s bout of running or frisbee with a cool dip at the local pond or river. Of course, dangerous pathogens like blue algae flourish in hot temperatures, so be sure to check the quality of the water first.

Illustration credits

Posted in Veterinary care and canine first aid | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Large scale dog breeders: what can I do about it

Blog post about ‘Broodfokkers, aka large-scale dog breeders’ and how to detect and report them. February 2017
Article by Laure-Anne Visele. References and picture credits at the end of the post.

About author: certified dog trainer and applied behaviourist in The Hague

IMG_6639

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school in The Hague).

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour questions.

I studied Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (completed Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

 

What is a puppy mill?

A puppy mill, or puppy farm, is a dog breeder who breeds dogs on a grand scale, principally for financial gain. The living conditions of the dogs there vary from inappropriately socialized to life-threateningly crammed.

These are common problems:

  • The pups separated from their mother far too early,
  • Or the opposite, the pups arrive at your home way older than the sensitive socialisation period (ideal age of adoption = 9-10 weeks)
  • The pups arrive at your home badly ill.
  • The pups look much older or older than what is claimed on their certificate.

And this is the big one for me:

  • The pups have not been structurally socialized to life as a family dog, having only known having known their enclosure and the hands of passing visitors. Result? More often than not, you have yourself a pathologically fearful or aggressive from day 1 until  you spend hundreds of euros in behaviour therapy.

How can you tell a puppy mill from a responsible breeder?

A puppy mill isn’t always easy to spot. The breeder can be very personable, and the room in which they show the pup could seem spotless. Here are some of the possible red flags that you are most likely getting an undersocialized pup:

  • They sell dogs all year round, there is no long waiting period.
  • You can’t see where the litter is staying. The breeder gets the pup ‘in the back’ for you.
  • Mother and pups don’t live in a house, but in enclosures.
  • There is more than one litter of pups.
  • They sell more than one breed.

Is large-scale dog breeding legal?

  1. It is illegal to sell you a pup who doesn’t satisfy the ‘product characteristics’ (e.g. who is sick, who appears younger/older than what you declare, etc.).
  2. It is illegal to keep the dogs in sub-optimal husbandry conditions. The Dutch minimal requirements are not as high as I’d like to see them though. Think basics like a clean enclosure, a reasonable temperature, shelter from the rain and minimal room to move about.
  3. It is legal – but undesirable and irresponsible – to fail to socialise the pups to the family life for which he/she is sold.

A puppy mill doesn’t necessarily look that obvious. Check the red flags.

So if 3. is legal, does that mean I can do nothing about a large-scale breeder if they adhere to the minimum legal requirements? No, you can.

What can you do about large-scale dog breeders?

  • Resist the temptation to ‘save’ a pup from these breeders. By purchasing a pup from them, you are only perpetuating the problem.
  • If you decide you want a pup, contact a responsible breeder and be ready for a long wait. When we stop seeing dogs like next-day-delivery convenience products, it will no longer be commercially viable to sell them as such.
  • If you suspect your pup came from a broodfokker, call the animal protection agency (144 in The Netherlands) and report them. Even if their only infraction was on point 3 (undersocialised pups who don’t grow up in a home environment), they are considered to uphold ‘onwenselijke’ (undesirable) practices by the animal protection agency. With enough complaints, the problem becomes more visible and the agency can send inspectors.

Be the squeaky wheel!

Why does it matters to avoid large-scale breeders?

Not only for the dogs’ welfare, but also for your own sake as a ‘consumer’. You are adopting a pup as a companion to enjoy for years, and not to spend hundreds of euros on behaviour therapy or only walk it at night, right?

Illustration credits

Posted in Dogs and society | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

But his parents were champions! My dog must be perfect

What guarantees does a top-notch dog pedigree get you? Article by Canis bonus. December 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Mutt or pure-bred dog?

As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are starting to contemplate whether we’ll go the rescue route again, or whether to go the breed route for once. So I have started a series of blog posts about breeds. For the full list, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds.

This present blog post encourages the reader to view a ‘spotless’ pedigree with caution.

Both my dog’s parents were working champions!

The number of times I’ve had to have this conversation… Sometimes, being a dog behaviourist is pretty much about raining on people’s parade… It’s not fun, but someone’s got to break the news. Today was no exception. I was standing in front of Ted and Lucy, the hapless owners of a fine pedigreed dog who was making their lives hell.

They were incredulous that Lex, the dog they’d flawlessly picked to the nearest ancestor, could come with behaviour problems? They’d nicely followed all the steps they thought guaranteed a ‘good dog’: they went to the local puppy school, they picked a ‘good breed’, they chose a pedigreed dog whose parents were national sheep herding champions, no less. Yet come adolescence and his rap sheet could make Tupac blanch. “How could this have happened?” they asked me, in disbelief.

My answer wasn’t going to make their day any better. The thing is, your dog’s parents being working champions does not necessarily work in your favour if you want your dog to be a family dog. Chance is they were extremely driven to be so good on the job, and had the stamina and energy to boot. Assuming these ‘qualities’ are heavily heritable, you’re in trouble if all you want from your dog is a couple of walks around the block per day – and, yes, maybe a long walk on Saturday.

Even assuming these ‘sport champion’ traits aren’t all that heritable. Then what is the point of paying through the teeth for a dog whose parents were world champions in their discipline?

nadia_comaneci_1977

That’s like asking Nadia Comaneci to sit on the couch waiting for you all day

“But we did our research!” they said. “We didn’t choose him from conformation champions. We know these championships only select for extreme physical traits and not behaviour. We’ve really looked into this and that’s why we picked working parents for him!”

And that’s just the issue: dogs from a working line are also picked on extreme traits, only temperamental ones. Unless you’re ready to quit your job and keep your dog mentally stimulated at least 2-3 hours a day, chance is, if your dog has inherited a lot of his parents’ drive, you’re headed for trouble. That’s like buying your granny a Ferrari.

Both my dog’s parents were conformation champions!

I get this argument a lot too: people who insist I look at their dog’s pedigree to detect what could have caused his behaviour problems. When we start talking about this, my clients are often dumb-founded. They’ve fallen hook, line and sinker for the hard-sell of their breeder: “He’s got a pedigree, you see. It’s a good dog! Look, his mother is the breed photo on Wikipedia” and now I have to rain on their dream.

380px-flora_coquerel

Would her kids make great housemates? I’ve no idea. She sure looks pretty though

That’s like saying to your marriage counselor: “I don’t get it. My wife’s parents each won the beauty pageant for their country. Why aren’t we more compatible?” To winning a conformation, the dog must conform to the archetypal physical traits of the breed – and must carry him/herself gracefully enough for the duration of the show. It says little about whether the dog tends to guard his food fiercely, or needs five hours of exercise a day to be remotely calm. No amount of me ‘checking his pedigree’ will change that.

So pedigrees are useless?

Not so fast. A pedigree AND a responsible breeding could be your winning combination. No guarantees, mind; but less risk of headaches. A responsible breeder will look at the temperament of the sire and the dame, and later, the pup (for what little a pup’s temperament predicts his future behaviour, but that’s another kettle of fish), and will flat out refuse to give you a pup whom he considers incompatible to your life-style.

This responsible breeder will, likely, not pay so much attention to winning beauty pageants or championships, but rather on character traits the make a happy, well-adjusted family dog: tendencies for, say, stress resilience, and tolerance, and calm, and confidence, etc.

I get it: prizes look can look like a quality stamp. But when it comes to a successful match as a family dog, you’re better off going for the “companion line.” A dog whose father and mother, and many of his brothers and sisters, have been successfully placed as pets in suburban families, like yours will be.

And of course, if your dog does come from sporting or conformation champions, and things are working out, that’s fantastic. I am not saying it always goes wrong. All I am saying is prize-winning, pedigreed forebears do not guarantee ‘a good dog’.

Take it from my experience with plenty of families’ disappointment: steer clear of vanity when you research your next dog and go for the couch potato dog.

Illustration credits

No modifications were made to any of the illustrations

Posted in Dog breeds | Tagged , , , | 1 Response

Pit Bulls: what’s the controversy about?

A rational look at the Pit Bull controversy. Article by Canis bonus. July 2017
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

He’s a Pit Bull, you can’t trust him

The High Risk Dog debates are raging in the Netherlands with the media reporting incident after incident, and the latest piece of Breed Specific Legislation due to come into effect in January 2018 (discussed here).

This article critically examines the extreme claims of both ‘camps’: the Nanny-dog and the ‘ban them all’ crowds.

pitbul-lion

For the purpose of this article, I will be talking of ‘Bully’-types in general (powerful Bull, Mastiff and/or Terrier breeds and their crosses). This has a good overlap with the Dutch government’s list of what they consider high-risk dogs. I will zoom in on specific Pit Bulls claims at times.

Can we trust press reports of dog attacks?

Yes and no.

Is over-reporting a thing? Yes to a certain extent, but there’s no smoke without a fire.

Pit Bull aggression sells more papers than Lab aggression, so severe bite incidents not involving Bullies tend to stay unreported.

Having said that, the Bully incidents don’t come from thin air either. I get reports of serious incidents involving a Bully on my press news feed about once a month.

The big question: How many severe incidents involving other breeds do not make it to the news? We don’t know. Maybe tons, maybe little. What we know? There is definitely a problem of severe dog aggression out there, and Bullies are often involved. Whether it’s a lot more often or just about the same as other breeds is still out there.

Are the Bullies involved ‘normal’ Bullies?

For each press report, I dig deeper and invariably, the dogs were either recent rescues with an unknown history or severely abused. So not typical representatives of a breed.

The big question: Can I conclude from the press clippings alone that something in the Bullies pre-disposes them to severe aggression? No.

Is the dog involved even a Bully?

Dog professionals, veterinarians included, aren’t all that perfect at identifying an individual breed. Never mind police or hospital staff, and even less so the victim. Do I trust journalists to do their homework and double-check the breed was correctly identified? Not for a second.

In discussing Breed Specific Legislation, the exact breed wouldn’t matter if we establish whether the dog is on the official Dutch list of high-risk breeds. That is also not a given, it turns out. There are accounts of Labradors being mislabeled as Bullies when incidents are being reported.

The big question: Can we trust the breed stated in press clippings? Not so much.

So are the breeds on the list higher-risk?

Let’s split it into different questions:

  • Are they more likely to be involved in a severe aggression incident? Yes, from hospital and police records (assuming identification was correct), it would seem they are.
    • To what extent? That depends on what list you look at. And it varies ENORMOUSLY.
    • Why are they more involved in aggression incidents? It’s complicated and it’s definitely not (purely) ‘how they’re raised’, nor (purely) ‘in their blood’. The post discusses some of these influences below.
  • Could they have a genetic predisposition for uninhibited aggression? Yes, potentially partly (see below) but…
    • … What proportion of, say, Staffies, carry and express these traits to a problematic level? We don’t know. It could be 1% or 99%.
  • Is it due to being raised in terrible conditions? Yes, that certainly raises the risk. Hugely.
    • What is the proportion of severe incidents where the dog was abused or severely neglected? We don’t know. But from the press clippings I’ve been collecting, it is a lot.
  • Are dogs on the list more likely to be owned by irresponsible owners? Yes, criminals are attracted by the breed’s bad rep but…
    • To what extent? Are 1% of Bully owners responsible owners, or 99%? We don’t know.

Where’s the data?

Recently I was involved in a couple of inter-disciplinary events involving specialists from all disciplines to look at the problem of severe bite incidents. What came out? We don’t have the data. And we probably never will. We depend too much on messy multi-factorial, non-standardized, subjective data and information from criminal underground activities.

A bunch of socio-economic factors played a huge role, but some genetic vulnerabilities did transpire.

We are going to have to make do with the fact that we don’t have the data, and won’t any time soon.

Size matters

Let’s go back to something we can all agree on: there’s a difference between a Chihuahua attack and a Bully one. Sure Chihuahuas can cause severe injuries but, all things being equal, I’d much rather be attacked by a furious Chihuahua than a furious Pit Bull.

I went to a seminar hosted by the Hondenbescherming and she illustrated the point nicely: “Would you rather be hit by an SUV or by a bicycle?”

Would you rather be hit by this?

 

Or this?

Even putting genetic predisposition aside, with great breeds comes great responsibility. The more powerful the dog, the higher the standards society holds you to. On “the list” or not, I expect you to not allow your large dog to get over-excited or to run up to people and dogs who don’t know him.

Sort out that basic bit of etiquette and you’ll be rid of so many problems already.

Pit Bull legends

Here’s another bunch of things we can easily agree on: some claims about Pit Bulls are ridiculous:

  • Their jaws ‘lock’: Patently untrue. No debate.
  • They have a gazillion-pound bite pressure: Yes and no. The numbers reported are ridiculous but yes, a broad-skulled, muscular dog, can bite strongly (remember the truck vs. mini Cooper thing?). Some protection and fight-Bullies (NOT your average pet dog) are even trained for extreme bite pressure. So yeah, they potentially pack a punch.

Highly trained protection or fight dogs aren’t exactly your typical Bullies, are they? That’s like presenting Michael Phelps’ lap times as averages

So it’s all about how they’re raised?

Not so fast.

Think of the Border Collies’ eyes-stalk-chase routine (admittedly a lot less multi-factorial). I give you that extreme to remind you: no one can seriously argue that genetics have nothing to do with behaviour.

What about the typical aggression incidents Bullies are involved in? Here’s a couple of potential genetic factors:

  • They ‘turn on you in the flick of a eye’: Typical scenario: 1.5 year old dog, always been super sociable, suddenly and severely attacks another dog with no warning. What could be going on?
    • Terrier ancestry may predispose some dogs to being trigger happy on the adrenaline rush.  This adrenaline system would reach maturity at adulthood, explaining why they were fine as younger dogs.
    • The adrenaline hyper-response, as I call it, activates the dog’s predatory sequence.
    • The common theme is excitement: The dog is easily and extremely excited from various stimuli like feeling annoyed over a dog toy, over-excited play or just hyper-sensitive e high-pitched sounds or fast movement in the environment.
  • It’s like he feels no pain: That same adrenaline response may explain how hard it can be to interrupt aggression once it’s kicked in. I’ve seen enough Staffies who will let go, but I have documented many cases where the dog seemed impervious to pain. During a recent case, for example, the dog had destroyed several hedgehogs.
  • He won’t let go: A dog whose ancestors were bred to keep holding onto a bull’s nose may have higher-than-average ‘staying power.’ Then again, you could argue the same about English Bulldogs who are not on the primary list. But my point is this feature is (partly) under genetic control.

Let’s look at extreme breeding in Bullies: check this sad video of very young pups with so-called ‘gameness’. Given their age, you cannot argue that this is purely how they’re raised. They are extremely excited, do not let go despite the pain, and display extreme aggression for their age.

I am sharing the video to address idealistic claims that ‘it’s all how they’re raised’. Of course such extreme dog-dog aggression is rare in practice, and are the product of carefully selected aggressive lines.

Check this video of typical Bully pups to see the difference.

So it’s all genetics? It’s more complicated than that

There are POTENTIAL genetic influences that may explain some of the Bully attacks reported.

But, just like not every Labs love water, not every Staffy is an adrenaline junky. I know enough (even older) Staffies who are absolute angels with other dogs, no matter the provocation.

So, to what extent are these aggression predispositions represented in the average Staffie family dog? Having read my ‘He’s a Labrador. Of course he’s good with kids‘ article, you know that behaviour traits are rarely 100% heritable.

Also, genetics tend to be probabilistic, not deterministic. It only indicates that a member of a certain breed may have a higher than average chance of carrying – and and even smaller chance of expressing – the trait. The worst-case scenario is a dog who is predisposed to all-out aggression and who is under-socialised and who is abused.

So no, not all Staffies are dog-aggressive. But, growing up in a similar environment, the potential for severe dog-aggression is more present than for a Lab. How much more present? That’s the million dollar question.

There is a difference between person-aggressive and dog-aggressive

Most of the press clippings I read concern aggression to a person. These pretty much all involved a severely abused dog, a recently adopted dog of unknown origins, or a dog raised for aggression to humans. pit_bull_restrained

I would go as far as arguing that it is harder to get a Bully to become human-aggressive, from my experience with them on the field. They tend to be incredibly tolerant of their human families’ clumsiness – to the point where I worry about irresponsible (pet) parenting, but that’s another story. Even fight-dogs have to have excellent bite inhibition to humans.

Having said that, beat up your dog and there is a good chance he won’t be people-friendly, like for any breed.

Rehabilitating their image

The worst thing is: the more scared society is, the more criminals want them.

Back when they were America’s sweethearts (check these posters), the baddies-du-jour were bloodhounds – who are now considered goofy. Their bad rep is pushing them to the seedier parts of society, and thus putting them at higher risk of being abused or trained for aggression.

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A Pitty being goofy

I welcome the movement to rehabilitate Pitties’ image. Take Your Pitbull and You, for example. They do excellent work. It is unfortunate that these efforts fall into blank-slate claims, but they will be beneficial nonetheless.

Taken to an extreme, the Pit Bull PR heroes could be doing more harm than good. They promote Bullies as easy family breeds, as Nanny dogs. Pushing inexperienced dog owners to buy one and trust them blindly with their kids, putting the dogs under severe stress in the process. Every dog has their breaking point, even the most tolerant family dog (as I would argue that Bullies are). The Nanny dog movement is needlessly endangering dogs and children in their attempt to rehabilitate the breed’s image.

pup-with-bow

Pit Bull PR: The more we rehabilitate their image, the less attractive they’ll be to criminals

So all Bully owners are criminals?

Wow there. Let’s slow this right down.

Professionally, the Bully owners we see at the dog training school tend to be among the most well-informed, responsible, kind and dedicated owners. Granted, my social circle is made up of dog behaviour academics and my clients seek me out for my evidence-based approach (so not exactly your average irresponsible owner either).

But still, we don’t know what the proportion of irresponsible vs. responsible Bully owners is – if you could even define it narrowly.

One thing is for sure, the dog’s bad rep makes them more attractive among shady circles, as I’ve said many times in this post.

Responsible dog ownership

Responsible ownership is a central point of the equation, precisely because genetics play a role. I would not favour inexperienced dog owners getting a Bully as there are certain common-sense precautions to take. Many of them I would take with large dogs:

  1. Avoid situations that trigger high excitement,
  2. Socialise them religiously, particularly to dogs
  3. Give them enough mental stimulation and physical exercise
  4. Teach them to calm themselves down and
  5. Do not use violence to raise them.

Conclusion

If you feel worried about Pit Bulls, the best I have for you is look at the dog’s body language, look at the human’s body language. If your own dog is low-key and calm, imagine their dog is a Labrador and go chat with them about their breed. You’ll be amazed at how becoming more familiar with a few of them can help with your fear.

I used to have prejudices against Bully breeds and couldn’t fathom why my friends could want them, from the reputation problem alone. Then I got to know one, two, three, and countless of them and fell in love with the type. Nowadays, when I see ‘Pit Bull’ in my form, I can’t wait to hop in the car to meet the beast.

Further reading

Delise - Pit Bull

If you’re interested in the detailed history and risks of the Pit Bull, I highly recommend you read ‘the Pit Bull Placebo‘.

Bradley - Dogs bite

If you want to dig a little deeper on dog bite epidemiology, try Dog bites, but balloons and slippers are more dangerous.

This article by HugABull (perhaps biased considering the name of the website) has also done an interesting survey of the relevant literature.

Illustration credits

No modification were made to any of the illustrations.

Posted in Dog breeds | Tagged , , | 3 Responses

Of course he limps: he’s a Jack Russell. Beware of negative assumptions about dog breeds

Beware of negative claims about dog breeds – article by Canis bonus. December 2016
Author: Laure-Anne Visele.
Illustration credits at the end of the post. No modifications were made.

About the author: certified dog trainer in The Hague

IMG_6639

Canis bonus: Laure-Anne Visele

My name is Laure-Anne and I am the dog behaviour therapist at Canis bonus, and Head Trainer at OhMyDog! (dog training school) in The Hague.

I help people from The Hague, Rijswijk, Delft, Westland and region with their dog behaviour.

I have a degree in Zoology, am a certified dog training instructor, and have a Postgraduate in applied animal behaviour (Magna cum laude).

If you want dog-friendly and evidence-based tips, drop me a line briefly explaining the problem and I’ll tell you if I think I can help.

Mutt or pure-bred dog?

As my old dog is nearing the end of his life, we are contemplating the rescue vs. breeder route. For the list of posts on this tricky question, go to the first post in the series: He’s good with kids, right? He’s a Labrador – Beware of positive assumptions about dog breeds.

The present blog talks of the other side of the medal: negative assumptions about certain breeds.

Hovawarts (and Staffies, etc.) need a hard hand

I was out on a play date with my dog and some of his friends when I got chatting to the owner of this beautiful Hovawarts. The Hovawards was perfectly behaved but seemed a bit scared. I asked the guy if he’d noticed. His ‘secret’? The Hovawarts golden rule, he told me: a hard hand. No, the dog wasn’t scared. Just ‘submissive’. He proudly listed the rules: no sniffing when on-leash, only heeling; no digging dirt; no growling; etc. His dog was a perfect… robot.

fistI knew better than to get on my high horse. It doesn’t make for productive discussions and I’d heard this particular bit of nonsense about pretty much every large breed in the book.

Along the same lines, some clients (with a Staffie) tactfully asked me if I had much experience with Staffies as the breed ‘needs a hard hand’ and they were surprised at the lack of abuse in my plan. We talked about it openly and they gave it a shot. The culture change was slow-coming but the dog could blossom into the awesome guy he is now. Without force or intimidation. Without a… hard hand.

Don’t bother letting your Beagle (or Husky, etc.) offlead. They’re stubborn

“There is no way you can teach them a recall,” I often hear Result? Tons of Beagles who will never know the joy of off-leash walking. Sure, many Beagles find a scent trail irresistible. And that’s precisely why you want to work on their recall! And, who’s to say your Beagle falls on the extreme end of that spectrum? Far too many Beagle owners don’t give the recall a fair chance because of the breed.

And how about this one? “Chihuahuas are snappy dogs.” They sure are. So would I if half the people I passed invaded my personal space, petted me or even picked me up without asking if I am OK about it.  Raise your Chihuahua like any other dog and the supposed snappiness melts like snow in the sun. How is that? Just let the dog decide if he wants to make contact with everybody and their uncle.

My point is? Be very critical of sweeping statements about temperament and breeds. Raise your dog for the individual that he is. Work on what needs work and forget about the genetic hard-hand, stubbornness and bad temper.

Watch out! That’s a German Shepherd

Breed-Specific Legislation (some dog breeds are classified as legally dangerous and thus require specific safety legislation) is a polarizing issue. The safety measures vary from prohibition from off-leash walks, compulsory muzzles, breed bans, confiscation and even euthanasia depending on the region.

BSL has been an unmitigated PR and effectiveness disaster because the issue with ‘dangerous’ breed is more complex than genetic predisposition alone. It is a tale of (epi-)genetics, developmental influences and (ir)responsible ownership. This pandora’s box is way to complex to be tackled in a few short lines. I have a shortcut for you though.

rottweiler3

RUN!!! It’s a Rottweiler!

You see a ‘bully’ breed dog like a Staffie? Check how the dog and his human are behaving. is the owner is tightening up the leash, is the dog staring or tensing up or getting agitated? Then be my guest and move on. But if they both seem relaxed and sociable, why not ask if it’s OK for the dogs to meet, and then have a chat about the breed?

The worst thing you can do is systematically tense up. It will alert your dog – and the ‘bully’ dog, and his owner. You are already priming the situation for going South – and ironically confirming your own prejudice in the process. Want a reality-based experience with these breeds? Give it a chance.

For a blog post about negative prejudices about Pit Bull specifically, please follow this link.

Of course he’s limping. He’s a Jack Russell

Jack Russell and other short-legged breeds are susceptible to patellar luxation: their knee cap moves out of place and it is excruciatingly painful. Many have learnt to kick it back into place and go through it several times a day. My problem is this: we associate this with some breeds so  much that many Jack Russell owners won’t even seek veterinary treatment. “Oh no, it’s normal. He’s not in pain. He’s a Jack Russell.”

jack-russellThe same goes for breathing difficulties with pugs or Frenchies. “They just snore when they breathe. It’s really cute” or the Chihuahua’s cherry eyes: “His eyes are protruding because he’s a Chihuahua, that’s why they’re so red.”

If your dog’s breed is predisposed to a (possibly chronic) health condition, seek veterinary treatment like you would for any other breed for that condition. Don’t assume that nothing can be done about it. You’d be surprised.

Hybrid vigour – Schmybrid vigour

Before you give up on pure-bred dogs, note that not all breeds have been selected for such morphological extremes. And watch you don’t assume crosses guarantee genetic health.

That accidental litter of pups between your mom’s Labrador and her neighbour’s Irish Setter isn’t necessarily genetics’ greatest draw. People seem to think of ‘hybrid vigour’ as a magic shield against genetic diseases.

Granted, some breeds’ gene pools have become so narrow that the risk of a recessive disorder is massive. But who screened the cross between your Mom’s Lab and your neighbour’s Setter? Who is to say that the combination won’t predispose some of the pups to, say, an early form of bone cancer, or hip dysplasia?

questing-beastMutts also get diseases. If you want to reduce the risks of genetic problems, your best option might be a responsible breeder, who will painstakingly screen the breeding pair for poor genetic matches.

In conclusion

I don’t have a dog in this debate: there’s a lot to be said in favour of mutts AND of purebred dogs; I don’t have shares at a veterinary clinic;  I am neither pro- nor anti-pitbull (or Rottweiller, or whatever terror-du-jour the press has picked). I just don’t want negative breed assumptions to result in the poor treatment of a real, flesh-and-blood, individual dog.

Illustration credits

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