Reasonable Safety Precautions For Owning A Potentially Dangerous or Vicious Dog – Phoenix Dog Training – Dog Trainer – Behaviorist

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Sam Basso
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Let’s say your dog has been determined by a judge to be “potentially dangerous” or “vicious”. If the dog is allowed to live, then the court will sometimes impose safety restrictions on the dog and owner, oftentimes with the penalty of violation of those restrictions being the death of the dog. So, what do I believe to be reasonable precautions that should satisfy the public good, the needs of the court and law, the rights of the dog owner, the rights of any victims, and the needs of the dog? Here are my suggestions:

1.) Ongoing socialization and environmental exposure. We all know that dogs are social, intelligent creatures. We also know that if dogs are deprived of the ability to express normal behaviors, that they will become more wary, neurotic, likely to escape, likely to panic, likely to harm themselves, likely to become diseased, and likely to become more aggressive. Yet, often when restrictions are made on “potentially dangerous” or “vicious” dogs, that the dogs are effectively made worse by forced isolation. Isolated dogs, even friendly dogs, will eventually develop harmful behaviors. It is inhumane to force a dog into “lockdown”. And it likely will make the dog worse, not better, and so an ill advised judge could be setting up a situation where the solution increases the probability that the dog and owner will re-offend, and the outcomes will be even worse. Dogs can also not be legislated into not being dogs. Dogs urinate, defecate, bark, dig, need comfort, sleep, opportunity to eat and drink, run around, to play and have joy, and so forth. Imposition of rules that prevent those natural behaviors is inhumane, and probably unenforceable. As guidance, it is worth consulting the “Five Freedoms” by the Farm Animal Welfare Council (1979). These guidelines are recognized worldwide by governments and welfare advocates to develop standards animals in captivity. They are as follows:

Freedom from hunger and thirst

Freedom from discomfort

Freedom from pain, injury or disease

Freedom to express normal behavior

Freedom from fear or distress

These should be considered when drafting any animal related court order.

2.) Proper containment. All dogs require proper containment when not supervised. This means the appropriate use of well made indoor crates, locking outdoor kennels, spring loaded hinges on exit doors, and fenced or walled yards. In addition, it means giving consideration to where a dog might be housed if the owner is out of town, and how the dog is confined in vehicles. Police dogs are aggressive dogs, yet we rarely hear of them escaping and biting innocent people when off duty. The dogs are kept with the handlers, go home with them, and are properly confined when the off duty officer is away from home. Most likely, the K9 at the local police station is more aggressive than the dog being considered by the court, so what would work for a police dog would definitely work for this type of dog. Such dogs should never be chained out or tied out unsupervised in public. Further, chaining out a dog in a yard isn’t proper containment. Temporarily tying a dog to a fixed object, for a few minutes, with the owner present and supervising is appropriate sometimes, provided that the dog is insulated from further incidents by the reasonable care of the owner or handler at that time.

3.) Sufficient Exercise And Appropriate Health Care: Unwell dogs will act aggressively. So, a dog needs all the same kinds of things we need in order to stay well, such as good food, clean water, sufficient exercise, and good medical care. These dogs need to be monitored for their health, and allowed to do those things that will contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Many dogs that are labelled as being “potentially dangerous” or “vicious” have known or unknown diseases. These dogs should be screened by a veterinarian for things such as diseases, parasite infections, arthritis, hormonal imbalances, epilepsy, and such, and then provided appropriate ongoing treatment and periodic evaluations. For owners that have been deemed neglectful of the dog’s health needs, then a periodic follow up by one or more animal and/or human professionals might be in order, such as in the case of an animal hoarder.

4.) Training: All such dogs should be required to complete Basic Obedience. Not all dogs are capable of attaining high level obedience skills, but all dogs benefit from such training. So do the owners. Handler skills are even more important than the training the dog gets. Thus, a training program such as a “boot camp”, where the dog is sent away for training by someone else, isn’t sufficient. Many dog owners are ill prepared to manage a dog in public, and have to be taught appropriate skills. Thus, classroom and in-home training is part of the solution, but so is training in public locations. You can never have a trained dog that isn’t exposed to public locations and then worked to the point of obeying in public locations. Once a dog runs out the door, or if a leash breaks, what happens next will depend upon past public location training of both the dog and the owner. It is probably desirable to have such a dog complete Basic Obedience, and then yearly have to do a brush up course of at least 6 one hour lessons with a professional, followed up with a written report by the trainer of what was covered in the lessons. For some dogs, the court might also require an annual temperament evaluation by a professional behaviorist and a veterinarian, since some medical conditions, can cause a dog to deteriorate over time. Further, if there are multiple dogs in the home, it is best if all the dogs are similarly trained, obtain ongoing socialization, health care and such. Dogs act as individuals, but also act as part of groups, so how the group behaves will greatly influence how the individual dog behaves.

5.) Appropriate Equipment: All such dogs need good leashes and collars. I prefer nylon leashes, 6 feet or less, when walking a dog. Extremely short leashes are inappropriate. We all have met dogs that blow up when on a tight leash. No retractable leashes. If the training venue allows, 30 foot long leashes are also appropriate for training in designated public places, such as inside fenced off leash public parks, or at a professional dog training facility, to practice things like coming when called. You can’t teach a dog to come reliably and safely in public only using a 6 foot leash. Unfortunately, the laws of every city and municipality differ, so that puts a boundary on what can be done. Nylon, martingale style, collars or any of the metal collars are preferred in public, as well. I find that leather can fatigue and break over time, so the nylon collars are sturdier. Flat buckle or snap on collars are insufficient, because dogs can slip out of them too easily. Martingale style collars better prevent escapes. Metal collars, such as chain or prong collars are sturdy, and are safe to use if the owner has received proper instructions by a trainer. Harnesses are not appropriate restraint devices. Electric collars are not restraint devices. Some of the newer head restraint collars are not appropriate (since some dogs can slip out of them), unless the dog is double leashed with one leash attached to the head collar, and a second leash attached to the neck collar. If you use a “Y” shaped single leash that can attach to both collars, that works well, too. That way a dog that pulls can still be restrained and steered, and the second collar prevents any escapes. Further, it is completely appropriate to require such dogs to wear a good quality plastic, wire basket, or leather muzzle when off the owner’s premises. An appropriate muzzle isn’t the cheap type you see in most pet stores, that hold the mouth shut firmly and can cause a dog to overheat or suffocate. Appropriate muzzles are of the same designs used by police and protection dog trainers. Or they types you see on racing greyhounds. Such a muzzle often has to be custom made, allowing the dog comfort, the ability to breathe and pant normally, and not cause abrasions. Examples can be found by searching the internet for pictures of “dog basket muzzles”. Muzzles are not inhumane if used appropriately, meaning the dog only has it on when supervised and in the presence of a competent handler. Muzzles should never be left on an unsupervised dog.

6.) Reasonable Warnings: Some dogs are good with people, but not some animals. Some dogs are good with animals but not with some people. Some dogs are good with people and animals if properly supervised. Some dogs are not good with most people and most other animals. There are too many combinations to list here, and too many gradations of risk to list here. There is no fixed rule of thumb. Therefore, appropriate to the incident that led up to the court hearing, I think that the owners of such dogs should henceforth be required to regulate who comes up to pet their dog, and which other  animals are allowed to interact with this dog. If the dog is suspected of being a threat to people, then people not known and liked by the dog should be discouraged from interacting with the dog in casual public encounters. Such a dog often can become friends with new people over time, but until that point is reached, there is a risk, and the owner should discourage contact and give a verbal warning not to handle the dog. If the dog is suspected of being a threat to other domesticated animals, then such animals should also be given a wide berth in public, and if the owners of such animals are present, warned to keep them away from this dog. Wild animals, such as deer, rabbits, and such are usually not an issue for such dogs, since that is probably not why the dog and owner ended up in court, and since most dog breeds were created to chase, or even kill, such animals if given the opportunity. Trespassing domestic animals aren’t really the fault of the owner, and those who own such animals let them run free at their own risk, and I don’t see any reasonable way of not making a dog protect itself or its territory from intruders. I also believe in appropriate signage on the premises, as allowed by the laws, covenants, codes and restrictions, and homeowners or condominium or apartment organization rules. Depending upon the circumstances, signs can include: No Trespassing, Dog On Premises, Guests Please Enter Through The Front Door, and such. Further, gardeners, pool maintenance professionals and such should be instructed to not come in side gates, but announce themselves at the front door, so any dog in the yard can be put away, so as to prevent them from being harmed or from the dog escaping the premises.

7.) Reasonable Penalties: I believe structured penalties should be included in such a ruling. A minor violation shouldn’t result in the death of a dog or the imprisonment of the owner. First there should be exceptions to when the dog IS allowed to threaten or bite, which would be considered provocation… those would include: a.) Legitimate self defense; b.) Defense of territory; c.) Defense of pack – human family, other home pets, and such; d.) Establishment of a reasonable pack order within the home; e.) Mouthing (which is not the same as being aggressive); f.) While being trained during lessons, and in the midst of long term maintenance training, to teach a dog to contain it’s drives and aggression; g.) For legitimate police work – if a police force obtains ownership and control of the dog, then the court order should be rescinded and the dog be given a fresh start; h.) Legitimate hunting purposes (such as duck hunting).

There should then be precise definitions of what kind of biting or threatening incidents are prohibited. For example, an animal potentially dangerous to other animals means any of the following: Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, engages in behavior that threatens the safety of another domestic animal so that the other animal has to take defensive action to protect itself. Instinctual behavior by a dog such as barking at or chasing a cat will not be deemed a sign of being potentially dangerous or vicious if the cat gets away, as usually happens. Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, inflicts less than severe injury on another domestic animal not owned by the owner would be treated differently than if there is a dog fight with an innocent strange domestic animal resulting in more severe injuries. An animal potentially dangerous to humans means any of the following: Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, engages in behavior that threatens the safety of a human being so that the human has to take defensive action to protect himself/herself or that person is injured. Any animal which, when unprovoked and off the property of the owner or keeper, doesn’t bite a person or breaks the skin, and causes less than severe injury would receive a different penalty than if the dog did bite, break the skin, or cause a more severe injury. Thus, if someone tripped over the dog and skinned their knee that wouldn’t be the same as if the dog attacked and mauled them. We know that some dog law violations bind the hands of the court and require dogs to be deemed “potentially dangerous” or “vicious”, but the dog isn’t necessarily that dangerous at all. From there, a hearing procedure should be specified. And a set of penalties prescribed, ranging from a minor offense to a major offense.

I think you have to tell people exactly what is expected of them if you want to prevent future disputes over this dog. Further, some victims, the press, politicians, dog hating or breed hating groups, and animal control officials, are not satisfied if a dog isn’t put to death after a designation of “potentially dangerous” or “vicious”. Sometimes there is an ongoing grudge, a push for vengeance, which can provoke future conflicts with such a dog or dog owner. Everyone needs to learn to leave one another alone after the court has made its decision, however, that isn’t always the outcome. It is not unusual for some to go on crusades against the dog and owner, or to tease and taunt the dog or owner to try and tempt a violation of the court’s orders. Some victims also contribute to their own problems, by not properly supervising their kids, leaving neighbors alone, managing their own pets, shrieking and yelling and acting threateningly towards the dog or owner, installing electrical devices to harass the dog remotely, attempts to poison the dog or otherwise injure the dog, and such. These cases are rarely black and white, good dog / bad dog, good owner / bad owner, innocent victim / vengeful neighbor or relative or ex spouse and so on. Thus, on balance, restrictions on the behavior and proximity of the victims also needs to be spelled out, otherwise false claims can be filed, the dog can be provoked by victims looking for loopholes in the rulings, etc. Courts are there to settle disputes, not set up future conflicts and new ways for trouble to brew. Lastly, any liability insurance requirements should reflect what is reasonably available in the marketplace. If the insurance requirement is impossible to meet, then that is no different than a death penalty for that dog in most cases, and would be considered an inhumane and unjust outcome that wasn’t anticipated by the legislators.

I’m sure there are other ideas. Every location will be different. Thus, what might be appropriate for a dog in a city might not be appropriate for a dog on a farm. All of that needs to be tailored to the specific circumstances. Every circumstance will be different, and so the what the interested parties and general public require has to be addressed, as well.