Manitoba·Opinion

'No dog raises itself': In preventing attacks, focus on training, not breed, says vet

While much of the discussion surrounding dog bites focuses on the question of 'aggressive' breeds, this is not a helpful focus.  It's more about the trainer than the breed, says veterinarian Philipp Schott.

There are tendencies but no breed should be considered inherently dangerous or inherently safe: Philipp Schott

A dog's behaviour is mostly influenced by how well it's been trained, says Winnipeg veterinarian Dr. Philipp Schott. (EyeEm/Getty Images)

This year, it's estimated 560,000 Canadians will be bitten by a dog (I base this on research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control).

But while much of the discussion regarding dog bites focuses on the question of "aggressive" breeds, this is not a helpful focus. 

No breed should be considered inherently dangerous and no breed should be considered inherently safe: I have been growled at by more golden retrievers than pit bulls.

While there are breed tendencies toward, for example, herding or guarding or digging, personality varies widely among individual dogs, regardless of breed. In mixed-breed dogs, the variation is even greater.

So, if focusing on breeds is not helpful, what is? 

In a word, training — and I mean "training" in the broadest sense possible. 

Too often we think of training as simply teaching sit, stay and perhaps a few amusing tricks. But a dog that can fetch or roll over is just as likely to bite as one that can't, so that is not what I mean. 

What I mean by training is the entire process of raising a dog.

There is no aggressive breed, but some breeds may be prone to being more skittish or nervous or boisterous or protective.- Dr. Philipp Schott

The first step is taken before you even get a dog. You have to ask yourself: do you honestly have the time it takes to raise a dog properly? Have you picked the right dog? 

Again, there is no aggressive breed, but some breeds may be prone to being more skittish or nervous or boisterous or protective. Are you ready to put the additional work into raising a such a dog, so that it is happy and safe? 

No dog raises itself. All require consistent, loving, rules-based attention.

Learn about dog behaviour

The next step is to understand that raising a dog might not entail what you think it does.

There are a lot of myths. Just because the farm dogs you grew up with were all good dogs does not automatically mean that your new dog will be, too. Please educate yourself on our modern understanding of dog behaviour.

And if you are ever in doubt, do not hesitate to ask your veterinarian. Not enough people realize that veterinarians can help with behavioural questions as well as medical ones.

Regardless of your best efforts, some dogs may still develop behavioural problems. Perhaps it's because of early life experiences before you came into the picture, or perhaps it's due to a random genetic quirk, but regardless, this is where the third step becomes critical:

You must be objective about your dog's behaviour. 

Do not rely on the fact that your dog has never bitten.- Dr. Philipp Schott

As the saying goes, love is blind. We love our dogs, so sometimes we are blind to their faults, or make excuses for them when they behave badly.

I can't tell you how often I have heard: "Oh, he's just scared," or "she's just trying to protect me" as the dog lunges at me. Perhaps he is scared, and perhaps she is protective, but these are explanations, not excuses. 

You must address these behaviours as soon as you see hints of them.

Do not rely on the fact that your dog has never bitten. A dog that bites for the first time was a dog that had never bitten anyone before. 

Be especially attuned to your dog's behaviour in the period of very roughly one to two years of age, as this is when we sometimes see previously innocent seeming puppies start to show less innocent behaviours.

Like human teenagers, this is the age when dogs may vigorously test limits and try out new ways of dealing with the world.

If threatened, don't run 

Bite prevention goes beyond these steps. In addition, your dog should always be under your complete control. 

Never let your dog off leash where there are other people (except in designated parks). 

Incidentally, those retractable "flexi-leads" are the functional equivalent of being off leash.

And if you must leave your dog in the yard, be doubly confident that your fences and gates are secure. Check again and check often.

All children need to be taught bite prevention. Every child knows "look both ways" and "stop, drop and roll," but how many know "be a tree"? If a dog threatens them, they should stand still, fold down their branches (arms) in front and look down at their roots (feet).

Never run. Never make eye contact.

Having a dog in your life can be a source of tremendous joy, but it is a serious responsibility as well — obviously to the dog itself, but also, perhaps less obviously, to the community. 

Dogs can greatly enrich lives, but they can also damage them.

It's up to you.


This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Dr. Philipp Schott is a small-animal veterinarian and writer who lives in Winnipeg with his wife, two teenagers, three cats and one marginally well-behaved dog. The Accidental Veterinarian: Tales from a Pet Practice is his first book.

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