Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2007, 12:00am

This week: Dog aggression and what causes it

In the news recently, an 11-year-old golden retriever attacked its 60-year-old owner and her arm was severely wounded by the bite. The owners decided to send the dog away to be put to sleep.

I will not rant about whether the dog should be put to sleep as it is the owner's right to do so and no amount of explanation will change the fact that the dog had hurt its owner severely. If the dog has been deemed dangerous - and it sounds awfully dangerous - and the owners are unable to change that with intensive training, then it is reasonable to euthanise.

Owners who have aggressive dogs are poor trainers and would need an iron will and determination to learn how to train their dog.

Biting is unfortunately one of the most common reasons for abandoning dogs; it is probably second only to poor toilet training and barking. But like toilet training and barking, biting is partly due to poor training and is avoidable. The only lucky fact about what happened is the dog bit the owner and not an innocent bystander; I use the word 'innocent' because the owner is 'guilty' and wholly responsible for the dog's attack, albeit unintentionally.

The owner is guilty of an inability to train and handle the golden retriever. There is a myth that this breed is friendly, intelligent and safe. It is not true. I have found the old struggle between nature and nurture to be the only constant. It is true there are some traditional fighting dog breeds such as pit bulls and Perro de Presa Canarios, or Canary dog (a large multipurpose farm dog from the Canary Islands), which can be unpredictably aggressive even with good training. In these breeds the innate nature of the dog cannot easily be trained out.

Other breeds such as Rottweilers, German shepherds and Dobermann pinschers are dangerous because they tend to be more aggressive and are so well armed and strong that even a glancing minor attack could cause a severe or even a fatal injury.

Some breeds definitely still have a wild streak, making them more akin to a wolf than a pet dog; Alaskan malamutes, Siberian huskies, Akitas and wolf hybrids tend to be very dominant because this is the trait that helped their ancestors survive in the wild.

The golden retriever is a great breed that usually has a standard friendly, reliable and trustworthy temperament. But in Hong Kong, this breed is sometimes flawed, with breeders concentrating on the physical aspects and ignoring the fact that a dog's temperament can also be genetically passed to puppies. Hostility towards other dogs or people in normal situations or an unwarranted show of timidity or nervousness is common - not in keeping with a golden retriever's character.

There is a genetic level that makes a dog aggressive, even the lovable golden retriever. But any dog is made worse, a lot worse, if it is unsocialised and dominant due to poor training. In reality, any dog can be dangerous if its nurturing or training is poor. The worst bite I suffered was from a 1kg Australian silky terrier that punctured a hole right through the palm of my hand. So size does not preclude aggressive behaviour.

There are plenty of dogs in Hong Kong that are kept solely indoors and never get socialised with other dogs or people. It is no wonder some dogs will bite strangers that enter the house. Some owners may hit their dog due to poor toilet training, which just makes it more aggressive. In training attack dogs, it is necessary to provoke the animal by hitting and taunting it. Owners do this all the time with their so-call beloved pet. Dogs are spoiled and owners often reward aggression and dominance with treats that are supposed to calm them down.

It is common during a consultation for one of my nurses to be threatened and the owner uses soothing words to calm the dog down, but this is wrong. Owners believe the animal understands what they are saying, but in reality the soothing words are a sign of submission, thus the dog will believe it is 'top dog' in the family. Feeding the dog first is also a mistake. In the wild, the alpha wolf eats before the lesser members of the pack, so the owner unintentionally has made the dog the head of the family.

With proper training, an owner can learn to speak the language of wolves and understand a dog's behaviour better.

No one intentionally wants to make their pet dog aggressive and that goes for the 60-year-old owner who was bitten. It is important for people to have patience and understanding as it is owners' ignorance or laziness that causes aggression in dogs, not the animal itself. So do not blame the dog, blame the owner. There is an old Chinese saying, 'Self eat self-grown fruit', which means you are rewarded or punished for your actions.