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 July 2008 - Nr. 7

My Dog Teaches … About Aggression

Hunny by David McKagueThe intent behind the various breed bans and "dangerous dog laws" is avowedly to protect the public from aggressive dogs.

Yet the laws rarely define aggression in any meaningful way, leaving the door open for broad interpretation and misuse. For example, under Ontario’s Dog Owners’ Liability Act, a dog owner may be charged "if it is alleged that the dog on one or more occasions acted in a manner that posed a menace to the safety of persons or domestic animals". As discussed in an earlier Petitorial, none of this is defined anywhere in the law. Chasing cats, barking at strangers, growling at another dog would all fit into this criterion.

Laws in other jurisdictions have their own hazy concepts such as "approaches in a vicious or terrorizing manner" or "in a way that endangers a person."

In her excellent book Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous, Janis Bradley comments, "My own state, California, may take the prize for haziness in describing as dangerous a dog that ‘engages in any behavior that requires a defensive action by any person to prevent bodily injury.’ A dog who runs into the street causing a car to swerve would qualify under this definition. If he did it twice, this dog would be certified ‘vicious’."

The difficulty in all of these vague and fuzzy descriptions is that enforcement is often based on the irrational fears of those who may have felt "threatened" or "endangered" or "menaced" in some unspecified manner. Such as the couple on the opposite side of the street who hurriedly scooped up their infant son from his stroller and ran away terrified when they saw Hunny. From my perspective, this behavior was really quite comical as Hunny was walking contentedly beside me on a leash at the time, but I have no doubts that in their own minds, they truly felt threatened/endangered/menaced.

I can certainly empathize with those who have little experience with dogs and who are nervous or afraid in their presence. But they can hardly be expected to have a proper perspective on canine aggression; in fact, many dog owners themselves misunderstand this aspect of dog behavior.

In reality, all dogs display aggressive behavior at some time or other. As a point of comparison, what man, woman or child does not get angry every now and again? Humans have language with which to voice our upset or displeasure with another. We might express it in other ways such as facial expressions or body language, but rarely does the anger escalate to physical harm.

Dogs, not having the finer nuances of spoken language available to them, communicate on a more simplistic level. They may growl or bare their teeth or snap threateningly to establish the limits of acceptable behavior amongst themselves. On occasion, this can escalate into a full-blown fight. Yet even in this last scenario, it is extremely rare for any dog to be seriously injured. The explanation for this is really quite simple. Dogs are social animals adapted to living in packs; their mutual survival demanded that disputes among themselves be settled in a manner that did not weaken the pack through injury to any of its members.

Thus, even though a fight between dogs may look and sound ferocious, complete with gnashing teeth, almost invariably each dog is merely posturing aggressively. Even if one does manage to get the other in its jaws, the bite is inhibited to prevent any real injury.

As any person who frequents dog parks can tell you, displayed aggression towards humans is very much less common than towards members of their own species. For anyone to accomplish the extremely rare feat of getting bitten by a dog, I would venture that, in almost every case, somewhere along the line he missed the warning signals telling him to "back off". (Which is why young children should never be left alone with any dog; they don’t have the experience to understand the dog’s communication.)

Because all dogs posture aggressively, it becomes a meaningless exercise for anyone to try to predict if a dog is dangerous before it has actually harmed a person or another animal. Very, very few are unless they have been maliciously trained to be so.

Labeling dogs as such based on a poor knowledge of what constitutes aggressive behavior is human folly. If dogs can generally sort out their own squabbles peacefully, albeit sometimes belligerently, surely we can apply our time-honored principle of "Innocent until proven guilty" to them.

Previous "Petitorial" articles by David McKague:


Editor’s note: I would like to encourage dog lovers everywhere to start a PETITION to have this law thrown out or revised to such a form where justice prevails. SFR.

Email to David McKague
David McKague talks about the pit-bull or pit bulls, pets, dogs, the duress put upon the dog and the owner, especially through laws in Ontario, Canada, that affect and encroach on rights and freedoms of the individual, human rights, reputation of individuals and owners. David stresses the importance of being responsible and understanding when dealing with pets.


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