The tragic death of a 14-month-old girl at her family home highlights again the importance of managing dogs and humans correctly. This is not to say the little girl’s family hadn’t but when you have any children mixing with any dog/s regardless of breed, supervision is paramount.
At this point we don’t know the circumstances of the attack so it is hard to speculate as to why the attack occurred. However, statistics show that most dog attacks occur at the family home and by a known dog (in this case the family dog).
In my 30 plus years’ experience as a professional dog trainer and instructor, the biggest problems I encounter with dog owners is their anthropomorphism and lack of pack-leadership towards their dogs. These phenomena are why things in the human-dog relationship can sometimes go terribly wrong as witnessed by this little girl’s death and of another little girl in NSW earlier this year.
If a dog has been raised without any real guidance and leadership, it may see itself as the leader of the human pack. This can occur with some dogs as early as 16 weeks of age. Behaviours such as jealousy (new child in the family so the dog sees the child as a threat to its relationship with the owner), resource-guarding (food, possessions including family members).
If the dog has been allowed in the house all its life and suddenly, a child comes into the home and the dog is cast outside, it can quickly relate its change of status due to the emergence of the young child. This can then manifest as jealousy with the dog waiting for an opportunity to attack the child in order to reinstate itself in the home and with the dog owner.
With dogs that guard their resources, if left unchecked will reinforce to that dog that it is in charge. Moreover, every time the dog bares its teeth, growls, snaps whilst in the throes of resource-guarding without any challenge, simply bolsters its sense of being the pack-leader. I had a case recently where an owner of a very large breed of dog 6 months of age came to our school for obedience training. The pup displayed dominant behaviours to the young adult owner such as biting the lead, jumping on the owner, dragging him towards any and every dog he saw and as we found out later, resource guarding at home.
I visited him and provided strategies to counter the behaviour but what I also witnessed was the other family members being fearful of their family dog. Why? Because this dog was never shown leadership from the moment it came to the new home at 8 weeks of age so by the time it reached 16 weeks of age (the imprinting or critical period of development), it had established itself as the pack-leader. Consequently, this young dog had already bitten each family member over its food. Moreover, the dog was given full reign of the house. It would jump on the couch and lie on it, slept on the owner’s bed and if any family member walked into the room, the dog would bare its teeth and growl. So, you can see this was a very dangerous situation and one that could have been prevented if proper steps were taken in the pup’s upbringing. Was this problem solved? Yes, but only after a lot of hard work and effort from the owner although at one stage they were contemplating euthanasia.
Educating not only dog owners but prospective dog owners and the wider community is paramount to avoiding the pitfalls of dog ownership and further tragedies. Clearly establishing the pecking order in the family to the dog will minimise the chance of any challenges to family members and visitors.
Every dog attack is unique, so it is important for the authorities to investigate all aspects of the circumstances that led to the attack. Questions must be asked such as where the dog come from, how old was it when it was acquired, had it shown any dominant/aggressive behaviours before. Armed with as much information as possible will help determine strategies to prevent future dog attacks.