Reactive dogs can get their owners into trouble. Trainer Carolyn Menteith and legal expert Trevor Cooper advise on how to avoid it.
One of the most common problems trainers and behaviourists have to deal with is reactivity towards other dogs.
This can be anything from a dog seeming uncomfortable around other dogs and being a little defensive, right up to serious dog-to-dog aggression.
Like all behaviour problems, prevention is far better than cure - and with dog-to-dog issues, this really can't be underestimated. It is a simple problem to prevent and a far harder one to deal with once it has become established.
The first line of prevention goes right back to puppyhood. Puppies need to be socialised with other dogs when young - sometimes very young - to make sure they grow up sociable and friendly. For this reason, it is important that prospective owners find a breeder who prioritises socialisation, especially in breeds that are known for their reactivity. These include guarding breeds, many terriers, and herding and working breeds. However, all dogs need appropriate socialisation during puppyhood.
Not only do dogs have to be socialised to be friendly towards dogs they encounter, they also need to be habituated to them in certain circumstances; this means they must learn to ignore strange dogs and listen to their owners instead (useful for breeds that are known for not being friendly with strange dogs, for nervous dogs, and for dogs who love other dogs so much that they run off to play with them and ignore their comparatively boring human!). All training has to include ‘listening to your owner when there are other dogs around'.
There is a very limited time in which you can socialise puppies; in some breeds this socialisation window closes very early indeed (pre-14 weeks and sometimes much earlier), and so breeders have to be extremely proactive in ensuring their puppies get an introduction to other dogs and learn their social skills. This is the number one thing that can be done to prevent reactive dogs. Breeders who follow a socialisation and habituation programme like The Puppy Socialisation Plan (www.thepuppyplan.co.uk), developed by the Kennel Club and Dogs Trust, are far more likely to be rearing less reactive puppies.
As well as breeders needing to prioritise socialisation, however, so do new owners. Many have no idea how important this is - and others sometimes think that as they have other dogs in the household, this is socialisation enough, which is not the case. Perhaps the best way to socialise your puppy is to find a good socialisation class or puppy playgroup. Sadly, that is often easier said than done, as there are as many bad classes springing up as there are really good ones.
New owners need to find classes that match puppies carefully to allow appropriate playtime in twos or threes, rather than have a puppy rampage.
Owners also need to understand dogs a little more in order to see how often they put their dogs in situations where they learn to be reactive to others. They need to remember that most aggression arises, in the first instance, from fear. Think of it from a dog's point of view: often we expect dogs on leads to approach each other face to face (on pavements or narrow paths). This kind of approach is very rude in dog language, so unless very sociable and friendly, a dog will start to get worried. His natural instincts will prepare him to take action to avoid conflict and ‘survive' and will activate the fight-flight response.
Fight or flight?
For most dogs the first option is flight; get out of there and avoid the situation. The lead will make flight an impossibility, however, and so will both narrow his options and increase his fear, especially because the owner will generally, at this point, shorten the lead even more!
And so the dog has a choice, either steel himself and get past the other dog, then heave a huge canine sigh of relief, or else show some kind of reactive response and lo and behold, that works. Either the other dog is taken away or his owner rushes him off; whatever happens, he feels huge relief because in his mind he has succeeded (and indeed survived). The rush of relief is intoxicating and so attack can quickly become the first line of defence for dogs because it worked in a scary situation when nothing else (in the dog's mind) did. And so there you see just how quickly and easily dog-to-dog aggression starts and builds - we cause it ourselves.
Far better is if owners recognise this as a potential problem, and work hard to make sure their dogs feel comfortable in these situations by teaching them a ‘Watch me', so they can look at their owners when they pass other dogs and get a yummy treat for ignoring them. Or avoid situations where they have to pass close to strange, unknown dogs until they know their dog is comfortable with them. And always be aware of situations where their dog feels uncomfortable and make them safe for him, rather than have him feel he has to deal with the situation all by himself.
If, however, you already have a dog who has dog-to-dog issues, your very first step is to manage the problem to prevent him getting a chance to practise the behaviour and so get better at it. This is a reality with behaviour problems. Every time it happens, it establishes the behaviour further. Not only that but it is your responsibility to keep other dogs safe from your dog.
This might include using a headcollar or a harness to give you more control, not letting your dog off the lead around other dogs (no good just trusting to luck!), and generally improving his level of obedience. If you fear he may cause injury to another dog (or if he already has), use a muzzle when you take him out and about. Owners often dislike the thought of a muzzle, but it means your dog can have more freedom and you can relax a little more (because you being tense is only going to make things worse).
Then you need to find and work with a good trainer or behaviourist, who has experience with these issues, to teach your dog a better way to behave in these situations.
Often, however, we have unrealistic expectations when it comes to our dogs. We seem to want them to be able to charge around happily and play with all the other dogs they meet, and in most cases, it just doesn't work like that.
Far better to teach dogs to play nicely with their canine friends, and ignore dogs they don't know to avoid dog-to-dog issues - to protect our dogs, others, and to stay on the right side of the law.
Laying down the law
Whether your dog is the victim of a dog attack or the instigator, there are various laws in England and Wales which could give rise to a criminal prosecution or a civil claim.
Firstly, there's the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. Since May of this year, it has been a criminal offence for a dog to attack an assistance dog, either injuring or killing it (which is an aggravated offence), or giving a person reasonable grounds to believe that the assistance dog would be injured (a non-aggravated version of the offence).
A case can be brought against the dog's owner or the person in charge of the dog at the time and if the prosecution is proven, it can lead to significant penalties. An aggravated offence carries a maximum penalty of a three-year prison sentence, an unlimited fine, unlimited compensation, and discretionary disqualification from keeping a dog.
There is also a presumption that the dog will be destroyed unless the owner can prove that the dog would not constitute a danger to public safety.
The government decided not to extend this law to cover all dog-on-dog incidents, so if the victim dog isn't an assistance dog, then the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 probably doesn't apply.
Generally, it only applies to incidents involving people; however, if during a dog-on-dog incident a person is injured or has reasonable grounds to believe they would be injured, then it could come within this legislation - possibly if the victim intervened in an attempt to protect their dog from an attack by another.
The Dogs Act 1871
If there is solely a dog-on-dog incident (not involving an assistance dog), with no person injured or fearing injury, then the main law to apply would be the Dogs Act 1871.
This law, which allows a complaint to be brought before a magistrates' court for a dog to be kept under proper control or destroyed, is frequently missed by prosecutors.
Three things have to be proven on the balance of probabilities (in other words shown to be more likely than not):
- The defendant before the court is the dog's owner - this applies even if they weren't the owner at the time of the incident.
- The dog wasn't kept under proper control - if a dog was neither muzzled nor on a lead it is presumed that it wasn't under proper control.
- The dog is dangerous - it has a dangerous character, nature, disposition or propensity.
Even if the only danger that a dog poses is towards other dogs, then it can be regarded as a dangerous dog for the purposes of this Act. Generally, a single incident is unlikely to be sufficient to prove that a dog is dangerous, unless that isolated occasion is deemed to be exceptional.
The court is entitled to use its common sense in deciding if a dog is ‘dangerous', so, for example, if a dog was responding to provocation from the other dog then the magistrates might find that it is not a dangerous dog, even if the other dog came off worst.
If the case is proven, then the only ‘punishment' for the owner is that they are likely to have to pay costs and they could be disqualified from having custody of a dog (albeit this is very rare).
As to the dog, the magistrates will have unfettered discretion. They could order that the dog be destroyed, but in most cases a control order will be imposed requiring that the dog be kept under proper control. The court also has the power to impose conditions to such an order.
Animal Welfare Act 2006
There is a criminal offence of cruelty if you cause or permit an animal to suffer unreasonably and this could apply in a few dog-on-dog incidents.
Despite most people believing that cruelty is a serious offence, courts have limited sentencing powers. The maximum prison sentence is six months and/or a £20,000 fine. The court has a wide power to impose a disqualification order, although enforcement is not always that straightforward.
Community protection notices
From the autumn, the police and councils will have the power to serve a community protection notice if there is unreasonable conduct of a persistent or continuing nature which has a detrimental effect on quality of life. This could well apply if a person was allowing their dog to be a nuisance to other dogs.
The notice could require the dog to be kept on a lead, muzzled, excluded from specified places, neutered, or, importantly, taken to training classes. Breach can lead to a fixed penalty notice of up to £100 or a fine of up to £2,500.
Hopefully, sufficient resources will be given to enforcers so they can use this new power effectively for the benefit of the community.
The owner of the victim of a dog attack may be able to claim compensation from the owner of the aggressor dog through the civil courts.
This could apply if the aggressor dog had dangerous characteristics which were known about (liability under the Animals Act 1971) or if it could be proven that the owner was negligent (they did something they shouldn't have done or failed to do something they should have done).
These claims can be very complicated to prove but an owner might be able to get a solicitor to act on their behalf on a ‘no win, no fee' basis.
All dog owners should have the benefit of third party liability insurance which will protect them if there is a civil claim against them for their dog injuring a person, damaging property, or harming another animal (including a dog). Always check your level of insurance cover.