Thursday, October 27, 2011

What's All The Bark About?

The Controversy About Dogs

Author, Jan Casey

Controversy. Where does it not exist? We all have been warned not to discuss politics or religion. If you live in Tennessee, you may want to add football teams to that list. What about dogs? What could be controversial about dogs? Well, it seems just about everything.

Let’s start with breed specific legislation. Many municipalities across the country have established a restriction on owning certain breeds of dog. Pit bulls are by far the most
recognized breed to be outlawed by communities, which is ironic as it is also a
breed which is so often misidentified. I checked the Center for Disease Control
in Atlanta website for statistics and found they stopped recording bites by breed in 1998. Looking at all the years combined, pits did have the highest number of
incidents for dog bite related fatalities. However, bites resulting in human
fatalities were recorded for thirty breeds including a Labrador,
a Dachshund, and a Yorkie. In the later years of the statistics, it is noted
that Rottweilers surpassed Pit Bulls in the number of dog bite related
fatalities. If you read further, you will find the CDC is opposed to breed
specific regulation. The CDC suggests “generic, non-breed-specific, dangerous
dog laws be enacted that place primary responsibility for a dog’s behavior on
the owner, regardless of the dog’s breed. In particular, targeting chronically
irresponsible dog owners may be effective.” It is their belief that educating
owners as to the appropriate breed for their life style as well as teaching
people about the importance of training and socialization will do much to
reduce the number of dog bites and the fatalities that result from them. I
admit I agree with them. The entire report can be read at

Another topic currently
creating a wealth of controversy concerns the ability of the dog to think and
to have emotions. There has been some fascinating work coming out of Europe regarding the abilities of dogs to solve problems.
Cysani has shown that dogs pay very close attention to people and use their
observations to communicate. In a type of animal shell game, he would place a
treat under one scent-proof cup, shuffle the cups, then point to the cup which
contained the treat. Dogs outperformed chimps significantly in this test. A
Border Collie named Guiness has been able to identify different landscapes,
different faces, and even different dog breeds. Another Border Collie, Rico,
has been shown to identify 200 different toys. Studies have shown dogs can tell
the difference in abstract concepts such as large and small, and in sizes and
shapes. While I don’t for a minute equate a dog’s ability to think with that of
a person, I do believe we have far underestimated the thinking capabilities of
dogs. The same can be said of emotions and dogs. The structure of the part of
the brain that controls emotions, the limbic system, is similar in dogs and
people and would suggest that dogs do experience emotion even though it may not
be exactly like human emotion. For some people, there must be scientific
measurement recorded to prove emotions in dogs. For other people, those who
come home after a brief absence to a barking, wagging, smiling dog, there is no
study on earth that will convince them dogs don’t have emotions. Most believers
will tell stories of a dog’s fear, anger, happiness, and love. Studies at this
time can only confirm the remarkable similarity between dog and human brains
and use this to conclude some sort of emotion on the part of dogs exists. If
you are interested in thought and emotion in dogs, I would highly recommend the
book For the Love of a Dog – Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best
by Dr. Patricia McConnell.

Why does it matter if dogs think or have emotions? The answer leads to yet another controversy – how dogs should be trained. Consider a fearful dog. If a trainer does not believe or care if a dog has emotions, then the solution will probably consist of
dominating the dog (use of a shock collar or leash pops) or a technique called
“flooding” – overloading the dog with whatever it is the dog fears. The trainer
who believes the dog has emotions will choose to desensitize the dog to the
fearful object and then change the dog’s emotional state when encountering that
object (counter conditioning). I use this example with my clients: If you are
scared of snakes and I don’t care about your emotions, I will just throw you in
a room full of snakes. You’ll get over it, right? On the other hand, if I do
consider your emotional state, I will start at a distance by showing you a
picture of a snake and gradually work up to you handling a snake. I will reward
you with a $100 bill each time you are able to work more closely with the snake
to change your emotional reaction to the snake. Which would you prefer?

People will always disagree. When choosing a side, defend your position with the most current information available. Most of all, just love your dog. Dogs don’t create
controversy, people do.

Jan Casey is a reward-based trainer in Florida
at Courteous Canine, Inc.
and owner of Smiles and Wags Pet Services Mrs.
Casey is a member of the Association of Animal
Behavior Professionals.
Mrs. Casey is a columnist for the Cookeville,
Herald-Citizen Pet Pages and Kid's Korner . This column was originally written for the Herald-Citizen

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