Experts gather for conference on dog aggression
TRAINER and behaviourist Victoria Stilwell is due to fly to England this week to present the National Dog Bite Prevention and Behaviour Conference which will bring together the UK’s and US’ experts in the field.
She has enlisted the help of the world’s top canine behaviourists, lawyers, and educators to create the national event which is dedicated to finding practical and workable solutions to this universal problem through education and heightened awareness.
She is bringing with her Florida police lieutenant turned dog bite forensic investigator and aggression expert Jim Crosby, who has made a study of ‘canine homicides’; 37 people died in dog attacks in America last year.
Other speakers include Ms Stilwell herself, creator of Channel 4’s It’s Me or the Dog, dog law specialist Trevor Cooper, editor and publisher of Dogs Today Beverley Cuddy, T-Touch practitioner and behaviourist Sarah Fisher and trainer and behaviourist Chiraq Patel.
Ms Stilwell arrives in the country in the wake of the latest dog bite statistics which showed that since 1998 the number of people hospitalised rose by 51.17 per cent, with an overall rise of 150 per cent in Scotland. A total of 6,447 people were admitted to hospital due to dog bites between 2011-‘12 – a 5.2 per cent rise on the previous 12 months. And between 2012 and ‘13, 6,302 people were hospitalised from dog bites, and of those, under-tens accounted for the highest rate of admissions.
There have been 27 deaths since 2006.
"The tragedy is that in most cases these incidences are preventable,” Ms Stilwell said. "Education on dog behaviour should start in schools and be continued at ground level in communities.
"Education is key – not just for parents and kids but also for professionals and educators who must all work together to spread awareness and encourage responsible dog ownership.”
In an exclusive interview which can be heard here, Ms Stilwell said she believed there were several reasons why the number of dog-biting incidents in the UK is increasing.
"There are more dogs for a start, and the role of the modern dog is very different from what it used to be,” she said. "In the past the dog had a job to do, there more working breeds who were actually working. Their lives were more fulfilled. Now it is more likely that a dog is a companion, sits on the couch and gets one walk a day if it’s lucky. People have busier lives. The dog has no outlet for its energy and frustrations.”
Ms Stilwell said that confrontational training methods portrayed on the TV have not helped.
"This has played a huge part in dog bites,” she said. "People watch it being done and if it works it looks amazing and then they go and try with their own dog and get bitten.
"Another factor is puppy farmers pushing out dogs who are behaviourally and medically unsound and lacking in socialisation. There are more status dogs, and some people don’t appreciate what they have at end of the lead.”
Dogs in England enjoy more freedom in the UK than in America said Ms Stilwell, who now lives in the US.
"There are far more dogs and far more dog bites occurring in the US than the UK, although it is still a serious issue in the UK,” she said. "In America the lead law is very strict and unless it’s an enclosed park dogs can’t be let off leads. That causes its own issues – frustration for the dogs. In the UK dogs can run off lead in parks so they can act naturally.
"Positive training is important. The whole idea is that you don’t have to dominate a dog to get it to behave. Humane methods work. Yes, boundaries have to be created between dog and human but not by intimidation, bullying and creating fear.
"And I think British people are just more aware – certainly there are some really good dog owners who are educated and more aware about what a dog needs I was at Crufts this year and it was great to see the amount of education being conveyed there – in the Discover Dog section, for instance, where knowledgeable breeders were giving information to people who were showing genuine interest in breeds. I think people are becoming more aware, but there will always be that section of society that doesn’t care, or just buys a puppy or dog they fancy after seeing it on the internet or being sold in the pub.
"But the major issue in the UK is puppy farmers, especially in Wales; only with more regulation can puppy farmers be stopped. We still have many people out there making mistakes, making snap decisions and choosing dogs based on how it looks rather than what it is.”
In the US last year 37 people were killed by dogs, 21 of the dogs involved were pit bull types.
"We see a pattern in which people at the lower end of socioeconomic status have dogs, keep them at the end of a chain and never socialise them, and fatal attacks are more likely to happen in that section of society,” Ms Stilwell said. "I’m not being classist – it’s just a fact.”
She opposes breed-specific legislation.
"I speak as a pit bull lover,” she said. "Since making pit bulls illegal in the UK biting incidents and deaths have only increased, so it proves it does not work. They are tough, powerful dogs and you need to be act responsibly – but you also need to be with a Jack Russell. I have a Chihuahua and I have to be careful with her; she’s a rescue and had been terribly abused.
"I don’t look at the breed; I take the breed into account and what it needs to make it happy and healthy, but I look at individual behaviour to find out what caused this dog to bite. You can never trust a dog 100 per cent; every dog has the potential to be a great dog and every dog has teeth and if feels threatened might use them.
"They are companion animals; we love them and they are my passion, but I have enormous respect for them. I understand that they are dogs and they should be treated with respect and taught in a positive way.”
The conference at RAF Odiham, Hampshire, is being held to:
· Promote a better understanding of dog behavior;
· Offer effective solutions to curb aggressive behavior;
· Encourage animal care professionals such as vets and dog trainers to work together and develop better treatment strategies for nervous and aggressive dogs;
· Teach police officers and other first responders to employ effective dog bite investigation practices;
· Raise awareness of dog bite law and victims’ rights;
· Explore the ineffectiveness of breed-specific legislation and offer workable solutions focusing on individual dog behaviour rather than breed;
· Teach parents and educators how to empower children with the right kind of knowledge to keep them safe.