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(Updated 3/7/01)

Guilty but....! - Part 2

by John Cree

Your dog may or not be guilty, there may be mitigating circumstances, but a visit to the court in defence of your own or your dog’s actions is an experience none of us would welcome. However, if it does happen, a good defence and an understanding of the seriousness of the situation are of great importance. Having been involved in the defence of dogs I understand what owners go through and what they must do. I do not think I can give all the answers but I can open up a few avenues of thought.

To carry out your own defence is an option I would not care for. A good solicitor with an understanding of dogs may not be essential, but one with that background would certainly be very helpful. To have an expert on dog behaviour can also be of great value, but what would be wanted from such an expert. It would be useful to study the differences in approach by the two ‘experts’ that were involved in the Nijjar case which was reported in Our Dogs of 23rd March. This would help to assess a difference in approach and to question in, your own mind, their suitability for that particular case.

One must now ask - do all Behaviourists make for good ‘experts’ in court? I would think not and care must be taken in making a choice. What do we expect from an ‘expert’?

Qualifications may mean a lot and yet they may mean nothing. Qualifications are gained from various sources, perhaps from a purely educational course, which gives the result of theoretical study. At the moment anybody can run a course, carry out an assessment and issue a sheet of parchment with meaningless letters after the students name. An ‘expert’ with many years of experience in the dog business and without the title of ‘Behaviourist’ may well prove to be the best back up in court that a troubled owner could have.

I have found it a good policy to accept an appointment of ‘expert’ through a solicitor. Although I have been contacted on a few occasions directly by a solicitor for the defence of a dog a troubled owner has often contacted me. On those occasions I inform the owner that I would only work through a solicitor and it is apparent from the response from some that they have a very poor case to defend and I hear no more from them. Solicitors and behaviour ‘experts’ must have faith in each other and can work as a team.

The principal purpose of an ‘expert’ is to assess the character of the dog and submit a written report for the court. It may well be that the owner is guilty of negligence or failed to anticipate the situation in the first place; the charge may misrepresent the actual event. Think of the case with Ricky in part one of this article. There may have been mitigating circumstances. I have found so many people know and understand that they have done wrong by allowing a situation to develop (unintentionally); but they are worried that they will lose their dogs. It is a case of damage limitation.

As the assessment of the dog is so important it must be honestly carried out. To have a report coloured to suit the defence (the employer) would do an ‘expert’s’ reputation no good. The same goes, when acting for the prosecution. I have found it very helpful to put a rider to an assessment explaining why the dog acted out of character and this has proved to be crucial to the defence. This was particularly so in the case of a Rottweiler that had already been given a destruction order. I was brought in after the case had been heard and sentence pronounced. I found the dog to be the most lovable of characters and was able to explain (in writing) why the situation had developed. This report was submitted to the court and the destruction order was lifted.

The manner in which an assessment is carried out can have a significant effect on the result. I have always found that it took me more than an hour, with much of the time assessing the owner to try and understand why the dog acted in the manner that brought them to court.

The conditions will vary according to the nature of the ‘crime’. Natural situations at home or at scene reminiscence of the location in question would be used. My own dog or others would be brought into play. Sudden movements or the ‘accidental’ dropping of an item, possibly my clipboard would be used at suitable distances to assess a dog’s reaction. Artificial situations would normally be avoided, but safety except for my own, would be paramount to any assessment

Knowing whether this is a welcome or not from the dog!

My own safety, and I have no wish to be bitten, was built in to the manner of assessment. On one occasion, which had nothing to do with a court case, the owner, when looking for help, said that her G.S.D. would most certainly attack me when I came to the door of her house. I therefore insisted that her well built husband be there and that he should have the dog on a good strong lead, he should also stand well back when the door was opened. I would then make note of the dog’s reaction then give further instructions before I entered the house.
When the door was opened I could see that this dog needed a lot of control and I asked that he be taken to the far end of the room where the interview was going to take place. I went in, got seated, completely ignored the dog and started to discuss the problem. About ten minutes later and after assessing the dog’s reactions I asked that the dog be taken off the lead. He came bounding over sniffed, although he was reluctantly accept my presence, there was no longer any malice in his attitude. After a time I took the lead when we took him for a walk to the local park to carry out further assessments. An assessor to show fear takes away a lot of credibility with the dog owners and delays acceptability from the dog. This also makes it difficult to carry out a sound assessment.

The use of a video to record events during an assessment is very useful but a cam-recorder operator is an additional body about the place and his presence should be taken into account. It would be rather difficult for the assessor to operate the equipment and assess at the same time.

Why do owners with their dogs finish up in court? At the moment I can think of three reasons.

1. It was caused by the carelessness or thoughtlessness of a third party. Although this does happen to the most capable owners, it is surprising who often a dog owner is prepared to blame somebody else for their own failing.

2. A bit of carelessness on the part of the owner by not anticipating an incident that is waiting to happen.

3. The lack of canine control on the part of the dog owner.

There are so many situations where a third party is at fault and so often it is another dog owner. There are owners who have no control over their dogs and they know it, but it does not seem to worry them. Many seem to have the attitude that their dogs have the right to go and annoy any other dog they want to.

While a little dog was sniffing at my own bitch with sex on his mind I kept telling her to behave. I was standing beside my bitch and, initially the owner of the small dog was some forty yards away when she called to her dog, but he paid no attention. She eventually came over to get him and, on hearing me command my dog to behave, she said to my bitch, ‘Yes, you behave’. I was astonished at her attitude, but replied, ‘It is your dog that is causing the trouble, Madam’.

We can all be careless or fail to anticipate an unpleasant situation, but if we take lessons from others and also try to avoid problems it puts a new dimension and a greater understanding into our lives with dogs.

Lack of canine control is probably one of the principal factors that lead to confrontations. So many owners cannot control their dogs in normal situations and less have a chance when the chips are down. Stressful situations are the times when so many dogs seem to become conveniently deaf. It must be asked if training at an Obedience club is the answer. Yes, if it is done properly. However today’s attitude to training with food is in, itself, quite useless when the demands to behave are beyond the ability of food to become the attraction.

I recall a situation in a nature programme on television when an American trainer of a huge bear. It was stated that the bear was trained by food alone and when out on location this bear would do nothing because of a wild female bear across the river from where they were working. Natural instincts were greater than the enticement of food. At one stage the trainer turned his back on the bear and it came in at great speed to attack him. The trainer turned and physically threatened the animal - it backed off and although it would not work it was back under control. That trainer knew his job and had the ability to take control. That is the difference between this trainer and so many dog owners. Being able to take control when in trouble does not seem to be on the agenda with some of our training classes.

Another reason for the failure to control is the desire to have a guard dog at home, one that will bark when somebody comes to the door. Defence of your property is a valid reason for encouraging such a situation, but again it is the ability to control that is the real problem. Also the appreciation of the fine lines between the stages of ‘guarding’.

There are three categories within the ‘guarding system’ and they are: -
1 The dog that will give a WARNING.
2 The dog that will act as a DETERRENT
3 The dog that will be PROTECTIVE of person and property.

Each of these roles cannot be completely separated from the others and it is easy to move from one to another without a full realisation of the change. Certain dogs such as the Dobermann, German Shepherd and the like, will give warning and will certainly act as a very strong deterrent, whereas a Papillon or a Chihuahua will only deter to the degree of an electric alarm system. On the other hand, a dog, which is expected to act as a deterrent, may well take up a very protective role, or even an offensive posture.

In other words, the three basic requirements are very closely linked together and when one particular requirement is the objective the effect on the others must be given due consideration.

The warning dog

Giving a warning is a very natural action for most dogs. However, a certain amount of training may still be required. Dogs can give warnings in many different ways and these can vary according to the situation.

For example: a house dog may bark when somebody approaches his home; alternatively he may wait until the door bell rings; or he may wait until the door has opened and then bark or growl at the visitor. Only in the first case is he acting as a warning dog; in the other two instances he is acting as a deterrent.

On the other hand, a dog may become excited at the approach of a visitor and although this may be a sign of friendship towards the stranger it is also a warning of somebody’s arrival.

Whilst out for a walk a dog is unlikely to give voice as a warning of somebody approaching - in this situation a noisy bark would be quite unacceptable. However, most dogs do give some form of indication. The ears may become alert or the head may come up to sniff the scent that would help him to determine the source and origin. He may stand still for a second or two, listening or sniffing, before reacting in a more positive manner, but he may, rightly or wrongly, decide that the presence of the stranger is of no consequence. These are all signals whose value can be lost if they go unnoticed due to our own inattentiveness or pre-occupation.

The deterrent

The mere presence of a dog, whether it gives an obvious warning or not, is a deterrent to some extent. Many a burglar will not entertain a house as his objective if a dog is known to live within - it is too risky. Others with a certain understanding of dogs and knowledge of particular animals, may well use that background to their advantage and will not be put off by the dog in question.

However, the knowledge that a dog can protect or is likely to feel provoked into making an attack will certainly act as a very effective deterrent.

The protector

This is a dog that looks as if he will assert his authority when certain situations develop. He will also protect by means of physical aggression when circumstances reach a state of open hostility on the part of the intruder against person or property.

Although the dog that is expected or trained to be a protector should rarely, if ever, be asked to apply physical aggression, it may well be necessary to train for this situation to ensure that full control can be attained.

Although protection work is an extremely sensitive area in the world of guarding, warning and deterrent qualities also brings out responsibilities that must be given serious consideration. Control is the name of the game and any mistakes can put a dog’s life on the line.