12 October

New Column: Talking About Dogs And Responsibility

by Jon Katz
Talking About Dogs. Bud trying to herd the sheep. Doing pretty well.

(I’m launching a new Friday weekly column today called “Talking About Dogs,” I got so many interesting questions sent me for my new  radio show I realized I could never get to all of them on the air, and I want to write more about dogs than I have been doing. I am not quitting on my acts of kindness, but I also need to take care of me as well. E-mail me your questions – jon@bedlamfarm.com) and I will take one at a time each week, and others on the radio broadcast.)

Of all the questions mailed to me this week for my radio show, the greatest number were about dogs that were untrained, out of control, aggressive, or handled thoughtlessly by their owners.

I see this in my own life all the time, but the letters reinforced my feeling that this is a growing crisis for dog lovers in our country. I am sorry to say I often avoid other dogs and dog owners, there is too often too much trouble.

There was message after message  about aggressive dogs running loose and couldn’t be recalled, who were permitted to charge into dogs they didn’t know, who bit people taking walks or walking their dogs, or who barked loudly and uncontrollably.

Messages like this one from Mark:

“Local ordinances require leashes in my down. Some do not use them and these dogs will get away from owner and menace others. What would you suggest a reasonable owner do? I don’t want to use deadly force, not do I want to be bitten again, either me or my dog who I held in the air to protect.”

Another, Sue, wrote of walking her big new rescue contentedly in a park when a women with her smaller dog on a retractable leash let her dog charge into the new dog and bite her on the leg. Oh, said the dog owner, “she’s usually very friendly.” There was no apology.

The new dog responded in kind, of course,  and lunged at her dog;  the owner of the biter was outraged, and threatened to sue. Sue did not know what to do.

Dog walkers talk often of “ankle-biters,” dogs low to the ground who nip at people’s legs. Apparently, it happens all the time, and the dog owners are simply shocked at the idea their furbabies could do any harm.

And lots of bites are worse than those.

A majority of states hold pet owners liable if a dog causes injury, according to the Insurance Institute of America. It doesn’t have to be a bite.

For example, if your dog scratches or trips someone, you may be held responsible for any injury or property damage the dog causes.  The average amount paid for these claims in 2017 was $37,051 according to the Insurance Information Institute.

This issue – controlling our dogs and training them properly – isn’t a matter of annoyance of sensitivity. It is now a big deal.

Incidents like the one that happened to Sue are unfortunately epidemic in America now, as so many people get dogs they shouldn’t have, know nothing about, and are unwilling or unable to train.

I am a strong believer in stewardship when it comes to dogs, I am responsible for keeping them safe, and for keeping them from harming other dogs or people. That is what being a steward is all about, being responsible.

According to the Center for Disease Control, (CDC), approximately 4.7 million dog bites occur in the United States each year, and 800,000 of those bites result in medical care. The U.S. population is approximately 325.7 million people as of 2017.

That means a dog bites 1 out of every 69 people every year.

The CDC says dog bites are rising 47 per cent a year, as the number of people acquiring dogs  they know absolutely nothing about soars.

People tell me all the time the only moral way to get a dog is to rescue one, and there is much truth to that. But I would also add the only moral way to get a dog is with some thought and care, it is not a moral exercise, it is a very practical one. There are all kinds of ways to get a dog: the best way is to do it with some thought.

There are many reasons who dogs are coming into increasing conflict with their environments.

The number of dogs in America has skyrocketed – 75 million owned dogs now – and dogs are being so intensely emotionalized and anthropomorphized that almost everyone in America wants or needs to have one, even though animals like dogs are not for everybody.

We can also fault backyard breeders, desperate shelters crammed with mostly unadoptable dogs, and some elements in the rescue movement who advance the idea that wanting to save a dog is enough of a  reason for a getting dogs whose genetics, behaviors and experiences are often unknown,  and can’t be predicted.

The issue has never been rescue-versus-breeder, that is a silly and self-serving invention, the real issue is that people don’t want to do the work of choosing their dogs thoughtfully and carefully rather than impulsively and emotionally. Too often, the dogs pay for that..

Instead of asking people how tall their fences are, or how old they are, perhaps rescue groups and breeders should ask people what their idea is of owner responsibility and stewardship, and what concern do they have for other dogs owners and people.

In 1960, there were only 15 million owned dogs in the United States, there was plenty of room for them. There are many more people in America now, and our cities and towns are much more crowded. There is very little room for all of these dogs, which puts untrained dogs in direct and close conflict with people in their communities.

Dogs run into people and dogs whenever they go outside, and many dog owners are so eager to let their dogs run, play and run free that they put people like Mark and Sue and their dogs in danger, and often blame them for being angry or afraid.

Dog lovers are not, by nature, a litigious group, they don’t wish to be in conflict with other dog owners or to harm other dogs. So what is Sue to do?

The first step in my mind would be to warn the dog owners that their behavior is illegal and dangerous. To urge them to control their dogs, and not to assume assume their dogs are friendly in all situations. It is also wrong to assume other dog people want their dogs to “play” with other dogs or help socialize them.

The odds are sadly, long against the dog owner responding rationally. Just like the Boomers with their kids, we want our dogs to be our friends, so we often fail as stewards.

The next step is to bring a camera or smartphone, take some photos if possible, contact a lawyer and have him or her sent a letter to the offending dog owner if you know where they live. The letter should threaten legal action and damages if the dog is not controlled.

If you don’t know where they live, and the behavior continues, it may be time to call  the police or animal control, if there is one. It is illegal for dogs to threaten or harm people or dogs in almost every city and town in the country.

Most police departments issue a citation for the first one or two violations. If they continue, the dog can be taken away. That is a big deterrent for many people with dogs, a warning sign that they need to get a trainer or do some work with the dog.

You can also carry repellents like mace and spray a dog if it threatens  you or your dog. In my experience, that works quickly, and it sends a strong message to the dog owner and the dog.

I am sorry to recommend these confrontational and difficult steps, but fears of untrained and out of control dogs are not  neurotic or unreasonable. Many dog owners seem to be getting ruder, angrier and lazier about issues relating to responsibility and animals.

A woman down the street fro me tells everyone she meets that her dog was “abused,” but the dog won’t sit, stay or come when called.

That is just another kind of abuse.

Don’t feel like you’re being cruel and evil by calling out this behavior, you are protecting yourself, your dog and perhaps sparing the offending creature from a hard fate.

Many of these bites end in legal action, many cost the dogs that bite their lives. There are good and human reason to speak out against irresponsible dog owners, it can save many canine lives.

There are no precise counts of how many dogs are bitten and killed by other dogs, but almost every veterinary association in America says these incidents are skyrocketing as more and more people get dogs they know nothing about from people who should not be selling them or offering them for adoption.

I don’t know how to protect a dog from that.

One University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School study said hundreds of thousands of dogs are inured each year by other dogs, hundreds, if not thousands, are killed.

No matter what anyone says, there are breeds prone to aggression, there are emotional issues of people to consider, there are studies about why dogs bite in the first place. There are things that can be learned before we bring a dog into our homes and the lives of our neighbors.

Dogs that bite are not evil or mean, dogs have no conscience.

There are a thousand reasons why a dog bites, from litter problems to poor socialization to food deprivation and abuse, from genetic breeding. I never get a dog I know nothing about, as I am responsible for his or her behavior, and I don’t want to look a terrified and injured child in the eye and say, “oh, he never did that before.”

I’ve been down that road, I’m not going back.

Since I can’t control the behavior of irresponsible dog owners, I try to focus on myself and on what I can do to keep my dogs safe and myself safe.

I’m not into paranoia, warning or alarm, I don’t wish to like that. I don’t care for dog play groups, they are rarely necessary for dogs, the “play” is often arousal, not entertainment, and these groups are sometimes a mecca for lazy dog owners who wish to exercise their dogs quickly and cheaply.

Walking alone with my dogs or Maria is enough. For them, for me.

In the wild, dogs didn’t need play groups. I am not persuaded they need them here either.

I discourage other people from assuming my dogs want to play with them, and I look for remote areas to walk my dogs. This is easy for me, I live in the country. In the city, it’s a different story.

I hope this is helpful, I will continue to talk and write about it. If you have questions for me relating to dogs, gate or other animals, send it along to me: jon@bedlamfarm.com. I’ll write about it or talk about it on my radio shows.

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