THOUGH the details have yet to emerge, there’s little doubt now that 14-year-old Manchester girl Jade Anderson was killed by a pack of out-of-control dogs when she went to visit a friend near her home early last week.
It’s a tragedy that raises many questions, especially for parents considering introducing a dog to their own family. And while it’s easy to decide that what happened to Jade was a freak occurrence, dog experts in Ireland don’t offer any such reassurance.
“We’re very lucky that something like that has not happened here, but I’m dreading the day that it does. We’re getting closer and closer to it all the time,” said Tara Choules, an animal behaviourist with Dog Training Ireland.
We are, she says, seeing increasing numbers of dogs bred in highly inappropriate conditions, where they are isolated from human contact. Between the ages of three and 12 weeks is a highly formative period for a dog, Choules explains, and if he is not exposed to the wide range of stimuli he’ll encounter in a family situation, he will not be able to deal with those stimuli later in life. “If you don’t put in the work when they’re young, it’s very difficult to change them later.”
Canine behaviour consultant Samanthan Rawson of thecaninecollege.ie says that being a family pet is actually the most stressful job you can ask a dog to do. “He’s got to be all things to all men. There are five or six people in the family. He’s got to please them all, whereas if he was a working dog, he would have just one master.”
The experts say people tend to approach choosing a dog with their priorities slightly skewed. They think about the appearance of the animal. They go for those bred exclusively for cuteness. They fret about dog hairs on the furniture and, as if the animal were a Christmas tree, they specify non-shedding breeds.
“The perfect scenario,” says Tara Choules, “is you forget about the appearance of the dog and you look at your life and at the amount of time you have to spend with the dog, because that directly correlates to behaviour.” If you don’t have enough time to train, walk and work with your dog, his behaviour will deteriorate.
Getting a healthy dog is also vital. “Behaviour and health are the same.” Says Choules. “There’s no line between the two.” Dogs who have underlying pain or stress are far more likely to bite than those that don’t.
Samantha Rawson suggests that families avoid dogs bred for guarding, for alertness or defence and to aim for a dog with a ‘laid back’ personality. “The general guideline is you avoid the pushy puppy, the puppy that knocks the other puppies out of the way. You don’t go for the one that’s sitting in the corner afraid of everything. You go for a laid back, middle-of-the-road dog.”
Rawson is also keen to point out that if the dog isn’t working out within a couple of weeks of purchase, you should take it back. “The dog has to be suitable as a family pet. Dogs are emotional purchases and so people don’t tend to bring them back, which means that bad breeders get away with it.”
And of course, because we’re dealing with animal here, there’s always a random factor. “You can do everything right and follow all the guidelines and end up with a fruitcake,” says Rawson. “You can do everything wrong, find a dog on the side of the road, bring him home and he could turn out to be a great dog.”
The other key factor is education. Children need to learn how to behave around dogs. To that end, animal charity Dogs Trust Ireland offers a series of canine workshops for primary schools. “They teach children about responsible dog ownership,” says Katrina Bentley of Dogs Trust. Each workshop is adapted to the age of the child and is curriculum linked. Last year, over 36,000 primary school children did the workshops.
One thing all dog behaviourists agree on is that dogs and children must be supervised at all times. “People are quite shocked when I tell them that,” says Tara Choules.
“They have a lovely fantasy in their head where they think they’re going to get a dog for the kids and the dog is going to be running out in the garden playing with them all the time. I say that’s just got to stop.”
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- Children and dogs should never be left unattended, no matter how well behaved.
- Don’t get a dog that will grow bigger than your smallest child.
- Children and dogs need to be taught how to interact safely through playing with toys.
- It’s important than children are encouraged to be calm around dogs.
- Visiting children should be discouraged from interacting with your dog as it may not be as tolerant of children outside its own family.
- Children need to be taught how to pet a dog. Most dogs do not enjoy being stroked on the head. Only pet a dog once he has accepted you, and from his collar to his tail only.
- Never allow a child to approach a dog without the owner’s permission.
- Never try to pet a dog that is tied up or restricted as they cannot move away and may growl or bite if approached.
- Never disturb a dog while sleeping or eating.
- Never pursue a dog under or behind anything as he may try to defend himself.
- Never leave a child alone with more than one dog. The dog’s instinctive behaviour is to behave as a dog, and this is only ever controlled under the influence of his human master. Left to their own devices, dogs will always behave as dogs.