Dogs and Guns

Alright, this may get a little depressing and ranty, but I would really like to know wtf is up with dogs getting shot.  Seriously.

Think back to September of this year.  Calgary police shot a Rottweiler that was on the loose in the NE.  The media reported the dog was “aggressive”, citing that it had bitten one woman, and was subsequently shot when it began to “charge” at the attending officer.  The Calgary Sun – god love ‘em – reported the dog was “rampaging”.  It was shot three times.  It did not die right away, so the officer was then forced to chase the retreating dog for a couple of blocks and shoot it again. 

That incident took place the same month police shot a dog at amidst a crowd at the Adams Morgan festival in D.C.  The media, of course, did not hesitate to mention the dog appeared to be a “pit bull mix”, and there is a strong disagreement between the owner of the dog and the police as to what happened.  The dog’s owner (and one witness) believes he had the dog under control when the police took over and subsequently fatally shot the dog, while the police (and another witness) maintain the dog was certainly dangerous.

And this brings me to the latest, when on November 7 a two year old Newfoundland was shot four times by police in Washington state.  The dog (“Rosie”) had escaped from her yard and someone notified police of the loose dog.  According to the statements to the press, when police located and tried to approach the dog, she growled, barked, showed her teeth, and “charged”.  Initially, an officer deployed a taser, which caused the dog to yelp and run away.  The dog cornered itself in a residential yard where the officers determined lethal force was necessary.

Rosie the Newfoundland

So I will return to my original question:  wtf?  Do the officers involved really believe that shooting these dogs was the only or best solution?  If so, that illustrates a significant problem.  And why wasn’t animal control called in any of these situations?

Yes, police officers are faced with a tough job that puts them in close contact with a wide variety of unsavoury characters.  It’s a thankless career, no question.  And alongside encountering dangerous people, they will also encounter dangerous animals.  It comes with the territory.  And police officers do not draw their guns to wound.  Ever.  If an officer feels an individual is a threat, they will be shot. 

Dogs, however, are not people.  Actually, they’re technically property in the eyes of the law.  But instead of spiralling down into the abyss of legal technicalities and semantics, I want you to consider any time a moose or other wild animal gets loose in Calgary’s downtown core.  It does not get fatally shot; it gets tranquilized and removed.  So what’s with all the gunfire?

I suggest there are far better ways the police could deal with these sorts of situations that involve potentially dangerous dogs.

Consider the Newfoundland Rosie, for instance.  She was trapped in a back yard when she was shot.  How about instead of shooting her, they leave her there until animal services can assess and retrieve her?  Or until the owners can pick her up?  The homeowner of the residence where Rosie was shot told the media she’d have definitely preferred that sort of solution.  And then the authorities could have followed up with some dog-at-large fines for the dog’s owners, and any other penalties associated with animals on the loose.  They could have had animal services do a behaviour assessment, and designate her a “dangerous animal” if necessary.  But I would argue that shooting her four times was not the best solution.  Not even top 5.  Rosie was just someone’s pet who had actually not done any harm whatsoever to a human being.

I have the same criticism with the pit bull story: shooting was not the best route to take.  And in this case, the owner was right there.  Rather than taking his dog from him – and then shooting it – have the owner restrain the dog, remove it from the crowded premises, and then go through the necessary procedures with local animal services.  Deem it an officially “aggressive dog” if you must, but to kill it on-sight – really?

And finally, the Calgary case.  Of course, I was not there, so I will have to take the newspaper reports as accurate, but something did raise my eyebrows: the woman who was bit suffered injuries to her hand but “did not need to be taken to hospital”.  That means the injuries weren’t even worthy of stitches.  Perhaps I am treading in dangerous waters suggesting this, but in the event a large dog is really “aggressive” and truly determined to do harm, it’s going to send you to the hospital if you don’t properly fend off the attack.  The officer was certain the dog was aggressive, and this one had actually injured a person, but I’m still not willing to concede that gunfire was the right approach. 

All dog shootings seem to follow a similar pattern, wherein the attending officer encounters the dog, immediately perceives aggression or danger, and makes a quick decision to use lethal force. 

In contrast to this, as the Newfoundland Club of Seattle points out in its official response to the Rosie incident, “there are notably few incidents where trained animal control officers make the decision escalate a situation to the use lethal force”.  [Emphasis mine.]

What does this mean?  Well, it means more or better training is required for the front-line police officers who are likely to encounter these types of situations.  [Allow a pause for the collective taxpayer groan.]

If the officers in the cases noted above – and the several other dog shootings out there I have not mentioned – had even remedial training in dog behaviour and body language, these situations would have been handled differently.  Likely without shots fired.

Back to the Newfoundland Club of Seattle:

Implementing a training program for the police force would take a minimal effort, but could pay dividends to the force and community. The framework for such a program has already been implemented by the City of Oakland.  Responding to public outcry from a police shooting of a family dog, the Oakland police chief adopted a policy requiring that all of its police officers to receive training in animal behavior and proper methods for containing loose dogs. The program will be paid for by a partnership with a local humane organization. A similar program can and should be put in place in Des Moines and cities and counties throughout Washington. And after seeing the outpouring of support for Rosie and her family, we would venture to guess that there are droves of qualified dog behaviorists and trainers willing to take time to train police officers.

So how about it, Calgary?  Clearly our officers could use a dog behaviour primer.

On November 15, 2010 a vigil was held for Rosie. (Photo: Keith Daige, The Highland Times)


And, just as an aside in case you were curious, yes, the average citizen will be charged with aggravated animal cruelty if they shoot a dog.

Perfecting “Go Pee”

Setting Pace at the Dog Run:
How to Give Fido a Designated Backyard Bathroom Location

Saving your lawn and teaching your dogs to do their “business” in a particular location is extremely easy – in theory.  But as we all know, if there is any sort of grey area or inconsistency, our dogs usually can find it and will exploit it.  Here’s how you can start the process and deal with potential struggles.

First, I recommend beginning in the spring/summer to encourage your own dedication to the process, since no one really wants to accompany their dog for every bathroom break in -20°C weather.  It will also provide many months of habit-forming before snow covers your yard.

Next, pick a bathroom command for your dog.  This command will refer to all bathroom activities.  It will also help to ensure all family members are using the same command and helping with the training.  The process will take a few weeks of dedication and consistency from everyone, but once the habit is learned your lawn is always safe.

And, of course, once you have your designated bathroom location decided upon and set up, make sure you clean all of the dog waste out of the rest of the backyard before starting the training process.  Give your lawn a thorough soaking, focusing on the areas your dog used to go to the bathroom, in order to eliminate the scent from those areas.  It is also recommended to place some of your dog’s waste in the dog run area so the scent is there.  Scent is what triggers a dog to release his or her bladder or bowels, and can be very helpful in the training process (remembering that dogs can only learn through instinct and repetition – and here we will use both).

Once you are ready to begin (and barring any particular medical issues your dog may have which could affect success), the training is a simple matter of accompanying your dog to the designated location – on leash – for every bathroom break for the next two weeks.  There are no exceptions; consistency is important.

Keeping Fido on leash at first is key so he doesn’t wander from the dog run and so you don’t have to catch him and bring him back.  Instead, you will simply walk your dog out to the dog run, give the bathroom command, and wait.  A standard six foot leash is plenty to provide your dog with personal space while ensuring he or she doesn’t stray to the grass.

Like initial house training, once Fido has completed the task perfectly, a little praise (such as a nice, slow chest rub or some go-play time in the yard) can be helpful.

Of course, because we’re trying to teach something new, this means Fido should not get unsupervised play time in the yard during these initial weeks lest do his business elsewhere while no one is watching.  In the event Fido does sneak away and leave his mark outside of the designated dog run area, don’t punish him for it.  Instead, your two weeks starts over and you now know you need to keep a better watch.

Once you’ve completed two weeks of consistent bathroom breaks in the designated area, you can lose the leash and move on to unaccompanied – but still supervised – bathroom breaks.  You will still need to monitor Fido in the backyard, and if you see him begin to wander to or sniff around an unauthorized location (by now you should be very familiar with your dog’s pre-bathroom routine), try a simple verbal interruption such as “hey!” to get his attention.  This alone could be enough to make him aware that he’s in the wrong spot.  If that’s not enough, personally bring him over to the dog run, give him his bathroom command, and wait nearby to make sure he uses it.  If you find yourself repeating this process, you may have to try another week of on-leash bathroom breaks before the habit sticks.

However, if Fido successfully and consistently uses his dog run, and you’ve got confidence that he’s learned this new habit, you can begin to slowly decreased your supervision; for example, from nearby in the yard, to on the deck, to at the doorway, to monitoring from inside, to no supervision at all.  At the final stage, you’ve got to trust that Fido is using his dog run 100% of the time without any help from you.  You can also begin to let your dog have his usual free time in the backyard, but remember to supervise him at first to ensure he keeps on track.  For those who have a dog who is prone to marking his territory, extra supervision will be required to ensure he’s not marking all over the yard, which can spread the scent and slowly lead to him using the whole yard as a bathroom area once again.

Of course, as simple as this sounds, dogs always seem to find the loopholes, and you may face challenges.

Some dogs may not readily take to the idea of going to the bathroom on gravel – or another surface – instead of grass.  As a result, to avoid using the dog run, you may find that your dog “holds it” until it’s time for the daily walk.  There are a couple of ways to get around this while still ensuring your dog gets his necessary exercise regime.

Knowing your dog’s typical bathroom routine can help.  If your dog usually goes to the bathroom near the beginning of the walk, you can try walking around the block and then returning to the dog run for a bathroom break.  Repeat as necessary.  If your dog usually goes to the bathroom near the middle or end of the walk, try breaking the daily one hour walk into two half-hour walks, finishing each with a supervised stop at the dog run.  Don’t forget to use your bathroom command.  If you’ve got to use these techniques, ensure your dog is only spending time in the yard during on-leash bathroom breaks.

If this still doesn’t work, try spacing out your walks (but maintain your typical feeding schedules).  For example, if you walk your dog from 7:00-8:00am on Tuesday, and then again at 9:00pm on Wednesday, your dog has still received an hour long walk each day, but now there is 37 hours between them – odds are your dog is going to need to go to the bathroom at least once during that time.  You just need to make sure you provide ample on-leash bathroom opportunities in the dog run during those 37 hours.

Of course, in the event your dog does do his business during the walk, don’t worry about it and certainly don’t punish him.  We don’t want to train our dogs into thinking there’s only one place in the entire world where they can go to the bathroom – just one specific place within in the confines of the yard.

If you’re worried about your dog opting to go to the bathroom inside the house in favour of the dog run, make sure he/she is supervised while in the house (perhaps by keeping him/her on hands-free/umbilical) and in a crate when unsupervised.

As your dog becomes comfortable and consistent with using his or her assigned bathroom area, ensure that the dog run is cleaned regularly, so your dog never thinks to look for a different, cleaner spot.  While scent is important to encourage dogs to use a specific bathroom area, an area that is too messy will discourage them from using it altogether.  It is also important to thoroughly rinse off the dog run once or twice per year to help control excessive odours.

Finally, as winter comes, ensure your dog still uses the same location even once it is snow-covered.  This will save you from having to re-train him or her every spring.

And of course, once you’ve trained your dog once, you can easily use the same process again to train him or her to go in another new location in the event you’re moving, going out of town, or simply relocating the dog run.

Happy training!

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