Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Aggression Question, Part 4: The Human Factor

Aggressive behavior by dogs has three defined facets; fear/threat response, resource protection, and manipulation of social environment. For the investigator there is a fourth dimension of aggressive behavior: the human factor. How, and to what extent, did/does human action or inaction affect the aggressive behavior of dogs, and what part does this human interaction play in determining responsibility for an attack?

When I look at an aggressive attack, and the human factors behind it, I break the above categories into two further groupings. These I call “Non-Directed Aggression” and “Directed Aggression”.  These are my own terms, and as such are not endorsed or attributable to anyone else, but I find them useful. Let me illustrate the behaviors, and the attendant responsibility that I attach in analysis of an attack.

First look at the category “Non-Directed Aggression.”  This is, in my use, aggressive behavior (sourced in one of the three big categories above) that has not deliberately been reinforced or encouraged by the human.  Note I say “deliberately”.  It is this measure of human intent that, to me, makes all the difference.

An example.  Mrs. Lolits, the lovely ninety year old lady down the street, has a nasty little Pekingese “Lulu” that she dotes upon.  This little monster barks, snarls, growls and snaps, straining at her little lead, at anyone that approaches Mrs. Lolits as they stalk the neighborhood.  Mrs. Lolits loves her doggie and tells her “Oh, Lulu, its all right baby….”, pets Lulu, and in general fusses over her. Mrs. Lolits often picks little Lulu up when she goes into a frenzy, cooing to her and telling most of the people that they encounter “She’s just a sweetie, she would never hurt a fly”.

Wrong.  Lulu is a bite looking for a place to happen.  Mrs. Lolits is reinforcing Lulu’s ghastly behavior, giving her additional attention, and making things much worse.  Is Mrs. Lolits doing this on purpose?  Of course not.  Yet her behavior is creating a situation wherein someone is likely to eventually get hurt.  Is this negligence?  Yep.

Take it another step.  Mr. Vacant has a pet Lab “George” that “doesn’t like children”.  George has bitten two kids so far-minor bites, but bites none the less.  George isn’t a bad dog-but he is under socialized and has had some bad experiences with unsupervised children pulling on his ears, stepping on his tail, and in general being little heathens.  Mr. Vacant is actually lucky that George is as gentle and tolerant as he is.  Yet one day the Vacants have family friends over and the friends have small kids-and the Vacants leave George out back “playing” with the kids whilst they step into the kitchen for some adult beverages.  George doesn’t want to play.  George retreats into the corner under some bushes to stay away from the kids.  Little Johnny crawls face-first into the bushes to play with George.  George tries to say, in dog language, “GO AWAY” but the child continues.  George finally snaps forward, catches the child by the face, and severs the child’s carotid artery.  Little Johnny then bleeds to death while everyone screams.

Is the child at fault here?  No. The child’s actions did precipitate the bite-in dog terms. More importantly, was there a way to easily prevent this tragedy? Were there warning flags that a reasonable person could, or should, have seen that would have tipped them off to the likelihood of an attack?  And if so, did the responsible adult take any actions to remedy the problem?

In this case clearly Mr. Vacant should have seen it coming.  The dog had prior bites to kids.  The dog, if examined by a competent behaviorist or trainer, would have shown the warning flags of potential fear aggression.  Mr. Vacant could have easily taken George for obedience training and/or behavior work and made George a much more stable dog (and probably less anxious).  Ultimately Mr. Vacant could have simply put George inside in his crate while the kids were around.  Is this negligence?  Absolutely-and should be prosecuted as such under the applicable local laws. 

George’s hypothetical story is, actually, the blueprint for far too many real dog fatalities.  The ingredients are mostly 1) a dog with issues  2) that were unaddressed and/or reinforced with 3) kids unsupervised at the time of the attack.  These are true tragedies; a child dies, at least one family is ripped apart, and no-one wins, including the dog.  Yet this behavior, even though it is negligent, is not intentional.  It is passive stupidity, not active evil intent.

Directed Aggression is the ultimate step up.  This is human encouraged, or reinforced, behavior with intent to direct that behavior towards a human target-even if it is not the target attacked.

An easy example is an owner we will call Mr. Testos.  Mr. Testos likes having a bad acting dog.  His dog charges at the fence constantly when people walk past, snarling, barking, and bouncing off the fence.  Mr. Testos eggs the dog on; “Go gettem Thug!  Go eat ‘em up!”  Mr. Testos thinks Thug is a great guard dog.

Poor Thug has been set up. 

Thug is being reinforced for human focused territorial aggression, probably tempered with a bit of fear response (we can safely doubt that Thug has been introduced to new people in a friendly manner).  Thug is doing exactly what he has been taught to do. 

One day Mr. Testos leaves the gate just a bit ajar and Thug goes off as a person passes.  That person happens to be a kid on a bike, and Thug’s prey drive kicks in.  Thug chases the child and takes them to the ground mauling them fatally.

Is the child at fault? Absolutely not.  Is the dog at fault? No-he is doing what his owner taught him to do.  The only one at fault here is Mr. Testos, who should (when the case is documented) go directly to jail for deliberate endangerment/gross negligence, whatever the jurisdiction allows.  This attack was the predictable result of direct human action, regardless of Mr. Testos’ claims that “someone else left the gate ajar.”  He set the stage and he should face the consequences.

People ask how this applies to police, military, and protection dogs.  First off, military and police dogs are valuable, highly trained assets that directly assist public safety.  These dogs are tools, just like guns and handcuffs-albeit they are a lot more cuddly than a pair of handcuffs.  Police and military dogs are constantly trained for control, not just bite work.  Part of the essential training for a police dog is the “OUT” command-the control that allows a handler to stop and recall a deployed dog at any time, even at the last second.  Use of force rules require that level of control.  These dogs are potentially a danger, but are almost never involved in a non-service related attack.  The handlers and dogs are held to a higher standard by their agencies, as well they should be.  These dogs and handlers are professionals, committed to their missions.

Civilian protection dogs are another story.  Personally, as a retired police officer, I don’t believe that any civilian needs a dog that attacks on command.  That said, there are dedicated handlers that compete in sports such as Schutzhund and French Ring that are responsible and professional in what they do.  These reputable handlers work their dogs constantly, like police and military handlers, for control.  And that is a distinction-the handlers do not work only, or even primarily, bites.  The level of obedience training and other work that a Schutzhund dog must do is phenomenal.  And frankly I have never seen a competitive Schutzhund or Ring Sport dog ever kill anyone.  The problem is when “trainers” produce “protection” dogs for civilians, and that includes the dogs placed in businesses as “guard dogs”.  These dogs range from almost-as-good-as-professionals to meaner-than-spit-on-a-stick.  These dogs present a clear threat to others.  “Guard dogs” have been responsible for fatal human attacks.  These cases have to be assessed individually.  These cases should also be, in my opinion, held to a higher standard than the average owner.

The task of the investigator, by interviews with owners, neighbors, witnesses and living victims, is to sort through the behaviors exhibited and the behaviors tolerated and/or reinforced and determine whether the aggression in the case at hand was caused deliberately or through passive negligence.  Did the owner encourage the behavior, or did the owner fail to recognize or address problems?  This is the test for the severity, or placing, of charges.

In one last observation on prosecution, the question arises “Haven’t they (in the case of parents of a child killed by a family dog) already suffered enough?”  As an investigator, or a prosecutor, it is not your job to determine suffering.  The parents of any child that dies suffer.  The question is not suffering, but accountability.  Did the parents, if the dog’s owners, cause the child’s death, by action or inaction?  We certainly would not use that excuse if the parent(s) had killed the child by holding its face under water in the tub, or shaking it violently causing brain damage and death.  Although a prosecutor has to consider whether a jury would convict in a case, the bottom line is that if the parent was, after all is evaluated and documented, negligent, then the appropriate accountability should be applied.