Friday, July 20, 2012

Behavior vs BSL-A distinction that would have saved Lennox


In the wake of Lennox’s death in Northern Ireland there has been a huge hue and cry against Breed Specific Legislation across the world.  I fully support the eradication of this discriminatory type of legislation, but the fact remains: there are dangerous dogs out there.  We need a strategy on how to identify them and what to do with them.

In this post, I want to try and offer a constructive solution. There is, I believe, a way to address vicious and dangerous dogs, protect public safety, hold owners of dangerous dogs accountable, and place the ultimate responsibility where it belongs-on the humans involved.  And when I speak in this article about Dangerous Dogs, I am referring to dogs that have been legally declared as such after whatever specific procedure a jurisdiction imposes.  There are no such things as inherently dangerous dogs.  Period.

The basis of my suggested solution is that we need to directly address behavior.  Not appearance, not beliefs, not rumor, not myth or fantasy.  We need to base our strategy on facts, direct observation, and sound behavioral principles.

It really doesn’t matter what a dog looks like.  Unlike Medusa, no dog is capable of turning anyone to stone or causing them to fall dead from a look.  For a dog to cause injury it must act.  Action is behavior.  Behavior can be described, measured, quantified.  Dangerous behavior can be dealt with likewise; defined, measured, and quantified.  An animal manifesting specific behaviors, accurately described and quantified, can be dealt with in an appropriate manner, and the human responsible for that animal can be held accountable.

The first thing we need to do is accurately describe and quantify the behavior.  Dr. Ian Dunbar, founder of Sirius Dog Training (http://www.siriuspup.com) developed a six level bite assessment tool for use in evaluating and comparing dog bites.  The tool is available online here: (http://www.apdt.com/veterinary/assets/pdf/Ian%20Dunbar%20Dog%20Bite%20Scale.pdf
For those unfamiliar with this scale, it rates dog bites on Levels ranging from 1 to 6.   Level 1 is threatening behavior with no physical contact; Level 6 is an incident resulting in a human fatality.  This assessment scale lets us specifically define the parameters of a bite (depth, intensity and number of bites) and gives us solid ground to compare one bite to another, across jurisdictions, circumstances, and dog sizes.  No where in this tool does breed come into play.

By quantifying an incident we can then define our response to these incidents with clear, scalable categories.  We can then use this categorization to develop Dangerous Dog regulations that are based on the number of defined incidents that occur within a specific time period.

A Level 1 incident involves a dog barking, growling, lunging and otherwise clearly menacing a person without physical contact.  A Level 2 incident progresses to minimal skin contact by teeth without puncturing the skin.  A community could establish an ordinance along the following lines.

            “Any dog that commits three (3) Level 1 or Level 2 incidents, when unprovoked and off the owners’ property, documented by the responsible investigating authority and attested to by sworn affidavit, within a period of two (2) years may be deemed a Potentially Dangerous Dog.  Such a dog shall be required to attend an approved obedience class or receive approved behavior remediation.  The owner may be fined up to $X.00 upon the third incident within the listed time period.  Any further incidents by the Potentially Dangerous Dog shall result in the dog being declared Dangerous.
            Any dog that is responsible for three (3) level 3 incidents, when unprovoked and off the owners’ property, within a period of two (2) years may be declared Dangerous and be required to adhere to all regulations of such.  Those shall include (insert various regulations)
            Any dog that inflicts a Level 4 or 5 bite shall be declared Dangerous.”

And so on.  I also like to include some wording that threatening behavior must be held to the standard of a reasonable person.  I had to investigate a claim that a dog, a Bassett Hound, was dangerous.  When I observed the dog he was snoozing in the sun in his front yard.  He barely woke enough to look at me as I stepped over him to ring the doorbell.  When I met with the complainant, she said that the dog “looked” at her and thus threatened her.  Come to find out she was phobic about dogs.  That case went no further as her response did not meet the level of what a reasonable person would perceive as a threat.

Ultimately the various details, such as response numbers and time periods can easily be adapted to the needs and desires of a local community.  Intermediate responses can be more detailed too-say, after the second Level 1 or 2 incident the dog owner may receive a written warning and lesser fine, with a strong suggestion that their dog receive training or behavioral treatment.  A city could provide lesser regulation for a dog with 3 Level 3 bites, but then drop the hammer if a fourth bite, or even threatening behavior occurs. 

I have recommended requiring three minor incidents and a specific time factor for a reason.  Anyone, man or beast, can make a small mistake from time to time.  The first minor incident (not Level 4 or 5) can be understood and is often taken as evidence of a need for training in responsible owners.  I certainly get enough calls from first time incident families.  A second incident is a clue that there is a deficit, human or dog, but still (in my opinion) is in the range of accidental behavior.  By the time we are at three incidents, we definitely have a problem.  Usually we have an owner that is just not acting responsibly and needs to be held accountable, but we also have dog behavior that needs addressing.

As far as the time factor goes, if a puppy has two minor incidents at six months, and then goes ten or twelve years until he nips a person as an aged, grumpy old guy, that does not a Dangerous Dog make.  There should be, for minor incidents, a rational and reasonable time frame.  Level 4 and 5 incidents show a much greater danger and should be dealt with firmly and immediately.

Most importantly there should be sanctions against humans who fail to address dangerous behavior.  Any owner of a declared Dangerous Dog who has another incident should be facing jail, period.  If Sparky has been declared Dangerous for a Level 4 bite and then ever bites again, the owner must be held to account.  The punishment can logically vary with the severity of the incident (using the assessment tool again).  For a Dangerous Dog that is a Level 3 biter, and then inflicts another Level 3 bite, maybe a misdemeanor charge against the owner is appropriate.  A Dangerous Dog that inflicts a Level 4 or 5 bite after the declaration should result in felony charges for the owner.

Once again, the details can be tweaked by the local jurisdiction.  The essential issue here is that the determination of whether a dog is Dangerous must be based on clear, quantifiable criteria.  Those criteria must apply to all dogs, preferable in proportion to their size.  A Chihuahua that sinks his whole jaw into someone’s leg, even though the bite is relatively small in size, is a Dangerous Dog and needs to be regulated as such.  They are a threat, and the damage inflicted is only smaller because they are physically smaller.  A big dog that bites but only leaves a single puncture less than half the length of its canine tooth is a Level 3 biter-no matter how large he is.

We have to discard the notion that breed or type of dog somehow makes them inherently dangerous-or somehow automatically safe.  Every dog has the potential of being either. We must define and quantify behavior that is unacceptable-not looks.