Problem Dogs or Problem Handlers? Reframing Responsibility

Here in the United States there are a number of dog breeds that are considered ‘dangerous,’ and have actually inspired breed-specific bans making it illegal to own them. The American Staffordshire Terrier, otherwise known as the pit bull, is one example, but breeds like German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, Presa Canarios, and so forth have been similarly targeted. The media covers attacks involving these breeds in lascivious detail and these reports are used as further evidence that some dogs are inherently bad and evil, and should be banned. This eliminationist language results, inevitably, in discrimination against people who work with and handle these breeds.

The question here is not whether some dog breeds are bad, but whether some handlers are bad, and the focus should not be on breed-specific legislation and the attempt to wipe some breeds out of existence. It should, instead, be on addressing the fact that some people should not be allowed to handle dogs. The focus should be on animal abuse, because dogs behaving badly are not the consequence of inevitable flaws of the breed. They are the result of owners and handlers who behave badly, and ruin a perfectly good dog in the process.

That bad dog that jumps all over you or runs loose in the neighbourhood or barks noxiously? That’s not the fault of the dog. That’s the fault of a bad handler who doesn’t know how to work with the dog, or who does, and is deliberately teaching or tolerating inappropriate behaviour. Likewise, the dog who aggressively attacks people and other dogs, who causes serious injuries and deaths, is more of a victim than an attacker.

Here is the thing about dogs bred for specific tasks; they must be trained, and they must be handled well throughout their training to develop connections with their handlers so they can perform their tasks well. These breeds are not innately aggressive towards other dogs or humans. These are traits that must be taught. It is a handler who must teach a dog, for example, to attack other dogs as viciously as possible, going for the throat. It is a handler who must teach a dog to aggressively attack humans, who must train a dog specifically to kill, not just to neutralise. Many guarding and police dogs, for example, are trained to take a threatening person down and sit on that person until a handler arrives. Not to kill.

When I read reports about ‘vicious’ dogs wreaking havoc in their communities, my mind does not turn to aggressive breeds and how terrible it is that we tolerate them. I do not think that we should ban other members of that breed on the ground that one specimen went on the attack. I think about the fact that a living being with the potential to do great things was ruined, was never provided with a chance, by the selfish actions of a human being. A handler who should have known better, who actively chose to destroy that dog’s potential.

Those who focus on particular breeds and lobby for bans are approaching the problem from the wrong angle. We should be talking about animal abuse, because that is what this is. When a dog is taught to be vicious, that is animal abuse. Not least because the training process usually involves abuse to goad the animal into attacking, because attack dogs are kept in inhumane conditions to make them more edgy and aggressive, because dogs who do not meet the profile, who are too gentle, are subjected to abuse and torment before being thrown away like garbage. This is what people should be angry about, not that some dog breeds exist. That some breeds happen to be viewed as targets for abuse by handlers who want to train vicious animals has less to do with ‘innate temperament’ than people might think.

Many of the breeds targeted for bans actually perform extremely well on temperament testing with humans and other animals, including young humans who may not be familiar with concepts like gentle play. Many of these breeds work as service animals, which means that they adhere to very high temperament and behavioural standards (if their handlers and trainers are responsible). That very musculature innate to some breeds that seems so frightening to many people can actually be extremely valuable for service animals who may need to brace their owners, pull wheelchairs, or engage in similar tasks. The size of a German Shepherd can be extremely valuable in an assistance dog. The loyalty and deep connection with the handler seen in Staffies can be critical in an emotional support animal or psychiatric service dog.

Blaming aggressive behaviour on dogs themselves is missing the point when the fault lies with the handler. Dogs are the victims of their handlers in these cases and should be treated as such; not as criminals for doing what they were trained to do and what they are constantly told to do, but as casualties. Many of these supposedly irredeemable aggressive dogs are actually capable of repatterning their behaviour and learning gentleness, if they are handled by trainers with patience, the ability to focus, and an adaptable training programme that will meet the needs of the dog, instead of trying to force the dog to do things.

By reframing responsibility onto handlers, maybe we can talk about actual ways to reduce dog aggression. Not by banning specific breeds, but by requiring handlers to demonstrate competence to handle dogs. By cracking down on abusive handlers and trainers. These are all things that animal welfare organisations are already doing, sometimes with minimal support from their communities, and they are things that need to be more widespread and need to be supported with appropriate legislation. We should ask not how to get rid of bad dogs, but how to keep dogs out of the hands of bad handlers.