Legislating Dog Safety

Dog training class (Shutterstock).

Switzerland is known for having some of the most strict animal welfare legislation in the world, but they just pulled the plug on their compulsory training program for dog owners. The program, instituted in 2008, mandated 4 hours of practical work (per dog) and 4 hours of classroom theory (per dog owner).

I was among the supporters of such a program, with the hope that education would increase animal welfare and community safety. I was eagerly looking forward to good news from Switzerland, and the eventual adoption of such a program by other countries. But it is becoming clear that there may not be a simple solution. Switzerland found that the mandatory training program did not significantly reduce dog bites, and that owner behavior did not seem to change after attending the course.

I’m paraphrasing from a paraphrase here — my source is swissinfo.ch and I wasn’t able to find the original report and data in English. (If any readers have original sources, I’d love to see them!) Since I can’t comment on the original study, I’m mostly left with questions that I can’t answer. But two important questions come to mind.

What metrics are used to measure owner behavior?

It is very concerning to hear that a dog training class did not change owner behavior. In fact, most dog trainers will tell you that their true job is to train the people, not the dogs. If people are finishing a class without modifying any of their behavior, we’re failing in some way. This is either a problem with measurement, or a problem with approach (or both). I think it’s very worth looking in to.

Are the learning goals aligned with the program’s objective?

In a video on the swissinfo.ch site, the Swiss practical classes seemed to focus on leash walking, coming when called, and other training issues. (The example video all showed dog-dog greetings on leash, which isn’t always an appropriate choice, and given limited time I would prefer to teach dogs to walk calmly while ignoring each other.) While these skills can improve the human animal bond, they may not be the right focus if the goal is to improve safety.

Most dog safety issues in a community are related to behavior problems, not to obedience problems. Fear, anxiety, and aggression are the underlying reasons for dog bites. Could we improve outcomes if we focus instead on improving communication, understanding stress, and recognizing early signs of potential issues, rather than discrete training skills? I’d love to see the Swiss government pivot in this direction, rather than scrapping their program altogether.

Speaking of scrapping government programs that aren’t effective, I could write a volume on Breed Specific Legislation (BSL). Time, after time, after time, and time again it has been shown that BSL is not improving community safety. Just yesterday, canine scientists Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods wrote for the Atlantic that their research shows that the oft-demonized pit bulls are “chiller than Chihuahuas”. Their data comes largely from their citizen science project, Dognition.

Pit bull type dog (Shutterstock).

While one could argue that the sample of people engaging with Dognition may present a skewed sample of pit bull temperament, behavior, or training, this still makes the point: discriminating based on breed does not result in improved community safety. I don’t want to imprison or euthanize an animal based on breed, and neither do I want to award him a carte blanche based on breed. It makes logical and financial sense to ditch ineffective, misleading, and expensive legislation in favor of a program that works.

Of course everyone will agree, in theory, that we’d like to improve safety so that dogs, dog owners, and people that really don’t like dogs can all equally enjoy their communities. But what works? We’ve tried legislating out “dangerous dog breeds”. We’ve tried educating owners (all certainly not to exhaustion).

Maybe there’s something we can learn from the Swiss data?(And if I call it out to the universe three times, will the data fall in my lap?) This is an area begging for a collaboration between human-animal interactions scientists, social psychologists, and policy makers, so let’s hope that we see some progress in the near future.