Fatal dog attacks: more research is needed

2014-07-24 00:00

THE subject of this article came after reading about the tragic death of Heidi Pook, a young woman from Baysville, East London, who was killed by a pack of pitbulls last Thursday.

On the morning of April 24, 1997, Christopher Wilson (11) and his brother, Tramell (8), were waiting for transport at a school bus stop, across the street from Sabine and Jeffery Davidson’s home in Milford, Kansas, in the United States. While waiting, the two boys were accosted by three of the Davidsons’ rottweilers. The children escaped by climbing up a tree, but Christopher was attacked and killed by the dogs when he decided to climb down from the tree and check where the pack had run off to.

Eyewitness accounts of the incident are like something out of a horror movie. Sabine Davidson was tried for unintentional second-degree murder and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment. She appealed to the Supreme Court of Kansas but was unsuccessful.

The instincts that dogs are born with remain constant, so we need to try to understand why dogs kill people, even their owners. In doing a search on the instinctive intelligence of dogs, it quickly became clear that most of the websites contain very much the same content. It seems there is no absolute definition and very little is based on actual scientific research.

Breed-specific behaviour coupled with temperament will play a big part in the eventual role that a dog has to fulfil, but it is the adaptive, or “operant learning” aspect that needs to be studied closely.

Processes that are governed by instinct are pretty much unchangeable, if nothing occurs to upset the critical developmental phases. The main learning curve begins in earnest at about 21 days and this period ends at about 16 weeks. It is during this time that appropriate learning can create lifelong functional behaviour, or inappropriate, dysfunctional outcomes. When identifying the causes of behavioural disorders, the blame does not lie with a dog’s instincts, but rather the decisions made by people.

Unfortunately, in this country, when dog-related deaths occur, it seems the response is normally to remove offending pet(s), open an inquest docket and not much else.

I would like to see that all fatal dog attacks are investigated thoroughly by court order and that suitably qualified individuals are appointed for such purposes. This would enable a database to be built up, based on owner and dog behaviour histories, thereby identifying as accurately as possible what caused or triggered the attacks. In many of these incidents there are precursory displays of excessive aggression that are ignored, or warnings that are not taken seriously.

In his summation, the Kansas appellate judge said that Davidson ignored advice from experts on the dire results that could occur from improper training. She was told to socialise her pets and chose not to. She ignored evidence of the dogs getting out on numerous occasions and failed to secure the gate properly. She also ignored the aggressive behaviour her dogs displayed towards neighbours and their children.

The state presented evidence that she created a profound risk and ignored foreseeable consequences that her dogs could attack or injure someone.

When choosing a puppy it is imperative to respect, and know, what the breed-specific behaviour will produce in adulthood, and therefore it becomes absolutely necessary that informed decisions are made regarding a pet’s upbringing.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted via his website at www.dogtorsteve.co.za Advice is only dispensed in face-to-face meetings with owners and their pets.

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