Pups deprived of crucial experiences can become biters

2013-02-15 00:00

ONE of the most extreme situations I have encountered involved a three-year-old large-breed male dog. Its owners had arranged for a 70-year-old grandfather, in conjunction with their 25-year-old daughter, to feed the pet while they were away on holiday.

Feeding was an issue due to aggressive behaviour. The idea was to create a distraction on one side of the property, while somebody else quickly placed a bowl of food outside the kitchen. Unfortunately, the man decided to do this alone and ended up being bitten twice before managing to escape. He was rushed to hospital for emergency treatment. As a result of this incident, I was asked to do an emergency home visit and assist the daughter in moving the pet out of the house.

Upon my arrival, I inquired as to her fearful state of mind. She said her mother had also been bitten on two previous occasions. The daughter had her own family and pets, so the dog did not really know her. To cut a long story short, the back security door was opened and the pet went outside. The young woman was able to go into the house and lock up. Before leaving, I explained how to feed the dog without endangering herself in the process.

I established this dog had been removed from the dam at about two days old. Ideally, puppies should only leave the litter at 56 days of age. Not only was it aggressive to people, but also towards another family pet resulting in permanent separation. Reasons for the dysfunctional behaviour stemmed mainly from the early interruption of mother-puppy bonding period. This was exacerbated further by withholding critical information which puppies need during the most sensitive time of their existence for harmonious co-existence with own and other species. Worst of all, the humans living with this dog, had elevated him to overall pack leader.

The critical imprinting period is an invisible process and I liken it to puppies taking countless photos through the different senses and then memorising this information for the rest of their lives.

Therefore, at any time in the future when exposed to a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch, behavioural skills will mostly be governed by stimuli encountered during the critical period. So, basically it means that if enough photos are taken, behaviour will be normal.

The antithesis of this would be a dog with insufficient imprinting and is thus incapable of discriminating between threat and non-threat.

People are forever referring to problem pets as naughty, disobedient or bad. The dog itself can never be held accountable and will therefore conduct its life based on the foundation which was laid by the human members of the pack. It is not the pet that makes decisions regarding education and environmental enrichment.

Extreme canine aggression is virtually always due to interference with natural processes. However, there are other causes such as trauma, idiopathic aggression or, Avalanche of Rage Syndrome, which is only found in some English cocker spaniels.

When dogs need to be controlled with gates, doors and other physical means in an attempt to maintain the peace, it is only a matter of time before tragedy strikes. Sadly, a few months later, the father of the family mentioned above, phoned me to say he had also been bitten.

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

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