Adapting to change

2013-08-08 00:00

DOGS are gregarious, sociable creatures with minds that must be flexible enough to permit early dominance and hierarchy establishment among themselves, yet at the same time, allow for successful interaction with each other. My own dogs recognise me as pack leader, but they would all still like to be with me inside the house. That in itself is not an issue. The problem comes in that, besides my own pack of eight, there may be another 10 boarders as well, and from a hygiene and space point of view, it is unacceptable and impractical to have them all inside. As a result, I only allow two dogs in at a time, and then within certain limitations.

I am aware that many owners allow their pets free rein inside the home and are totally comfortable with such arrangements. Our dogs meet and satisfy emotional needs, and are quite often our only companions. They cause us to smile and laugh, are a source of comfort during times of sadness or illness, protect against and warn of possible danger, or calm and soothe us when we are stressed. So it is quite natural that we would like them close by. Unfortunately, this social arrangement can backfire horribly, especially when we end up with severe damage to people, dogs, other species or property.

One of the most common issues I am approached about is dog-on -dog aggression. A pup of a few months can, for instance, cause concern due to inappropriate indoor-soiling habits, or its high-pitched cries may prevent people from sleeping. Just recently, I was told of a Maltese cross Toy Pom that jumps onto a four-year-old child’s lap and urinates. Abnormal aggression at this age is almost unheard of, although not impossible, but a 12 months or older puppy can be a totally different kettle of fish. At that age, some large-breed dogs may already weigh 60 kilograms or reach heights of at least 1,8 metres when standing on their hind legs.

We have to respect the changing size, abilities and noise levels of the developing puppy, and therefore the owner’s body language and communication techniques must be modified proportionately. Causes of inappropriate aggression are multidimensional. If anything is going to arise, it will normally be at about 18 months of age, but can already be an issue as early as six months of age.

Dogs may be gregarious in nature and habits, but the over-riding need is survival. That means competition for food, space, shelter and, most important, status in the pack. There will always be a need to dominate and, as mentioned previously, the stronger-temperament dogs are more intense. A day hardly goes by without two of my pets “killing” each other. It is seldom over food or shelter, but rather when a lower-ranking member has failed to display appropriate submissive body language to a higher-ranking dog. The sound generated during these short occurrences can be horrendous, and if occurring during behaviour consultations, I notice quite often how anxious people may become, especially when already traumatised from previous canine conflict situations. Upon completion of my puppy programme, I advise people to contact me again when their pups reach six months of age, quite simply, because what works for us at 10 weeks may be totally ineffectual later on. Should you have concerns about your human-animal composition, approach your vet for assistance or contact details of a reputable behaviour specialist.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted at 083 340 8060 or visit

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