An out of control dog can have potentially fatal consequences, so dog aggression is a serious issue that nobody can ignore. But what is really causing this problem and, perhaps more importantly, what can be done to solve the issue?
Firstly, let's get some cold, hard facts. PDSA's Animal Wellbeing Report (PAW Report) found that over 1 million dogs display aggressive behaviour, such as growling, snarling and biting, towards people and other pets on a weekly basis. The number of injuries sustained by people due to dog attacks has risen from just under 3,000 in 1997 to over 6,100 in 2010 - more than double.
National data also suggests that there is an increase in violent dogs on the street, with the number of people sentenced for dangerous dog offences increasing to over 1,000 cases in 2010. Vets see these problems on a daily basis - I don't know a single vet that hasn't experienced some kind of attack or aggressive behaviour from a dog, and I myself have been seriously bitten twice and felt under attack more times than I care to remember.
To understand what is causing these worrying increases, we need to understand what the underlying causes of aggressive behaviour are. I believe that in the vast majority of cases, behavioural problems are due to a lack of training and little or no socialisation.
Socialisation is the process of getting pets used everyday sights and sounds when young. This is incredibly important, as fear of the unusual can often result in aggressive behaviour in later life. Yet the PDSA PAW Report found that a quarter of all owners who had their dogs from puppies didn't adequately socialise them, and 44% of owners don't know whether their dog was socialised or not.
Kind and effective training is also essential to help puppies learn what sort of behaviour is appropriate, yet half of all dogs never went to training classes during their first six months of life.
So what can be done about this? The government is currently discussing various potential changes in legislation aimed at addressing some of the issues relating to dog aggression, such as compulsory microchipping, which PDSA supports. There are also proposed changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and one of my responsibilities at PDSA is to provide professional feedback for these debates.
But I think that in order to see real change it's also important to tackle the root causes. Work needs to be done to ensure that all owners, and all breeders for that matter, fully understand their responsibilities. The vast majority of dog owners that I know are very responsible and caring, but some simply don't fully understand how to properly train their dog, or the importance of socialisation.
PDSA's view is that much of the solution lies in education and ensuring that new and existing dog owners fully understand the needs of their pet and how to properly meet them. .
For new owners this education should start prior to even purchasing a puppy, and initiatives such as PDSA's Your Right Pet website, and the new Puppy Information Pack, will hopefully go some way to helping prospective owners fully understand the responsibilities of ownership.
Anyone with a young dog should, without exception, make a commitment to socialising and training their pet using effective and kind methods. It is up to owners to make sure that they provide appropriate early experiences for their young dog so that their pet grows up to be friendly and outgoing. The Association of Pet Dog Trainers can help you find an accredited trainer in your area that uses reward-based methods.
Any owner that is concerned about their pet's behaviour should seek professional advice immediately. The first port of call should be their vet, who will check for any underlying medical causes that can sometimes result in aggression or behavioural change. If a clean bill of health is given, then your vet may refer your pet to a behaviour specialist who will look for the underlying cause of the pet's behaviour. The Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors can help to put owners in touch with professional help in their area.
The hard fact to remember is that owners are ultimately responsible for ensuring their pets remain under control. Spending time properly training and socialising your dog and keeping it under proper control to prevent any risk of your pet permanently injuring or even killing a person or another pet is vital.