Dog problems are people's problems

There are no such things as dog problems! All the problems are "dog-owner" problems. That's certainly the clear opinion of the great majority of dog experts in New Zealand and overseas.

But the real concern is that these problems are getting worse at a rapidly increasing rate. And one of the main reasons for this is the social change in modern society. Dogs are not just family pets anymore. They have become a means of security for many people living on their own, and certain big strong breeds are now part of a macho image with another folk. Solutions have to be found to the resultant problems but to do this, you have to understand the nature of the beast.

Early dog and early man

These two animals had one big feature in common - both their social structures were the same. This is why the dog was one of the first animals to be domesticated by man. The family of "homo sapiens" had a family head and the rest of the members were in a clear social structure below that. The early ancestor of today's family pet was the wolf where the pack leader was the biggest and strongest animal - the alpha or dominant male.

So when an early man or his children picked up stray wolf cubs and brought them up as pets, the cubs slotted into the human family and were quite happy to obey someone that they accepted as a pack leader.

So when your pet dog, in its excitement to welcome you home, licks your face and mouth, it is really asking you to regurgitate some of your last meal for it, as this is what its mother used to do in the wild! Keen watchers of "Our World" will remember that the truly wild dog of Africa and the wolf still do this today.

And somewhere along this evolutionary path, the man seemed to develop a "love/hate" relationship with dogs. You can love your own dog but when the next-door pooch fouls on your lawn or bites chase your cat, feelings change at the speed of light. This human love/hate thing is the cause of so many problems that the dog gets blamed for.

Behaviour problems

The main cause of these is a simple fact that a dog has not been socialised properly. In species like the dog that is born deaf and blind, touch is one of the highest sensations a dog can receive. So when the pup's eyes open and it starts to hear at about three weeks - it has an awful lot of learning to do. This is a critical period of 3-8 weeks.

So if you want to make your pup a well-adjusted animal - introduce it to all the experiences it will receive in later life before it is 6-8 weeks old. This is the most important time in a pup's life. This is the time to let it learn about the kind of life you want it to lead, whether it is traveling in the car or on the back of a farm bike. Let it hear all the noises - the vacuum cleaner or the chainsaw, and re-assure it. This is the time it must meet other people of all kinds, and this is the time to fix up those tendencies to any ideas of its own it may have!

Give it what its mother gives it when it does wrong - a shake and a growl, and you won't need a stick or boot with the chance of a battle for pack leadership later on when it's big enough to attack you.

So if you ask any veterinarian or animal psychologist who has the job of helping people with dog behaviour problems, they will tell you that it all could have been avoided by proper socialisation of the pup. Some poor dogs actually think that they are humans and are very confused - again because of the early social environment.

The city dog

The wild dog usually has a territory of many square kilometers over which it travels to hunt, seek a mate and ward off competitors. So is it any wonder that our city Dog Control Officers and Dog Rangers list the major complaints from people as dogs barking, fouling, roaming, breaking into rubbish bags, chasing vehicles, killing cats, bitches in heat, fighting other dogs, and threatening posties and meter readers.

Any TV nature watcher will remember that the dog is only doing what comes naturally. The main point is that the human city is not the ideal home for the canid.

However, there is one other bit of biology about the dog, which is very relevant to today's problems. The dog is a very intelligent animal, and in no time at all will adapt to survive in a new environment. So as the dog populations increase in our modern society and more and more stray dogs start to roam the streets, it is the easiest thing in the dog world to see the development of feral dog packs. A classic case was the pack of wild dogs that were established in that Mount Wellington quarry in Auckland some years ago. There are always plenty of reports of small packs attacking people in the street.

Many people poo-poo this possibility, and they say that as they never see these animals, it is proof positive that it's a myth. In many large cities of the world, these days like New York, populations of feral dogs are well established. They have adapted their behaviour so that they are active at night when they feed off large amounts of garbage and hunt down the big populations of feral cats.

After a few generations of breeding in the metropolitan wild, these dogs become very smart and are hard to catch. They are a great danger to human life and health. There is no reason why these animals are not starting to build up in New Zealand cities. Just note the number of dogs you see wandering around at night in some places.

A Dog Control Officer in Manakau city described the 21,000 dogs in his territory as "having a field day", as he didn't have the staff or the support to allow him to deal with the problem. There were 5,000 unregistered dogs in the city and he was almost despairing about how to tackle the problem. The time was here for something really fundamental to be done.

Even in a quiet holiday resort like Taupo, in 1980 there were 4,800 dogs in the Council's area and these had grown to 5,800 dogs in a year. In this last year even in places like Te Awamutu and Cambridge, there has been a 25% increase in dogs.

The rural dog

You may think that all is well in the countryside other than the threat of hydatids - which is almost extinct anyway! You would be very wrong. The trouble is that now you cannot consider the town and country dog to be separate problems because there is not a great big dingo-proof fence between the two.

In many cities, it's now impossible to keep sheep in the lifestyle blocks on the urban perimeters because of sheep worrying. What the dog sees as a 24-hour supply of fresh mutton burgers is a serious threat to human health and our meat exports. Also, as the price of prepared dog food increases, and as farmers try to get a bit more return on their old dog-tucker ewes, many town folks are feeding their dogs on mutton without realising the rules on cooking or freezing.

One DCO told me that she had been told proudly by the local vet's wife that she always froze the offal for her dog! You don't. If you want to feed offal you must BOIL it for at least half an hour. The message still hasn't gotten through.

There are still far too many farm dogs that are not registered and which are not fed correctly. All you need to keep the parasite problem going is a few dog owners who cannot be bothered to stick to the rules.

The nasties of the worm world - how boring!

This worm business is rather like defensive driving. Everyone will agree that it's important but how boring!. Added to this are the long confusing names. Try this. Read the next paragraph and then see how much you can remember in a couple of days' time!

First, there are true hydatids (Echinococcus granulosus) that infect sheep, goats, deer, pigs, horses, dogs, and men. Then there are false hydatids (Taenia hydatigena )which infect sheep, goats, deer, pigs, and the dog. Finally, there are sheep measles (Taenia ovis) which infects sheep, goats, and dogs. It's not very exciting is it, but this information is vital to our agricultural exports.

Hydatids have now been officially eliminated. There are still a few New Zealanders having operations for hydatid cysts that they picked up in their youth. These cysts can be life-threatening.

Sheep measles is a big threat to our lamb exports. The disease in the sheep causes cysts in the body organs which can be removed or condemned. But imagine the thrill a cyst must cause at dinner when a leg of New Zealand lamb is carved from deep in the muscle. Would you like an extra slice?. It will be the last leg they will ever buy from New Zealand and they will tell the story to a lot of others.

The Animal Control Officer cannot win

So the main point of this biological complexity is the role of the dog. It is the common link that must be used to break these various cycles, and the Animal Control Officer's job is to make sure this happens. At times they must feel that it is a losing battle and one they cannot win!

If they don't solve problems such as biting, fouling, ripping rubbish sacks, noise nuisance, bitches in season, attacks on cats, rushing at cars - they get criticised by one group. If they clean up the problem and impound and shoot unclaimed dogs, they get criticised by another group. When they clamour for more powers and more laws they cop it from another group in society. No wonder their morale plummets at times.

The only hope - owner education

Some years ago, Dog Control Officers started on a new tack because the problems were not the dogs' fault. The only hope was to start to educate owners and make them responsible for the actions of their dogs.

This works. The trailblazing was done by Ken Muir, a Dog Control contractor for the North Shore in Auckland. The plan was simply the licensing of dog owners, as well as their dogs. As Ken pointed out, dog ownership is not the right of all New Zealanders, it's a privilege that should be earned. It's no different from driving a car or owning a gun.

The North Shore scheme was voluntary and had the full backing of the Council. Participants had a series of lectures, watched videos on aspects of dog health and care, got individual help, and then sat a simple test. If they passed, they had a 25% decrease in their dog fees. The course was supported by a little book like a "dog owners road code" written by Ken and his colleagues. In fact, the concept was very similar to Defensive Driving.

It ran for three years and was a great success. The exam scared a few at the start, especially those who hadn’t sat an exam for a decade or two, but they were so proud when they passed it. They then became strong supporters of the concept of dog care and control. Rather like reformed smokers!

Modern technology

Experience in the United States and Holland and now in New Zealand uses microchip implant in the dog's ear and a central computer used to keep track of them. Dogs can be identified from a distance by a transponder and quickly checked by phone on the central computer. No wasting time catching them for identification and no risk of being bitten. It's like tracing stolen cars.

As well to this dog database, there is also a network of vets who will run de-sexing and clinics for dogs, to stem the tide of unwanted pups that have to be put down each day. They also handle the big euthanasia work that is needed. Today's problems need today's solutions.