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Thursday, 3 November 2011

A Different Form of Abuse?

I've been busy lately - REALLY busy!  So apologies for not blogging before now.

Before I start, I will state that I will NOT be naming the organisation concerned as I refuse to slander any organisation that actually does good work (which this one generally does).

I was at a pet show event doing charity work recently, working on just one of many charity stands doing a great job of promoting what they do and how they help people and animals.

On my travels around the show, I started to notice dogs showing signs of stress.  Now a big event open to the public is stressful for most dogs to some extent, but these dogs were supposed to be used to and enjoy human interaction, or they wouldn't have been there, right?  Well as the day wore on, these dogs were being surrounded by members of the public, getting smacked by children across the head and all over their bodies.  Now some of these dogs dealt with this okay and just accepted the attention (it must be noted that I didn't observe ANY dog positively enjoying the attention), however some of them started to show extreme avoidance behaviours and when these were ignored by their owners, started to behaviourally shut down.

An example was a large breed dog I was able to observe over a period of hours as I was situated close to where the dog was 'working'.

The owner was either oblivious to this dog's behavioural state or chose to ignore it; whatever the reason, this dog went through over 3 hours of misery.  The first sign that the dog wasn't coping was avoidance behaviours, whenever people came up to him he turned his head away, licking his lips, slow blinking of the eyes, lowering of the ears, tightening of the skin on his head and shutting his mouth tight.  Whenever he did this, his owner would hold his head in place for people to pat and stroke, many of them small children.

As his avoidance signals were obviously being ignored, he then started to actually turn his body around when he saw people approaching.  Again, his owner would merely turn him around and encourage people to come and say hello to him.

Then the dog started to hide behind his owner when people approached, showing real signs of distress by now to anybody that remotely understands dogs.  Again, his owner ignored this and merely dragged him back out for people to surround and begin their assault on his head.

Then this dog merely shut down.  He was in a severe state of distress, by now panting excessively, and didn't even attempt to move away.  The owner seemed to take this as a sign that the dog was now enjoying the attention.

This dog had to go through this for over 3 hours without any kind of break, with literally hundreds of people coming up to him and assaulting him (from his point of view) while being forced to endure the experience by an owner that really should have known better.

The crucial thing here is that this dog was probably trained only to accept the CONTROLLED attention of a few people at a time, not the continuous and uncontrolled onslaught of the general public and their children.  It is only due to this dog's incredibly tolerant nature that he didn't descend into displaying aggressive behaviours to try and control the stimuli (people) that were causing him distress.

What his owner should have done is identify her dog's stress the moment he started turning his head away from people and taken him to 'escape' into a wide open area or outside where he wasn't crowded.  Then if she returned, she should have controlled the amount of people coming up to him to a level that the dog had been previously trained to accept, just something simple like 'just one at at time please!!'.  If the dog was still displaying stress signals he should then have been removed from the public area and not return to the stand.

My point here is that this dog may well have been an excellent dog to bring to schools, hospitals or other similar environments, but he couldn't cope with the sheer onslaught of the general public at this kind of event.

This wasn't the most depressing thing I witnessed however (unbelievably).  

I couldn't bear to watch another dog go through this trauma so when the same stand had a different dog showing exactly the same behaviours I advised the show organiser and they arranged for the vet on call to examine the (toy breed) dog.  

I observed this vet smack the dog's head a few times, (affectionate patting?), smack it's rump a few times (more affectionate patting?) and merely ask the owner some questions. She didn't remain around to observe the dog during intense periods of public interest.  She then said the dog was 'fine' and left.

I was absolutely appalled as I had to watch this poor dog endure more stressful, forced interactions with the hundreds of people that came over to him.

It has to be said that there were also a few dogs that genuinely seemed to enjoy the human interaction, but these weren't subjected to the same kind of sheer numbers of people that the others were (specific, unusual breeds always draw a bigger crowd).

It dawned on me that this kind of abuse is not recognised at the moment.  We all recognise the distress a dog goes through in a car on a hot day, or being left alone for hours at a time, or being hit or kicked.  What about the BEHAVIOURAL stress that a dog goes through?  Just because a tolerant dog that would never turn to aggression to repel the stimulus that is causing him stress (human interaction), does that mean we should ignore the stress it's under?

There are patrols in dog show car parks to break into cars where dogs are suffering, there are legal processes to intervene if an animal is being subjected to being left for hours at a time or being hit or kicked; what about for the stress that demonstrator dogs may go through on stands at shows?  

Because a dog is incredibly tolerant and will not resort to aggression seems to currently mean it can be subjected to hours of intense human attention without consideration for its behavioural well-being.

Next time you're at a show where there are dogs on stands where the public are encouraged to interact with the dog, just stand and watch for a while.  Look for signs of avoidance, however small, and watch to see who the handler is being more attentive to; the humans - or their (supposedly) best friend...