Our changing domestic dog population.

Our domestic dog population is changing.  Twenty-five years ago shelters were overflowing with stray dogs, unwanted dogs, and unwanted litters of puppies.  Dogs were given about three days to be claimed before being euthanized. Many of my own dogs were adopted from local shelters and they all became wonderful companions who lived with me for the rest of their lives.

The dogs that were reproducing back then (other that pure bred dogs) were dogs that had not been spay/neutered who had the run of the farm or neighborhood and would inevitably become pregnant, sooner or later, and produce a litter of mixed breed puppies.  In most cases, spay/neuter was not something that dog owners necessarily did.  They would try to avoid letting their female dogs get pregnant but we all know how that can work out.  And so litters of puppies abounded.

As the shelter world developed so did the normalization of spay/neuter.  Dog owners were becoming more responsible about not letting their dogs become pregnant unintentionally, and shelters were leading the charge to stop the proliferation of unwanted dogs into the world.  Initially they gave adopters vouchers to reduce the cost of spay/neutering their dogs and some even had clinics that did it themselves.

Then, it became mainstream that the shelters themselves would spay/ neuter any dog that came into their system before that dog was adopted out.  Any dog that entered the shelter system had zero chance of ever reproducing once the door closed.  And back then, that was a good thing.  Remember, most of the dogs that ended up in shelters thirty years ago were euthanized.  But what seemed very good for dogs at the time, has had an unexpected consequence, a consequence that has forever changed the domestic dog population in this country.  

The dogs that came from these hit or miss neighborhood breedings, that later entered the evolved shelter system, were also were spay/neutered.  We effectively extinguished this population of gentle, sociable local dogs because they were no longer reproducing.

Why do I call these dogs “gentle and sociable”?  Think about the kinds of dogs that tended to be family dogs thirty years ago. They were mixes of labs and hounds and retrievers and poodles and border collies and German shepherds and terriers and toy breeds, the kinds of dogs that made good working dogs or good pets. 

They tended to give birth in quiet barns and living rooms and had quiet environments in which to raise their litters. These environments tended to be fairly stress free which was good for the puppies health and emotional stability.

If you go into a shelter in Vermont today, almost all the dogs in the shelter have been transported from the southern states (because there are so few in the Northeast).  There are many, many more unwanted dogs in the south for a couple of reasons.  It is a temperate climate so dogs can get by more easily than in the north.  It is just easier to survive if you happen to be born in a dump.

The other reason is that the kinds of dogs that are being kept intact in the south and urban areas, tend to be the guarding and fighting breeds that people keep for protection.  There is a belief that intact dogs are more aggressive so forget about spay/neuter.  The communities that need dogs for protection are not nice places and dogs tend to be under a lot of stress most of the time.  Stress produces high levels of cortisol which is really bad for developing puppies.  Their brains actually develop differently.

Hounds that are kept for hunting also make up a large part of this population.  These are the dogs that are being sent north and adopted out into our communities.

Thirty years ago had you ever heard of a Pitbull or a Cane Corso or a Dogo Argentino?  I hadn’t.  This is all new.  These are big, muscular dogs that were originally bred to take down wild game or for illegal sport fighting (blood sports).  Now families are adopting them!

The future of domestic dogs in this country is not good. There are too many people and too many dogs.   Most of the dogs that end up in shelters have not been socialized or trained.  They tend to be difficult breeds and mixes of breeds that need training and excellent management to be safe in communities. 

Dogs that are very dangerous to other dogs often form loving relationships to humans which is a double threat.  It gives the impression of dog who is safe while in fact they are not.  As a result humans will give them the benefit of the doubt under unpredictable circumstances which can lead to tragic results.

When I was growing up, the family dog had his day and we had ours. The dog just trotted around the neighborhood doing his rounds.  Everyone met up at the end of the day.  If a child came home and complained that the the neighbor’s dog just bit him, the mother would likely tell the child to “stop bothering the dog”.  Today she would call a lawyer.

With so many people and their dogs living inclose proximity to one another we have to have leash laws.  Dogs no longer have autonomy.  They do not have the chance to learn about the world on their own as they once did. 

We know that the types of dogs that are coming into our communities are a factor in this changing population but the circumstances under which domestic dogs now live are also a contributing factor in the rise of aggression and reactivity in pet dogs.  Aggression is a natural behavior in dogs.  But what is causing the aggression?

 Remember, dogs no longer have the autonomy they once had.  They do not have the opportunity to figure the world out on their own.  It is up to dog owners to socialize and train their dogs so they can learn to be comfortable around other strange people, dogs and environments.  Our dogs are 100% dependent upon us to teach them these skills.

Most dogs are kept on leashes or behind fences.  This can lead to frustration and frustration can lead to aggression. 

Dogs are animals of fight or flight.  They will always choose to gain distance to assess a threat first…if they can.  In the world of wild animals conflict is very expensive.  One deep puncture can lead to infection and death.  Dogs know this. If at all possible, they naturally avoid conflict.

If a dog is on a leash and feels threatened, the dog does not have an option to gain distance to assess the threat.  The dog must choose conflict or a threat display.  And, if a frustrated and fearful dog suddenly gets off the leash…..boom you have a dog fight.  Most dog-dog  aggression happens on the end of a leash or when a frustrated dog gets loose. 

Almost all aggression in domestic dogs is called “learned aggression”.  The dog discovers that aggression is a very effective strategy.  Whether it is a dog running out from its yard to chase away someone walking by or snapping at a person who tries to pet him, the dog has learned that it works.  When they aggress, the threat goes away.  This is a strategy they will use again.

All these factors are coming together to create new and sometimes serious incidents in our communities.  Dogs are not more aggressive today, they just have more reasons to resort to aggression and that is either by selective breeding for aggression or learned aggression through abuse or other factors in their environment.

Problem behavior in dogs can often be changed and modified but not always.  At best it takes a lot of work, financial investment and determination.  The average dog owner just isn’t going to do that, nor should they have to. 

If more people understood the situation we are in, regarding domestic dogs, I think they would see that our town laws and out state laws must be changed to reflect this new domestic dog population.  There has to be serious financial and legal consequences to owners of dangerous dogs who let their dogs repeatedly threaten our communities. 

Lassie is NOT coming home and we have to deal with that reality.

Noel Hoffmann. CPDT-KA, KPA-CTP. Westminster, VT