Legal cases to demonstrate behavioural principles

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A salutary tale

At the age of 5½, my son was bitten by a dog. We were at the house of acquaintances, who had sold up to move abroad and were having an ‘open-house’ farewell party. They were in their early sixties with two adult daughters and the dog in question was 14 years old, partially sighted and deaf. He had been in the garden begging at my older daughter’s feet for a share of her plate when my son approached and patted him on the head. As far as my son was concerned, a friendly overture; to the dog, an unjustified challenge – ‘my food and you’re not having it’.

Our hosts were shocked. The often-repeated phrase ‘He’s never done that before’ was both bandied about and believed as well as the warning-bell excuse that the dog was never usually approached while eating. Had this therefore been a mundane occurrence – grist to the mill of any behaviour counsellor? Or a life-altering trauma for all concerned – a death knoll for a dog with a previously unblotted copybook? Was the dog ‘dangerous’ or had he, in reality, never been ‘safe’ but simply, in his life experience, insufficiently tested?

The consequences were, by luck rather than good judgement, relatively mild. Although wheals were evident from eyebrow to lip and with a small puncture inside the mouth, my son’s cries, ostensibly of pain but mainly of indignant incomprehension that a dog could behave thus, were soon soothed with offered sweets and toys. On the premise that one should get back on a horse immediately after falling off, I insisted that he ask the dog to sit and give it a titbit and tried to counter his protestations that the dog was ‘stupid’.

After all, for my son, the episode had been a learning experience on a par with being burnt by an illicitly struck match or falling off the back of a chair, having being told for the umpteenth time to sit still. Or was it? Do we muzzle or destroy matches and chairs? Are the owners of such offending articles dragged before the courts? What makes the dog an exception?

The rare occasion when one, as a veterinary surgeon, sees animal-related occurrences, even momentarily, from the perspective of the general public is always a salutary experience. How should one react? What is ‘the norm’? Although I found myself instantly analysing the situation as a vet and behaviour counsellor, my emotions as a mother interfered with rational thought. The questions rushed to be answered. What had my son done to provoke the attack? Would he be scarred? Did my friends know their dog could behave like this? Should I have seen it coming? Had I misled my son into thinking that all dogs could be foil to an imaginary light sabre as ours were at home? My reactions could have varied from instant demands for euthanasia, to reporting the dog to the police as ‘dangerous’ or to immediate punitive retaliation towards the dog so that he should learn ‘not to do it again’.

As it was, politeness and the British stiff upper lip prevailed, and the bite remained an unreported statistic. My son returned home with the same cavalier attitude to his own dogs as he had had previously, but with a slightly healthier respect for those he didn’t know. His partner in mishap retired to France to be kept out of the vicinity of small children and food. (Written in 2004)


The legal cases discussed here all highlight some aspect of the misunderstanding of dogs and inadequacies of the law in preventing injury by dogs, primarily by biting. I have been personally involved as an expert witness in all of them. They illustrate topics such as the true meaning of obedience, the erroneous belief in dominance, the lack of awareness of human conflict on a dog’s emotions and the nature of reward and punishment from the canine point of view. Together with simple lack of foresight, these misunderstandings have all contributed to dog owners falling foul of the law. The cases are intended to underpin the information and ideas I have presented thus far and to emphasise yet again how early and knowledgeable veterinary intervention regarding the behaviour of dogs can raise awareness and help to prevent future mishap. Two cases also highlight the link between pain and aggression and how early veterinary diagnosis and treatment are essential.

They are also evidence of how and why current reliance on human prosecution and punishment without education is doomed to failure. Reality of life and the welfare implications for dogs while confined in police-contracted kennels ‘to ensure public safety’ are also revealed. The urgent need for re-education regarding dogs is not confined solely to the dog-owning public but all those occupied in dog-related employment. Without this, there is the very real risk that the behaviour of dogs seized under the Dangerous Dogs Act deteriorates to the extent that labelling a dog as ‘dangerous’ becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I have used my own dogs in assessments; a Jack Russell terrier and two lurchers, all neutered females.1

1Whenever ‘my assistant’ is mentioned, this refers to my long-standing and long-suffering partner Rod, who has provided much needed practical and emotional support for many years.

The cases involve the following:

1.Overdependence on physical control

2.Misunderstanding of obedience

3.Significance of veterinary history – two cases

4.Bad human behaviour

5.Redirected aggression

6.Misdirected play

7.Conflict with police

1.Over-dependence on physical control

A 3½-year-old entire male German Shepherd dog called Donnie, while being used as a security patrol dog, had become briefly out of his male owner’s control while on duty and had chased and allegedly bitten the leg of a teenager. His owner was duly charged with an offence under Section 3 of the Dangerous Dogs Act. The dog was allowed to remain at home while awaiting court proceedings.

Donnie was described as a friendly pet dog at home, good with resident and visiting young children, thoroughly house trained and seldom disobedient. He was frightened of fireworks, when he hid under the kitchen table, and often tried to chase bicycles. He had never been allowed off lead as his owner had had no training at all in off-lead control and was ‘not sure of what Donnie would do’.

Donnie’s history was as follows, much of which was gleaned during a home visit to assess the dog in situ. He had been purchased from a police dog handler a year previously to be used as a ‘deterrent’ dog for his owner’s future role as a security patrol guard. His owner, a novice dog handler, subsequently underwent National Association of Security Dog Users (NASDU) training for on-lead patrol and deterrent work only. This training relied solely on the contrast between jerked lead, applied choke chain and verbal correction as punishments and a game with a toy as a reward. An additional requirement of the borough council where he worked was that the dog should be muzzled while on patrol. Unfortunately, his owner was instructed by a fellow trainer to use a tight fabric muzzle, which prevented Donnie panting as well as barking effectively. He was described, unsurprisingly, as ‘not enjoying’ having the muzzle put on. In addition, as I was forced to point out early in the assessment, he could not possibly predict the positive reward of play while wearing a muzzle. Donnie’s obedience while working was therefore entirely based on the presence or absence of physical punishment.

When on duty, he barked as best he could in a defensive manner when feeling threatened and might pull towards the source of the threat, the ‘deterrent’ aspect of his duties. Donnie became excited when visitors arrived at the home but had never shown aggression or threat in an ‘off-duty’ context.

When visiting to assess Donnie, I ascertained the exact details of the offence. These were that, upon opening the transport cage door, Donnie had leapt out of the cage before his handler could put him on lead or secure his muzzle. He immediately chased, and allegedly bit, one of two approaching rather rowdy teenagers. He stopped immediately when his owner shouted at him.

He was extremely obedient and tolerant throughout the assessment in normal off-duty contexts. However, remembering that Donnie’s protection training did not extend to off-lead chase and grab/restraint, I asked his owner to behave exactly as he and Donnie had been trained to do if approached by a potential assailant. Donnie was first fitted with a muzzle and kept on choke chain and lead as was required. As long as I, acting as a potential assailant, obeyed instruction to not come any closer, Donnie remained sitting at his owner’s feet. If I ignored this and continued to approach in a threatening manner, Donnie sprang at my right arm several times and would have grabbed it if the muzzle had not been in place. In so doing, however, he showed no animosity and I could personally remove the muzzle immediately afterwards to engage him in friendly social interaction.

Observations and conclusions

Donnie had been trained on lead almost entirely using punishment/negative reinforcement contrast. This was supplied by the application and contrasting release of the choke chain. Although a game with a toy was used in training sessions as a rewarding event, such a reward could not be used at all when he was muzzled and on duty. While in training, such a dog may well maintain a more positive emotional state and grab a stooge’s arm in much the same way as it would a thrown ball. When working, however, Donnie was subjected to unpredictable threats on a routine basis and had received no positive reward to help counteract emotional deterioration. There was a risk that such a dog would react aggressively out of worsening fear and uncertainty.

In common with a number of protection or attack dogs, Donnie, I believed, was extremely confused regarding human requirements of him. He had been encouraged to bark and lunge at certain people in order to appear intimidating. At the very same time, in order for his handler to maintain control of him, he will have been punished via the lead and choke chain for doing exactly these behaviours. In addition, the unpleasant sensation deliberately produced by the choke chain will have made negative associations with any context in which the chain was used.

His owner, through no fault of his own, had been given insufficient instruction (if any) in controlling his dog off lead. From a behavioural perspective, off-lead control should always be established before transferring command information to a restraining lead. Relying solely on a lead for control inevitably means that the guidance any dog needs will be completely absent if a dog suddenly finds himself free.

He also had the false belief that Donnie would act in defence only upon his verbal command. In reality, the information upon which any dog bases his decisions includes the whole environmental context in which the command is given. My assessment confirmed that the threatening approach of a person who disobeyed his handler’s instructions to keep at a distance was the salient feature to which Donnie responded rather than a verbal command. In any dog trained to view certain people as threatening and respond accordingly, an effective and reliable ‘don’t attack yet’ command is as, if not more, important than an ‘attack now’ command.

Donnie’s behaviour during the incident was the result of a combination of unforeseen circumstances, namely,

Alarm at the approaching noise and what it might signify to him

Chase behaviour stimulated by noise, waving arms and running of the alleged victim

Owing to momentary lack of physical control by his handler, suddenly finding himself free without his accustomed restraint, muzzle or command to immediately do as his emotions dictated

It was unlikely that Donnie, as he ran forward, intended to bite, merely to appear threatening as he had been trained to do. During the assessment, when deliberately put into a situation for which he had been trained and prepared, he made specific attempts to take hold of my right arm only. Although it may have been more likely that he would make similar moves if acting without command, it was not possible to say categorically that another part of a person’s anatomy would not be accidentally targeted.

I commented that it was surprising to me and a credit to Donnie’s good nature that, despite such conflicting training, Donnie remained an extremely well-disposed dog towards people and one who would much prefer, in any social situation, to play rather than attack.

Finally, I did not consider Donnie to be a dangerous dog nor one who would, entirely without provocation, have any intention of injuring a human being. He had, however, been trained to assume that, against his better nature, grabbing and holding onto parts of the human body was at times the required thing to do.

By the conclusion of the court case, his owner was considering keeping Donnie as a pet dog and finding alternative employment.

2.Misunderstanding of obedience

A female dog owner was charged in 2017 under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. She had been seen punching and kicking her mixed breed dog while in a drunken state and was subsequently arrested and charged with animal abuse. Her dog, Sasha, was taken into custody. Unusually, I was instructed to carry out an assessment of the owner while in the presence of her dog and their interaction.

I duly obtained all relevant documentation, including a completed questionnaire regarding Sasha from her owner. Sasha had been owned since puppyhood and had not had any conventional dog training. She was, however, reported to be house trained, non-destructive, friendly towards people and other dogs and generally ‘behaving well’ on or off lead. She was however also described as being ‘stubborn’ at times (with all the connotations this word embodies as previously described in Chapter 5).

The assessment

Possibly contrary to expectations of the charging authorities, it was immediately obvious how delighted dog and owner were to see each other after six months of separation. There was no hint of wariness on the part of the dog, simply extremely enthusiastic recognition and greeting.

Very early on during the assessment, it became clear that her owner became frustrated with Sasha if she did not obey her and she proceeded to use physical prompts such as pushing her rump down to sit and raising her voice if she did not comply. I commented in my report that this was an almost universal human response if owners had not been shown how to guide a dog’s choices without the need for threat or coercion.

Questioning the owner revealed that it was Sasha’s ‘disobedience’ in not coming to her when called which had made her most frustrated and angry and that she was in the habit of using physical reprimand and coercion to ‘make Sasha move’ when she didn’t want to.

I showed her how the dual use food and reduction of threat was immediately successful in getting Sasha to come to her and sit immediately on command. I explained that, if threatened, an instinctive behaviour in any dog’s repertoire was to stay still or move away. If commands entailed threat, particularly on the recall, the strategy to stay away was the obvious choice from Sasha’s point of view rather than the obedience that the owner required. Stubborn simply meant that a dog at that moment was not doing what an owner wanted her to do. It was one of the most common complaints made among dog owners.

I encouraged her throughout the assessment to discontinue using a pointing gesture or any body movements that implied threat to Sasha. Her owner could immediately understand how her previous means of communication had been at best confusing, and at worst threatening, to her dog.


I believed that my explanation and demonstration had been a light bulb moment for Sasha’s owner, as for the vast majority of other dog owners who were frustrated by their dog’s lack of obedience. Indeed, it was still all too common for owners to believe that ‘dominance’ and coercion were all that dogs understood in order to obey and that punishment for disobedience was essential.

I observed that, when inebriated, habitual human behaviour tended to get worse. I believed that, drunk as the owner accepted she was at the time of the incident, her behaviour was an extreme version of how she believed dogs had to be dealt with, namely, coerced into obedience and punished for disobedience.

I understood that she had now fully complied with an alcohol rehabilitation programme and had not drunk alcohol for many months.

In my view, she was genuinely remorseful for the way she had misunderstood dogs in general, and consequently treated Sasha specifically, in the past. I also believed that her declared aim of having Sasha returned to her was a primary motive for abstinence from alcohol. Denying the return of the dog might have the opposite effect.

Sasha was allowed to be returned to her tearful owner, who up to the time of writing, continues to remain completely sober.


Sasha in May 2020 during corona virus outbreak.

3.The significance of vet history

A    6-year-old male neutered Rottweiler called Tyson

Tyson was rehomed at the age of 14 months as a neglected dog. He lived with an adult male owner, the owner’s brother and their parents. The father had suffered a stroke two years previously and had regular carer visits. An assessment was required because in July 2015 Tyson had been involved in a scuffle with two other dogs and a month later in August 2015 he had bitten a visiting carer on her arm. The assessment did not take place until the end of August 2016, a year later. Before both these incidents, Tyson was already under a Court Order from 2013 to be kept muzzled (a fabric type was used habitually on walks) and on lead in public following an ‘attack’ on a Dachshund.

Tyson had not been taken to training classes but was considered to be clever and well trained at home. He was known to be wary and nervous of strangers and to want to investigate other dogs. His owner had complied with the 2013 court order apart from the one incidence of accidental escape in July 2015 as he was being prepared to go for a walk. Further information gleaned from the witness statements and during the assessment included that the bite to the carer occurred while in the back garden. The owner asserted that she had been told not to touch Tyson but a dispute had arisen as to whether Tyson had simply bitten ‘out of the blue’ after sniffing her or after she put her arms over his head and round his neck.

As ever, the purpose of the assessment was the following:

provide a rationale for the alleged incident

give an opinion as to whether the dog was a danger to public safety

determine what precautions needed to be put in place to achieve this

To investigate thoroughly and provide both mitigation for his actions and a prognosis (although not strictly considered necessary for court purposes), it was essential to take Tyson’s informative veterinary history into account, obtained after the assessment.

Summary of veterinary history obtained

In June 2014, a house call was requested as Tyson was having difficulty standing up. He had to be muzzled for examination when he growled specifically on extension of his hips. Comment was made that he ‘might need x-ray of hips and stifles’.

He received a booster vaccination 9th June 2015 and was muzzled for examination.

On 29th March 2016, the veterinary records first mentioned the previous control order from 2013 and also the impending court cases regarding the incidents in July and August 2015.

On 11th August 2016, Tyson needed a booster vaccination but a ‘hot spot’ on his head was reported. Owner then questioned whether ‘injections could make him aggressive as by now he was growling at any stranger in the house if (they) stroked him on the head’.

The ‘hot spot’ was later clipped under sedation and corticosteroids were prescribed.

There was a mention on 29th Sept 2016 (following the assessment and receipt of my report) that ‘Kendal Shepherd mentioned to owner that hips and stifles should be x-rayed as aggression may be due to discomfort’.

Comments on Rottweiler breed

Historically, the breed came into existence as a droving dog, and as such was expected to be very tolerant of strangers in general but to react in a protective and potentially sudden manner (with no warning preamble) should they come into close proximity of the dog or perceived possessions. Such dogs are able to lull people into a false sense of security. The breed description as ‘good natured, not nervous or aggressive’ is at odds with the acceptance of ‘natural guarding instincts’. Dogs only have warning signals such as growling or threatened aggression with which to express their natural guarding instincts. Owners cannot be blamed for any misperception of this complimentary but behaviourally ambivalent description.

Comments on the assessment taken from my report

Tyson was exceptionally obedient to both his owner and his mother both in and out of the house and in the face of distractions such as traffic, cyclists, passers-by and other dogs.

He was a very vocal dog, growling habitually as befits his breed. His family were used to his vocalisations when playing and did not view them necessarily as a sign of warning or impending aggression. However, as shown during the assessment, he could also growl as a warning when he felt under threat.

I wrote in the report:

Tyson is a dog who does not tolerate intimate handling from a stranger, most specifically in a veterinary context. This is a not uncommon finding in dogs which historically have associated stranger handling with pain and discomfort. When held and restrained during the assessment, his defensive growling was more pronounced.

Over the last four years, Tyson has become progressively wary and potentially aggressive at the veterinary surgery. Unfortunately, owing to lack of awareness of the negative effects of veterinary handling, often associated with discomfort, this finding is all too common. He has suffered with vaccine reactions in the past as well as lameness which have necessitated close veterinary attention and restraint, accompanied by injections. He has growled on restraint and limb manipulation during a house call two years ago when he appeared to have difficulty standing up and was in pain. He can yelp if patted on the rump.

(In hindsight, one has to question the wisdom of administering steroids with their now well-known side effects, including aggression, to such a dog. Notari and Mills 2015)

It is unfortunately my experience that in the absence of expert advice, courts do not specify the kind of muzzle that should be worn to be both secure and humane in the event of a muzzling control order. A fabric muzzle if tight enough to prevent a bite, is inhumane in that a dog cannot pant or drink. His owner cannot be blamed for this. The basket type muzzle as now used ought to be recommended consistently.


Tyson wearing fabric muzzle, unable to pant.


Tyson wearing basket muzzle and able to pant.


Tyson being given food through basket muzzle.


I found no evidence that Tyson would bite unless physical contact and restraint were imposed on him. I was therefore more persuaded by the owner’s version of events, that the carer was likely to have tried to hug him, in spite of being told not to touch him, rather than the bite coming out of the blue.

Recommendations were that Tyson was to be kept away from visitors unable to follow instructions not to touch him. It was imperative that he was not allowed to accidentally escape from house again. I was of the opinion that, under the existing control measures and with a suitable muzzle, Tyson did not present a danger to public safety.


Further veterinary history for Tyson has recently been obtained. Around the time of the case coming to court (April 2017), radiography of his hips and stifles were again discussed but comment is made that, as by that time the bite incident had occurred nearly two years previously, ‘it would be difficult to say whether (the dog had been in) discomfort then’. By November 2017, Tyson still growled profusely on ‘limited’ examination but the possibility of medication was mentioned only ‘if hind limb gait worsens’. By December 2019, a dietary joint supplement was being given but had not helped a developing foreleg lameness. For the first time, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication was prescribed. There is no record of any radiographic investigation or diagnosis ever being carried out.

Much as it pains me to criticise veterinary colleagues, there are glaring omissions in Tyson’s history, when looked at as a whole. He was unable to stand and in pain in 2014 when growling on examination was first mentioned. X-rays of hips and stifles were recommended then but not followed up, neither was my own recommendation in 2016. Despite the assumption in 2017 that a cause of pain could not be diagnosed in retrospect, one could surely hazard a guess, with this history, that pain had been present throughout. It appears that the physical symptom of lameness was the only criterion by which Tyson’s discomfort was measured and aggression as a behavioural symptom discounted. This case highlights the necessity to consider pain even in the absence of lameness and investigate properly all dogs who become aggressive for the first time on examination of specific joints. This is even more important in breeds predisposed to orthopaedic conditions.

B    male long-haired German Shepherd called Beau

I assessed Beau twice – once when he was 17 months old and again at the age of 5 years. He had been taken into in the custody of the police on both occasions. His story illustrates several failures. The over-arching failure was of the legislation in preventing offending, in dogs in general and in the case of Beau specifically. When analysed, individual failures, almost all ‘crimes of omission’, could be identified on the part of:

a.the owner and her family.

b.those who ‘cared’ for him in police-contracted kennels.

c.Beau’s attending veterinary surgeons.

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Jun 21, 2021 | Posted by in GENERAL | Comments Off on Legal cases to demonstrate behavioural principles

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