This is not strictly speaking a legal case which came to court but involved legal requirements. It is an illustration of how unrealistic expectations are made of dogs. What happens when the requirements of society are in conflict with that of the owner and a dog’s breed-related behaviour? How can we reconcile them?
A 3½-year-old entire male German Shepherd dog named ‘Reece’ was owned by a traveller family residing at the time in Fakenham Temporary Stopping Place, A148, Holt Road, Fakenham Norfolk (permission granted for all details to be published).
I was asked by the Equality and Diversity Manager at Community and Environmental Services, Norfolk County Council, to assess Reece as regards his behaviour, the training and management protocols the owner had in place and, consequently, any risk he may or may not pose to the general public. This was in light of an up and coming move to the more permanent traveller site of The Splashes, Castle Acre Road, Swaffham where his owner very much hoped to be able to stay with Reece and her extended family. It seemed as if concerns regarding the behaviour of Reece expressed by council workers and the risk he might pose would preclude this move.
The following information was given in the pre-assessment questionnaire:
Reece had been obtained in March 2018 from a family who had used him as a protection dog for a collection of vintage vehicles. His history before then, or means of upbringing, was not known but I was led to believe that he had never been an indoor dog or considered to be a pet.
Reece was registered for veterinary treatment at a Veterinary Centre in Saxilby, Lincoln. Re-registration at a new surgery was planned if and when permission was granted for the hoped-for move to Swaffham.
Reece had had one-to-one training sessions with a trainer who had advised restraining Reece on a choke chain and using coercive methods. Video footage of certain such training sessions had been supplied to me.
Reece was considered to be a playful and obedient dog who was tolerant of all people of any age or sex as long as they were known to him. He lived routinely with several other small dogs, a cat and several birds to which he had never shown any aggression. He was therefore able to be left free to roam within the enclosed Stopping Place unless anyone he did not know was expected.
He was known to bark vigorously at anyone he did not know when chained at the gate and ‘on duty’. This was what was required of him as a protective deterrent, when he was considered by the family to be ‘working’.
Reece was never routinely taken inside any trailer or caravan and had a kennel with bedding when chained outside close to the entrance gate. Although not yet erected on this site, owing to its supposedly temporary nature, and stored elsewhere, his alternative accommodation was a standard roofed secure kennel unit, incorporating both sleeping and run areas. If it were exceptionally cold, as it was on the day of my assessment, he was allowed into and contained in a horsebox.
When taken out in town, Reece was always kept on lead and might wear a muzzle, if in close proximity to people. This was to ward off those who might have the desire to approach and pet him (as people unfortunately and ill-advisedly might have the tendency to do to a handsome dog) as much as to ameliorate risk.
When walked in fields and woods outside the enclosure, Reece was routinely walked on a horse lunge line so that he could be given more freedom. Although people were rarely encountered, he showed no apprehension of or untoward behaviour towards anyone he did meet.
There was no record of any untoward incident involving this dog since in the possession of his owner.
I visited the Stopping Place in Fakenham in January 2019. Rod and I were accompanied by a country-wide Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Liaison Officer who was extremely helpful in facilitating introductions owing to the family’s understandable mistrust of outside interference and the prospect of video recording. They were assured that the recording would not include any vehicle registration numbers, nor of anyone, including children, without their expressed permission.
Upon our arrival, Reece was secured in a horsebox, as was the routine in any event, owing to the subzero temperatures. I spent some time gathering more information about Reece, his management and training and acquainting myself with the family. Present were Ryalla Duffy, Brittania, Verity, Eliza and Absolom (all adult), as well as others of the extended family, at various times.
After some 30 minutes, I asked Ryalla to bring Reece out of the horsebox so that we could first observe and then meet him. There were a number of other small dogs, restrained on a tether or in cages, who barked continuously while we were there. She walked him around first of all on a training lead, then a lunge line, attached to a thin rope check collar, keeping him under tight restraint. She demonstrated how he would sit by her side.
He was first of all unperturbed by our presence but soon became alarmed by the sight of Rod with the video camera and began to bark at him. He also barked at Absolom, standing next to us, who, although familiar to him, was, I was told, wearing an unaccustomed coat. Of necessity some of the earlier parts of the filming were taken by zooming in from a distance.
He continued to bark at me as I approached him and Ryalla, although with wagging tail which showed emotional conflict. Ryalla then had more difficulty in making him sit and he would not take thrown food titbits from me owing to his aroused emotional state. He was also still barking at Absolom, who had no fear in walking up to Reece to pet him. If allowed more freedom on the lunge line, he continued to bark but voluntarily followed Ryalla as she moved away. He continued to bark at me even when I was sitting down to reduce perceived threat.
I had asked on arrival if any children were present on the site and if any of them would be happy to interact with Reece. A 10-year-old girl called Star volunteered. She watched Reece barking to begin with but a short while later showed no hesitation in approaching him.
Absolom then took charge of the lunge line, as he frequently walked Reece. Reece pulled towards Ryalla but was restrained and made to sit easily by him. Reece remained calmly sitting even with me in his close vicinity. I asked Ryalla to approach Reece and give him a piece of food, which he then ate, indicating that he was becoming more relaxed. Ryalla then put Reece back on the training lead. I asked her to attach it to the half-check collar already around his neck, rather than the rope choke collar and to try to be as relaxed as possible with him. Reece then performed a calm ‘sit-stay’ without barking. I concluded that the more freedom he was given, the less reason Reece had to feel defensive.
Ryalla then walked him round in front of Rod, so he was filming at close quarters. There was no barking. He was asked to sit easily and took food thrown by me towards him as a reward for sitting. He remained calm with gently wagging tail, until he got rather too close to me and then began barking again. He was easily led away by Ryalla.
A few moments were then spent walking Reece around and intermittently asking him to sit. I explained that obedience exercises act as emotional stabilisers, in that the part of the brain involved in ‘obeying’, (thinking about what had to be done and doing it) counteracted the reactive ‘fight or flight’ side when no guidance was given. As I was explaining this, Reece stood and sat calmly and eventually rolled over on his side to allow both Ryalla and Absolom to tickle his tummy. Absolom showed clearly how he could put his hand between Reece’s teeth without being bitten.
We then walked out of the enclosure along a path towards neighbouring fields. Although alerting to me, Reece allowed me to walk past him on the path without barking and to walk alongside him. After a few moments, I asked Ryalla again to put him in a ‘sit’. He then moved slightly towards me, and Ryalla, as she had done before, restrained him and told him to sit. I then asked her to relax and let him come to me. He simply took food gently from my hand.
We entered a field with horses belonging to the Duffy family. Reece was completely calm with no untoward reaction. Several times I asked Reece to come to me and to sit. He was thoroughly compliant and allowed me to stroke and fondle his head. No barking or aggression was shown. He also obeyed a ‘lie down’ command from me. As he was a little demanding, pawing at me for food, I demonstrated how to teach him he would get food only by being patient. Showing him a closed fist containing food, I only opened it when he pulled his head back or turned his head away from my hand. Thereafter I could still fondle his head and scratch all along his back with no reaction.
Shortly thereafter, Reece began barking, not in the direction of Rod and the camera but at Absolom who had appeared on the path. Star also came towards us and Ryalla handed her the lead to walk Reece, as she had done before. Even while Reece was barking, Star had no apprehension about petting and stroking Reece on the head.
On our return to the enclosed site, Reece was more alert to the barking around him but showed no wariness at being followed by the camera or when walking closely by my side. He sat both voluntarily and, when told, took food and allowed me to pet and stroke him as before.
We then spent some time discussing muzzle training. As I intended to examine him as a vet might and despite the progress he had shown with me as a ‘normal’ person, there was no guarantee this view would extend into the veterinary context. I therefore needed to muzzle him for safety reasons. I demonstrated a basket-type muzzle and showed how to associate wearing it with the delivery of food. Reece showed no objection to the muzzle being placed and continued to take food through the mesh.
I then scanned him for the presence of a microchip. Reece continued to allow me to fondle his head and ears while I was doing this and he remained calm throughout.
I then picked up a stethoscope in order to listen to his heart and lungs. In a response which took both Ryalla and me by surprise, he very suddenly reverted to his lunging and barking behaviour in my direction. Once I had put the stethoscope down out of sight, he tolerated my giving him food through the muzzle, but resumed barking shortly afterwards. This reaction, surprising as it was to begin with, was thoroughly explained by his previous veterinary experience, described below.
Reece was then walked around to allow him to relax, and he conveniently demonstrated how a dog is still able to drink (and of course pant) in such a muzzle by lapping up water from a puddle. I took the lead to walk him and he allowed me to pet him and massage his neck as he had before. He sat voluntarily by my side to be stroked and then lay down on his side as he had before in a completely relaxed manner.
Finally, Reece was put back on his chain, some 15 yards in length, at the gate. He immediately reverted to ‘on guard’ duty and ran to and fro, barking indiscriminately.