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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, December 26, 2000

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Wendy Mah places a hand in Mocha's mouth to teach him that
biting hurts and how to be gentle. As Mocha applies
pressure, Mah yipes.


The new 'Dangerous Dog Bill'
encourages re-training
an aggressive pooch

Don't be afraid to take his bone away

By Stephanie Kendrick

THREE strikes and you're out.

It's true in baseball, it's true for felons, it was true for Sidney.

Sidney was a border collie owned by Wendy Middleton. By all accounts he was a smart, well-behaved puppy.

Wendy Mah, a certified animal behaviorist who taught the puppy classes where Middleton brought Sidney, said he was a star.

"The students would all ooh and ahh. They wanted their dogs to be just like him," she said.

Middleton, who was newly married but hadn't had children, put a lot of time into working with the nimble dog and was so excited about his potential, she set her sites on agility contests.

That's when the trouble started.

Mah's Sirius Puppy Training focuses on developing companion traits in dogs, not schooling them for competition. So Middleton enrolled Sidney in another school.

"The training was a whole different thing," said Middleton.

Dogs in the class were not allowed to interact. Punitive responses, such as suspending dogs by their choke collars, were used to correct undesirable behavior.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Mah uses treats to teach Mocha that its not threatening
to make eye contact with humans.

"He kind of got confused between the different kinds of training," said Middleton. And while she admits to having been uncomfortable with the methods in the new class, she saw it as the only way to reach a desirable goal.

But Sidney was unhappy.

"He was incredibly intelligent and he'd seen the two different ways and he started regressing," said Mah.

"Punishment didn't make sense to him.

"He got the idea that humans were unpredictable," she said.

"And then he got unpredictable." said Middleton

Obedience became a stress point. Every time Middleton would give a command, Sidney would turn his head away. And he became aggressive. The Middletons, who now had twin baby boys, were sued when Sidney took off after another dog and that dog's owner got bit pulling the animals apart.

Sidney bit both Middleton and her husband.

Middleton had taken Sidney back to Mah for some retraining, which appeared to be helping, but when Mah was away on a trip Sidney bit Middleton's brother.

Middleton no longer felt she could take the chance that Sidney would get better before hurting her sons.

"I didn't have to put him to sleep. I made the choice to put him to sleep," she said. "It was really, really hard. It was a family dog, it was like our child."

Middleton now works for Mah. She said she wouldn't make the same decision now, nor would she make the decisions that led to it.

Mah said aggressive behavior in dogs typically can be curbed through proper training of owner and pet.

"There is a small percentage of dogs that bite because they truly have that temperament, but those are few and far between.

"Ninety-five percent of dogs put to sleep are very good, very sweet dogs and they're losing their life over a very small portion of the day," she said.

But it only takes a moment for a dog to do damage to another animal or a person. And penalties approved by the Honolulu City Council earlier this month raise the stakes for owners who are careless about aggressive behavior in their pets.

The "dangerous dog bill" allows for penalties of up to $2,000 and 30 days in jail for owners of dogs deemed dangerous because they attack without provocation. Existing state laws allow a $20 fine.

The new law distinguishes between provoked and unprovoked aggression, and encourages training, not destroying animals, according to Pam Burns, president Hawaiian Humane Society.

"We're wanting to really make sure that it's fair," she said. "I sure hope it doesn't encourage people to do something rash ... we want them to take responsibility."

Taking responsibility ideally starts with puppy training and socialization, according to veterinarian Eric Ako of The Pet Doctor.

"We spend a lot of time with preventive medicine these days. From the moment a puppy or a cat comes into our practice we are talking about education," he said.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Passers-by eye Mocha with trainer Wendy Mah.
Is that dog safe to pet?

"We love to have well-trained patients, rather than patients who want to take our body parts."

Mah agreed puppy training is key and is often surprised by owners who underestimate its value.

"I meet up with (puppy-school clients) in four or five years and they'll say, 'Boy he turned out to be such a great dog, we're so lucky.' Like they didn't have anything to do with it," she said.

Ako also recommends early neutering as a means to prevent behavior problems.

Veterinarian Pauline Korieyasu of the Kapalama Pet Hospital said research on the effectiveness of neutering to address behavior problems is lacking, but anecdotal evidence suggests it makes sense.

If nothing else, neutering changes the way other dogs approach the dog, said Mah. A neutered male will be courted like a female, rather than challenged as a rival, she said, therefore eliminating some stressful situations.

Neutered or not, dogs go through a period of adolescence, which means retraining and more socialization, said Mah.

When training and socializing adult dogs, it is important to know their limits, said Mah.

A 1-year-old that lunges for other dogs should not be taken to the bark park and allowed to run off his leash, but isolating the dog will only exacerbate the problem. It takes a dedicated owner to guide an aggressive adult dog toward socialization, she said.

Training out aggression takes anywhere from a couple of months to years, said Mah, depending on the problem and the time the owner is willing to devote to training.

One client came in with two adult female shepherds. The dogs had been best friends until going through quarantine in separate cages. They came out hating the sight of each other.

The owner was committed to working through it and the process took a year, but now the dogs curl up in the same traveling kennel and sleep together.

It takes about six session just to reeducate owners, said Mah.

Perceptions about certain breeds being more dangerous than others are both faulty and dangerous, according to veterinarian Korieyasu.

On the one hand, a friendly gesture from a pit bull can be perceived as aggression. On the other, a child might have no qualms about approaching a poodle, which is as likely to be violent.

"A vicious golden retriever is very dangerous, because it's unexpected," she said.

Mah said statistics that portray one breed as more aggressive than another reflect training and the motivations of the owners, not genetics.

"The practicing veterinarian gets bitten more often by a Chihuahua than a Rottweiler. They're really fast," said veterinarian Ako.

"There are some breeds that if not properly trained tend to fall more into an aggressive mode," he said, adding, "a properly cared for dog is going to be a well-behaved dog."

Wendy Middleton, who now owns a collie she uses as a hospital therapy dog, said her heart goes out to people who call Sirius Puppy Training because they are having trouble with aggression in their dogs.

"I feel for them because I put myself in their position," she said. "Things can be prevented."

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
As part of Mocha's training, Mah gently pulls on the dog's tail
so he won't be threatened by a child who might do the same.

Don’t be afraid to
take his bone away

By Stephanie Kendrick

Specialists differ on the proper way to train a dog away from aggressive behavior.

One method is to gently, but firmly, dominate the dog; to communicate the animal's place at the bottom of the hierarchy.

Specific techniques include: Turning the dog on his back and holding him down, staring directly into his face. That puts the dog in a submissive position.

Taking food and treats from a dog starting at an early age will establish that right. "A person should not be afraid to take a bone away from their dog," said veterinarian Eric Ako.

Animal behaviorist Wendy Mah believes domination training is flawed. It may establish a safe relationship for the primary trainer, she said, but the dog may not see others, particularly children, as members of the same level of hierarchy. Mah prefers to modify a dog's behavior through a reward-based system that dispenses treats for desirable behavior.

Specific techniques include: teaching direct eye contact, which is impolite among dogs, but expected by people, by holding treats in front of her eyes and drawing them toward the puppy's face. This keeps direct looks from people from becoming a stress point.

Tugs on fur, ears, tails, etc., also are rewarded with treats so that kind of play, especially from children, is not a threat.

Car trips should sometimes result in a fun experience, so the dog doesn't think "vet" every time he's taken for a ride.

Mah also counsels dog owners to watch for stress signs dogs give well before they are going to bite.

Watch energy levels and calm a dog that is getting over-excited. To diffuse a stressful situation, dogs will turn their heads at an oblique angle to the point of stress, yawn or turn their back to the source of stress.

Owners shouldn't scold a dog who is stressed or excited, but bring the dog away from the stress and calm him, she said. "Just like a child who is getting revved up," she said, "that scolding stresses the dog out.

"If the dog's hackles are raised, if the teeth are bared, if they're stiff, then it's too late already," she said. "Most people will wait and punish after the behavior."

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