Monday, March 4

Potentially dangerous dogs: a matter of breed or education?

New research indicates that there are no dog breeds that are more or less violent by nature. The responsibility of the owners would make the difference

Alvaro Olivares Moreno

“A 14-month-old baby was seriously injured after a dog of a potentially dangerous breed bit him on the head,” headlined a Spanish newspaper a few weeks ago. The information is shocking, and makes us reflect on whether there is a real relationship between race and the appearance of violent behavior in dogs.

Aggression is the most important canine behavior problem in terms of frequency and consequences. Although only a small percentage of dog attacks on people are fatal, the consequences of injuries, treatment costs and the impact on public opinion mean that these events are considered a relevant public health problem.

On the other hand, it is the behavior problem that most frequently results in the abandonment of the animal, with the ethical implications that it entails.

small but aggressive

When studying the level of aggressiveness depending on the breed, four main approaches have been used: the analysis of the statistics of aggressions against humans, the cases reported by behavior clinics, the opinions of experts –such as veterinarians and dog educators– and behavioral test results.

The main drawback of these traditional methods is that many of the reported cases correspond to larger breeds, due to the seriousness of the injuries they cause. The bite of a Chihuahua dog is not comparable to that of an American Staffordshire Terrier.

A Chihuahua (left) and an American Staffordshire Terrier (right).

This means that aggressiveness is underestimated in smaller specimens. Precisely, a study published in the journal Nature, carried out by researchers from the University of Helsinki, revealed that individuals of small races present more problems of violent behavior than larger ones.

We all have the image in our heads: a puppy faces a much larger congener, with the consequent scandal, while the owner of the second tries to appease him to avoid confrontation.

According to the aforementioned research, the explanation would be that small breed specimens tend to receive different treatment: they go to the dog trainer less, are overprotected by their owners and tend to be more fearful. Therefore, it is the environment, through learning, that shapes their behavior. But, really, what is the weight of genetics and the environment in canine behavior?

Only 9% of behavioral variation is explained by race

A study published last April in the journal Science concluded that while most behavioral traits are inherited (heritability greater than 25%), race has little predictive value for behavior. It only explains 9% of its variation.

After sequencing the DNA of more than 2,000 specimens, researchers have observed that certain genes favor the appearance of certain behaviors, but genetic selection has been much earlier, evolutionarily speaking, than the appearance of current breeds.

Thus, experts have found in the canine genome 11 regions clearly associated with behavior –frequency of howling, socialization with humans…– and another 136 suggestive, while the areas of DNA associated with the aesthetics of the animal (coat, external morphology , etc.) are clearly different between breeds as a consequence of artificial selection.

The authors propose that behaviors perceived as characteristic of dogs stem from thousands of years of adaptation. This means that modern breeds differ primarily in aesthetic traits, not behavior.

Given these objective findings, based on genomic techniques, is there room for a potentially dangerous dog law that excludes animals based on their breed?

New legislation promotes responsible ownership

The problem of canine violence also affects the political sphere, and several countries around the world have regulated dog ownership in order to limit and prevent episodes of aggression.

In this sense, two types of regulations have been developed. The first modality, called breed-specific legislation, usually prohibits the breeding and possession of certain breeds or types of dogs categorized as “dangerous” or “aggressive”. For its part, non-breed-specific legislation includes regulatory measures to promote responsible ownership, regardless of race.

In Spain, for example, we are experiencing a moment of transition. Royal Decree 287/2002, which establishes a list of potentially dangerous dogs, is still in force. The law establishes the requirements to obtain the licenses that allow you to own one of these animals, as well as to set minimum security measures.

However, the approval of the preliminary draft Law on animal protection and animal rights on February 18 opened a new horizon. The new regulation clearly eliminates the allusion to potentially dangerous breeds and focuses mainly on responsible ownership and the importance of training in canine education.

We can conclude that, more than potentially dangerous breeds, there are potentially dangerous environments that condition the behavior of dogs. The owner must not only know the physical needs of the animal, but also the emotional ones.

This article has been published in ‘The Conversation‘.

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