Matt, who has been in the training programme for a year, manoeuvres through the set-up designed to improve the confidence of the dog and the handler. Picture: Puri Devjee
Matt, who has been in the training programme for a year, manoeuvres through the set-up designed to improve the confidence of the dog and the handler. Picture: Puri Devjee
Matt, to remain safe from poisoning by would-be home invaders, has been trained to accept food from nobody but his handlers. Picture: Puri Devjee
Matt, to remain safe from poisoning by would-be home invaders, has been trained to accept food from nobody but his handlers. Picture: Puri Devjee

Durban - If you want security, get yourself an electric fence rather than a dog.

Animal behaviourist Dr Quixi Sonntag of the University of Pretoria, who lectures in behaviour, handling, welfare and nutrition of dogs and cats, says dogs evolved to be part of the human family.

“As animal caretakers, we should place their interests above our security needs. If your dog does protect you, great, but if you want security, get electric fencing, alarms (and) human guards…”

She said people generally wanted guard dogs to help with dealing with crime.

“Whether it is an increasing trend though is difficult to say. Breeds such as boerboels, rottweilers, German shepherds (are normally wanted). They are big and scary-looking.”

Sonntag said in many instances these breeds were only acquired with the aim of guarding property.

“Their physical and mental needs are often overlooked and they suffer as a result. Many security dogs are in a bad shape because they do not get adequate social stimulation with humans, opportunity to play or space to exercise in an enriched environment. They are also often not trained at all, yet there are very high expectations of them, or they are trained by unqualified people who use unacceptably cruel training methods.”

Criminals, she added, targeted any dog perceived to be a threat to them and these were usually the big guard dogs that stayed outside all the time.

“People should let their dogs sleep inside as they are much safer there and can warn of impending danger much more effectively.”

Sonntag said another aspect of security dogs was that they were usually left outside, and hardly ever had contact with people (only when they are expected to attack them) and were fed from automatic dog feeders, hence reducing the possibility of any positive contact with humans which is one of their biggest needs.

She said dogs often naturally protected their owners and the owner’s property because territorial behaviour was part of their normal, instinctive behaviour (without any training).

“This should be seen as a bonus and should not be an expectation. It is unfair to blame the dog for a crime just because the dog did not attempt to or succeed in chasing off criminals. It is unrealistic to expect any dog to distinguish between a criminal and a welcome visitor.”

She said dogs that were teased to make them aggressive (a common practice) would definitely bite people indiscriminately and could not be blamed if they then mauled a child or family member.

“Forcing a dog to show aggression is a form of animal abuse. Dogs need regular, pleasant interaction with humans. They need to live in a stimulating environment where they have choices and are able to express their normal behaviours,” she said.

Sonntag said dogs had a right not to be harmed and should never be hurt purposely, either physically or emotionally.

“Dogs can be trained extremely well using only positive reinforcement (a reward system) and do not require punishment to learn what is expected of them. Good behaviour for dogs can be taught with positive reinforcement only.”

Chief Inspector at the Animal Anti Cruelty League, Rulof Jackson, said dogs with the singular purpose of guarding would always be treated differently to other family pets.

“(There will be) less affection and realising their dog is sick takes longer because of limited interaction. A lot of the dogs that get socially deprived tend to be more aggressive, even to the people that live on the same property as them.”

People, he said, might see this animal as a “good” guard dog but this dog would have “very little loyalty” to the family and might even pose a threat to them.

“Protection of one’s family and property by a dog comes as a return on investment. What you put in is what you get out, as long as a dog is not part of your family why should he protect you?”

Barbara Patrick, manager of the Kloof and Highway SPCA, said like the Animal Anti Cruelty League, it was not their policy to home any of their dogs as “security” or “guard dogs”.

“All animals homed by our SPCA are only homed as family pets, and it is our belief that if your pet is loved, cared for and part of your family, its natural instinct will be to protect and alert its family to any perceived threats or intruders,” she said, echoing Sonntag’s sentiments.

She said to have dogs indoors at night would help ensure the homeowner was alerted without their pets life being endangered by possible poisoning or shooting.

Neeri Naidoo of Phoenix Animal Care and Treatment said the organisation which helps rehabilitate and re-home neglected animals, received at least one call a day requesting a “guard dog”.

“People sometimes call us and request a ‘vicious dog’ which we immediately turn down and try to teach people that an aggressive dog is not the answer. They may have certain triggers and we don’t want them turning on a family.”

Naidoo said many people who wanted security dogs did not even have an alarm system.

“The dog does not become ‘part’ of the security system, but rather becomes the system.

“I have found that sometimes, people get bigger dogs and ensure that they are chained to make them more aggressive and alert.

“I really don’t know how this can assist them when their home is being burgled as the dog cannot reach the intruder. It is also easier to poison a chained dog so that they cannot alert the family.”

Grant Smith, director of training at dog obedience and training school, The Smart Dog based in Morningside, said they tended to stay away from the terms “protection dogs” or “guard dogs” because of the negative image associated with them.

“My philosophy is to change that image… We have renamed our course to character building and focus on building up the dog’s personality to be able to handle various stress levels in a real life situation,” said Smith, who has more than 20 years’ training experience.

The school, he said, covered basic obedience including commands such as heel and stay.

They are also taught what to do in the event of a fire or shooting.

“(Dogs are taught) food refusal; how to deal with distractions (noises, shouting, swearing, two people fighting, person pushing a pram, a homeless person begging, aggressive drunk person), all with no response from the dog.”

Food refusal in particular, said Smith, stemmed from the desire of owners to protect their animals from being poisoned by would-be burglars.

“They can also be taught to only eat from their bowls. We start with treats, then use other food items such as chops and even boerewors rolls because we don’t know what the dog will be offered.”

He explained that a similar technique was employed in the training of “drug dogs”, where food was placed all over the search area to strengthen the dog’s ability to work through powerful distractions.

Smith continued: “Generally people have a mix of large and small breed dogs at home. The smaller dogs are the earlier warning system, with the larger dogs responding to the noise and attention. It is known out there that homes with large breed dogs are targeted less.”

Smith said there was a big difference between pet dogs and trained dogs.

“People tend to spend more time training trained dogs and also spend more money on leads, collars and equipment.”

The handlers, he said, enjoyed spending time working their dogs and seeing the improvement week to week.

“I would like to believe that any animal that is brought into the home will be treated with love and compassion.

“The owner has to have a relationship with the dog, to be able to interact with the animal or the dog to protect its home. That means feeding, giving water and spending time with the animal in training.”

Smith and Sonntag, offer some tips on training dogs.

* All training should be positive and fun, no matter what the class or level of the dog. One of the vital things in training your dog is motivation, using treats, toys or voice.

* You should be using the correct equipment that is humane to the dog and what is required for your dog. The trainer must be able to adjust his training methods to suit what your dog requires. Training takes time and patience, but the rewards are phenomenal. Dog training has changed enormously in recent years, and is based more on positive reinforcement rather than force.

* Training is mainly about educating and giving the owners the correct tools and understanding to use in the most humane and compassionate manner, and allowing the owners to understand their dog and form an even closer bond.

* If employing the use of a training school, make sure the trainer who takes the class is trained. Have a relationship with your trainer. Go and visit the class before signing up.

* Reward what you want and ignore what you don’t, because most people tend to unintentionally reward unwanted behaviour simply by responding to it (the dog may see any attention as pleasant and thus reinforcing). The timing of rewards is crucial (it has to happen the very instant the good behaviour occurs, not even 10 seconds later).

 

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