Training dog owners in proper behavior


A vicious dog should be euthanized.

It doesn't matter that such animals are often the result of poor breeding and ignorant or willfully cruel treatment. When a dog without provocation attacks people or other pets, it should be killed. No neutering, no muzzling, no confinement. No second chances.

That said, I believe it's wrong to condemn a breed of dog because a few of its members are dangerous, and I am saddened by the news that the British have done precisely that.

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister John Major declared an immediate ban on the importation of American pit bull terriers and other breeds developed for fighting. He urged the quick adoption of a law that would mandate the destruction of most of the 10,000 such animals in the country. Days later, Ireland followed suit.

The actions were in response to a horrifying attack on a 6-year-old girl. According to reports, four men fought for 30 minutes to pry the child from the jaws of a pit bull.

If I thought a ban on pit bulls would prevent serious dog attacks, I would be championing it. But it won't. Many -- if not most -- dogs are physically capable of seriously injuring a person, especially a child. But only the tiniest percentage of all dogs ever will, and that group includes many breeds and mixes.

Instead of banning breeds -- and, as has been talked about in this country, breeding -- we need to rethink the way we regulate dogs. Not only must we toughen our response to individual dogs that are vicious, we must also make all dog owners more aware of their responsibilities.

Keeping a dog is a privilege, and it's time dog owners started

earning it. We should start educating, testing

and licensing dog owners.

Not dogs. Their owners.

Such a program would go a long way toward solving our two biggest dog problems: viciousness and overpopulation. And it will have an impact on a lot of the annoyances, such as chronic barkers and dog-walkers who don't pick up after their pets.

That's because, despite an abundance of accurate and readily available information on dogs, most people remain ignorant of even the most basic guidelines for choosing and caring for a dog.

How many people know you're asking for trouble if you bring home a puppy younger than 7 weeks? That socialization is crucial to raising a puppy? That "tug-of-war" games foster aggression? That spaying and neutering greatly reduce the risk of cancer and help eliminate behavior problems, including male aggression?

Judging from the problems our society has with dogs, the answer is obvious: too few.

But what if people were made to learn these things before they got a dog? Required to show that their dogs have been vaccinated against rabies and pay an individual fee for each dog -- which would be waived for well-mannered pets that had been spayed or neutered?

And what if we required dog owners to learn even more -- and pay for a higher class of permit -- before being allowed to breed a litter (and only if they could show their dogs to be temperamentally sound and certified free of genetic defects, such as hip dysplasia)?

An educated dog owner would be more likely to recognize that a puppy's cute little growl when someone nears the food dish is a serious problem that must be immediately addressed. More likely to understand that aggression never goes away by itself, and often gets worse. More likely to understand that "just one litter" can translate to hundreds of puppies that won't find homes, especially if those owners were going to have to pay more -- for a permit or a big fine -- to help offset the extra costs of animal control should they end up with puppies anyway.

By treating the disease -- uneducated, uncaring and occasionally cruel owners -- instead of the symptoms -- poorly bred, incorrectly raised and occasionally vicious dogs -- we could finally start solving problems.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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