|Painting by Stephen Brehm.|
Calls for stronger regulation of dog ownership began in earnest at a New Hope Borough Council meeting in August 2015, where Riverwoods residents Keith and Denice Horlacher recounted the horror of seeing their pet Maltese killed by a large off-leash dog some two weeks earlier.
Since that time, borough council and their lawyer have worked on a set of new rules to more specifically govern dog ownership in New Hope, with eye toward avoiding future incidents involving “dangerous” dogs.
Many rules contained in the law mirror those of the state, like those mandating licensing, vaccination, and avoiding inhumane conditions. But while few question the intent of the proposed law, some elements are being quietly debated among pet owners and other residents, like those permitting individuals to confront dogs with deadly force if they feel threatened, and prohibiting use of electric fences, extension leashes, and tethering of any type.
One area of the proposed law that appears to be breaking new legal and animal behavior ground is the section entitled, “Responsible Dog Ownership; Socialization of Dogs.”
That section begins, “It is the duty of every owner to socialize his or her dog to ensure that the dog has the proper mental and social development, during all stages of the dog’s life. Proper dog socialization means exposure to the world the dog will be a part of in a safe manner with rules and guidelines, learning to be calm when the outside world is stimulating, and learning to respond to signals when that is what the dog does not want to do.”
The section goes on to say that New Hope residents cannot buy or adopt dogs over the age of six months “without first securing information as to the dog’s level of socialization…from a certified applied animal behaviorist, a board-certified veterinarian or other trained and experienced animal behavior expert.”
Should a given dog prove “not properly socialized” or its “level of socialization cannot be determined,” the proposed law requires owners to spay/neuter and microchip their pet, and possibly pay for the animal to undergo training with a behaviorist, vet or other professional and muzzle the dog in public.
So, what do the experts tasked by New Hope Borough Council with determining and modifying levels of canine “socialization” think of the borough’s attempt to define and regulate dog behavior?
“It is hard not to find elements of the proposed law contentious or downright ridiculous,” said Wendy J. Whitelam, BS, CPCT-KA, ABC-L2, CGC Evaluator, and ABC Mentor at the Pet Campus in Pineville.
“The death of [the Horlacher’s pet] Sobe was horrible and very tragic,” she said. “Unfortunately, those involved have overreacted beyond rational thought or any true understanding of dogs and their behavior. Dogs are animals, and not little people. They are loved as family members, and provide an addicting unconditional love that helps skew our vision of their animal nature.
“The most significant topic about anything ‘dog’ is attempting to guarantee behavior,” Whitelam continued. “You’d have to be God to attest to future animal behavior. Sadly, there are plenty of puppies who have been to puppy class and been raised by well-meaning owners who did all the right things, and yet the dogs have bitten or have had aggression issues as adults. There are plenty of other dogs who were totally neglected as puppies, and given no opportunities to socialize, and they were adopted by caring humans who uncovered a super social, kind, fabulous pet.
“Genetics, diet, training methods, base temperament, medications, hormones, and illness are all factors that affect behavior,” explained Whitelam. “Given all that, it would be difficult to adopt an adult dog with any type of assurance that the dog had been well-socialized. Puppies that end up in pet stores are born in small cages on wire mesh, barely see humans until they are removed from their mother much too soon for appropriate social development, shipped to a store where they are again in cages with little to no human contact. How would anyone attest to that puppy being well-socialized?”
Added Whitelam, “The topic of socialization itself is frequently misunderstood by most dog owners. Just getting the puppy/new dog out in the world is not socializing. Socializing a dog requires that new experiences be positive and rewarding. It only takes one negative experience for a new puppy to develop a lasting fear.”
Nikki Thompson, chief humane officer at the Bucks County SPCA, said that every dog there is evaluated for temperament, but agreed that, “There is no one recognized method of evaluating a dog.”
Observed Thompson of New Hope’s proposed law, “The intent seems good with what they’re trying to do with socialization, but it would be difficult to enforce. What a dog does in different situations is always unpredictable. They may behave well at the vet’s, and then you go home and have an issue.
“I’ve been in animal control for many years,” continued Thompson, “And I could not be 100% certain a given dog is 100% socialized.”
In terms of the potential effect on adoption efforts that requiring dog owners to obtain proof of socialization could have, “We don’t know yet,” said Thompson.
Lambertville Animal Welfare Co-Founder Heather Edwards is an expert dog trainer, and she is concerned that requiring adopted dogs to come with a socialization report will have a chilling effect on efforts by rescue groups and shelters.
“What are the measurable and observable behaviors of the dog which would allow you to determine its level of socialization?” she asked. “The American Kennel Club has a ‘Canine Good Citizen’ test to show that a pet dog is well-behaved and has basic training. The dog must meet specific criteria for components such as accepting a friendly stranger, walking through a crowd, and meeting other dogs. Without some very specific guidelines like those, it’s not clear what criteria will be applied to determine if a dog has been ‘properly socialized’.
“These criteria are WAY more stringent than those that might just be intended to determine if a dog may pose a danger to people or other animals,” Edwards continued.
“Rescue groups and shelters will not be able to write a report on the dog’s level of socialization and make recommendations for socializing the dog,” she said. “Most rescue workers are volunteers, and few rescue and shelter staff are expert dog trainers. The expense of having an expert assess each dog would be completely unaffordable and impractical for most groups.”
And that’s not all, according to Edwards. “Because almost all adopted or purchased dogs will not come with the required proof of socialization, effectively all dogs will be required to be spayed/neutered and microchipped, and muzzled or trained. The vast majority of these dogs will be lovely family pets posing no danger to anyone,” she said.
“It seems like they really need to think this through better and decide what specific behavior they are really trying to address,” concluded Edwards.
John Marcus, VMD at New Hope Veterinary Hospital and Evercare Veterinary Crematory Services, commented, “After much thought, I agree that encouraging and advocating ‘responsible dog ownership’ is important to our community. That being said, however, I believe it is critical that common sense be the guiding factor here, and for all New Hope residents to recognize the simple fact that dogs are animals, and thus, about as predictable as the weather.
“In fact, 50% of animals entering animal shelters across our country are being killed for no reason other than a lack of space, and I am proud to live in a community that up until now, has always felt progressive about animal adoption and fostering,” continued Marcus. “Dissuading people from fostering and/or adopting will only result in people acquiring pets from other sources, namely pet stores and puppy mills. Evaluations performed at shelters/rescues are limited, often by uneducated staff, and represent a snapshot of a dog’s behavior in a highly stressful environment.
“In other words, they are practically meaningless and certainly don’t guarantee the ‘proper mental and social development’ of any dog, regardless of who signs off on it,” Marcus added. “Furthermore, to say that no person shall take or accept a dog that is over the age of six months is completely arbitrary as, in my experience, most dogs don’t develop their personalities until much later in life.”
Concluded Marcus, “Please understand that I feel terrible for the family who experienced the traumatic event with their beloved pet last year. It is heartbreaking, but I don’t believe the answer to preventing something like that from happening again is ambiguous legislation and ticketing. How about some community programs or resources geared towards education?”
Whitelam agreed. “Educating dog owners and creating opportunities for them to get help with a loved family pet seems to me a whole lot more humane and sensible,” she said.