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Dog Awareness

The Rehabilitation into Society of a Dangerous Dog

1. Introduction
In recent years there has been an ever increasing number of reported incidents in Australia and overseas, of dogs biting members of the general public. These incidents have subsequently resulted in the dogs being either put down or declared dangerous. No information is to hand about the subsequent lives of those dogs that have been declared dangerous and whether any attempt has been made to reintegrate them into society. 

This article describes one such recent case, involving a large seven year old male German Shepherd that was and remains an active member of the German Shepherd Dog Club of Victoria (GSDCV). After biting a member of the general public in April 2000 and being declared a Dangerous Dog, he was subsequently rehabilitated into society and went on to gain his Tracking Dog title at the age of nine and a half. 

2. Background information
Both the dog and owner had completed the GSDCV programme of obedience and agility training from puppy-hood with the primary objective of ensuring that the dog was well socialised and became a responsible member of the community. The owner had no desire to compete in either show or obedience competitions on a regular basis. 

Having completed the GSDCV training programme there appeared to be limited formal options as of the mid-1990’s to pursue other constructive outlets for the dog’s energies. While the dog enthusiastically participated in agility activity at the club level, the sport was then not set up on the professional basis that it is today. The dog therefore expanded his energies either running or swimming with the owner and his family, and maintained regular contact with the GSDCV through socialising with other German Shepherd dogs immediately prior to the regular weekly obedience training classes. 

To ensure that the dog was responsive to the commands of both the owner and his wife while walking among the general public, they shared the responsibility of exercising him. Indeed, the dog was exercised at least three times a month on the streets of Central Melbourne to ensure that he was comfortable walking in crowded environments.

The dog included German bloodlines and a past Australian Champion in his pedigree.

The dog was an integral part of the owner's family and has completed the GSDCV programme of obedience and agility training to ensure that he was well socialised and became a responsible member of the community.

3. The incident
While the dog was being walked through a neighbourhood shopping centre in April 2000 on one of their regular exercise routes, a member of the general public vaguely known to owner attempted to pass them in the opposite direction at a particularly confined section of the footpath. The net effect was that the dog was caught in a situation of having a strange person not only entering the personal space of both himself and the owner but quite literally standing over him. Before the owner could take corrective action by stepping back to a wider section of the footpath and letting the person pass, the dog “arced-up” and gave the person a hold-bite on their left arm that required minor medical attention.

4. A dangerous dog
That one bite set in train a series of events that was to result in enormous restrictions on the lives of both the owner and the dog. While the dog was fortunate enough to receive a six-month probation from the local Magistrate for what was recognised as “over-protective behaviour”, he was less fortunate in the owner’s negotiations with the local Shire Council which resulted in the owner self declaring him a Dangerous Dog. The GSDCV proactively provided advice to all parties during these negotiations and it was a recognition of their standing in the community that the dog was given a second albeit final chance by the Shire Council.

The practical implications of having a Dangerous Dog were that once the dog stepped off the owner’s property he had at all times to be on a lead and wear a muzzle and distinctive dangerous dog collar. Effectively, the dog was no longer able to participate in either ongoing “off-lead” obedience training or his beloved agility class work. This raised the question of how to ensure that the dog was able to gain a quality of life that had a degree of meaning? Certainly, the dog at seven years of age was almost at the point of retiring from agility work and the Dangerous Dog status merely hastened his retirement. 

There is no denying that there is a degree of stigma attached to having a declared Dangerous Dog which the owner faced head on. Indeed, rather than taking the soft options of either putting the dog down or permanently locking him away in his kennel, the owner took the view in partnership with the GSDCV that he would work within the strict council rules to give him as normal a life as possible. All parties were particularly concerned that the dog continue to participate in activities that encouraged social behaviour and prevented him from being unnecessarily isolated from society at large, and therefore have further negative implications for responsible dog ownership.

On an immediate practical note, the owner had to face the issue of finding a suitable muzzle that would allow the dog to breathe and drink adequately on hot days while out on his daily walks. The owner subsequently ended up working with a local horse equipment manufacturer in modifying and enlarging a series of cattle dog muzzles since neither the freely available cloth nor full leather muzzles were entirely suitable. It took the dog some time to come to terms with the idea of wearing a muzzle particularly from the perspective of fully opening his jaw and socialising with other dogs at the GSDCV. The females in particular were not predisposed to the idea of having a muzzle massaging their rear ends!

5. Tracking
While the “designer” muzzle solved the issue of allowing the dog an opportunity to go for his daily walks, the owner was still faced with the issue of finding a meaningful outlet for the dog’s active mind as he was starting to show ever increasing signs of boredom. Discussions through the second half of the year 2000 and early part of 2001 with the Victorian Canine Association, GSDCV, and the Tracking Club of Victoria raised the possibility of the taking up tracking as a worthwhile social pursuit. After lengthy negotiations, the dog was cleared to compete in Victorian tracking competitions from mid-2001 onwards provided he was on lead and wore both his muzzle and dangerous dog collar during competition.

The GSDCV had by that time a number of active tracking groups that met every Sunday morning at 0600hrs, and the dog and owner began tracking training in late 2000 in anticipation that negotiations with the above mentioned governing bodies would ultimately prove successful. 

Once again, working with the muzzle provided some difficulties since the training technique was food based. This was subsequently overcome by the dog wearing a cloth muzzle that allowed him the ability to not only sniff the ground in front of him but also use the tip of his tongue to pick up the pieces of food left along the track course. During subsequent competition, the dog’s regular steel meshed muzzle would replace this cloth muzzle used in training.

The dog and owner entered their first tracking competition in August 2001 and by June 2002 had gained the Tracking Dog title. Progress for the remainder of the 2002 tracking season slowed thereafter through illness that was subsequently diagnosed as Corda Equana, a progressive disease that today is wasting the dog’s hind legs at an ever-increasing rate.

The dog and owner competing at a Tracking Club of Victoria trial in rural Victoria early 2002.


The dog complete with his tracking medals, trophies, and ribbons in early 2003, having gained his Tracking Dog Title at the age of nine and a half.  The rehabilitation process into society was finally complete.

6. The situation today
Today, the dog is physically no longer capable of competing over the distances involved with attaining the remaining senior tracking titles. At the age of ten and a half, the dog continues to be exercised on a daily basis with morning and evening strolls around his local neighbourhood at an ever slowing pace, and still manages one to two very short tracks each week.

The way the owner and GSDCV will always remember the dog. His attention in the photograph is drawn to a very large bone he is about to receive as a reward for his tracking efforts. Shortly after this photograph was taken, the dog's health began to deteriorate rapidly and was eventually diagnosed as Corna Equana, a progressive disease that today is wasting his hind legs at an ever-increasing rate.

The regular weekly meeting of the GSDCV remains a highlight of the dog’s week, socialising with fellow veterans and new puppies a like. True to form, he is not the slightest bit interested in the obedience and show classes and is happy to spend his remaining days either sleeping or observing what the owner is doing from the comfort of the owners car! 

Andrew Cuthbertson

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