CANINE HANDLING IN A CLINICAL SETTING
Recent graduates of veterinary schools and veterinary technician
schools tell me that they are still being taught that you have to
"show the dog who's boss" by applying fear-based
techniques when confronted with an uncooperative pet. This is
based on a presumption that all dogs should display a submissive
posture to all humans. Growls, bites and attempted bites, and
resistance to restraint are labeled "dominance
aggression". I believe that we see very little dominance
aggression from dogs when they are being handled by strangers in
a clinical setting. Most of what is described as dominance
aggression is fear or defensive aggression.
There is a simple formula that applies to any kind of canine aggression. Aggression + aggression = more aggression. The exception to the aggression formula is the rule of aversives. For punishment to be successful it has to be strong enough and severe enough to extinguish the behavior completely. If we choose to use punishment we have to know the dog well enough to know what "severe" means. In some dogs, the owner need only say "stop that!" to put an end to defensive aggression during a nail clip. The dog has a history with the owner that tells him he might be uncomfortable, but he's not going to be harmed. Dogs don't generalize well, so the same reaction from a stranger ("stop that!"), may not work. The dilemma of how to handle uncooperative patients now becomes a moral one. How far are we willing to go to find the aversive that extinguishes defensive reaction? We can do harm to our patients in an attempt to inhibit or extinguish their defensiveness or we can try to find a humane way to handle them.
In the absence of severe punishment (which could mean bodily injury to the patient) our use of aggression has no benefit. If a dog reacts to our demand for cooperation in an aggressive manner and we become aggressive in turn we are creating in the dog a stronger aggressive response to that situation. The next time that dog is in the clinic the environmental cues (white coats, odor of alcohol, other animal sounds and smells) will trigger a defensive/aggressive response. In the present situation the dog may freeze, but the next time he has to be handled by medical staff his aggressive response is likely to be twice as strong. The end result is a dog that's unable to be handled at all.
Why should the dog cooperate? Because we're human and, therefore, superior beings? That, believe it or not, can happen, but it has nothing to do with our superiority. There are dogs that defer to almost all humans in almost all situations. That, however, is not a learned response from the dog, it's an inherent part of his temperament based on many generations of breeding for low reactivity. Many retrievers and hounds, for example, will defer to humans because they are hardwired to do so. They will also happily defer to cats, the sound of gun shot and a John Deere lumbering by, so we shouldn't think we're special. Asian breeds (Shih Tzus excepted), on the other hand, are known to have a very narrow "personal space" area. You can get very close without offending them, but then, seemingly out of nowhere, you've crossed that line and triggered their defensive drives.
The reason that most dogs can be handled by most humans is their juvenile mentality. Domestic dog behavior is comparable to juvenile (not adult) wolf behavior. Therefore, a well reared, well socialized dog, may very well see the entire human race as "parent" figures and find objection to very little we do.
For some dogs, all they know about you is that you are not part of their family (pack), and you intend to assault them in some way. There is no good reason why a dog shouldn't see nail clippers, thermometers and otoscopes as instruments of assault. When handled by a family member (which is not recommended), a dog of stable temperament should cooperate with all but the most painful of procedures. When handled by a stranger, or when handled in an environment known to the dog to be "dangerous", I think it's unreasonable to expect stoic cooperation.
A dog has three primary options when in a fear state -- fight, flight or freeze. Your options are to escalate your own aggressive reactions until "freeze" occurs (
All animals that live in social groups have a need for stable family groups, not chaos. Most
dogs will go out of their way to communicate their fear or
displeasure without resorting to aggression. If we pay close
attention we can "hear" what they're saying and respond
in a way that helps them cope with what's happening to them. If
we ignore their attempts at communication, or respond
aggressively to them, we lose any hope for cooperation from them,
Dominance Theory Applied to the Clinical Setting
Living with dogs means living in a world of interspecies communication. It's really quite remarkable that we can communicate at all with other species. To be able to communicate a specific thought, one that creates a memory or visual in another species ("Wanna go for a ride?"), is downright mind boggling. When our patients attempt to communicate with us I believe we owe them the courtesy of listening. Dogs have a myriad of ways to say:
"I'm frightened, but I want to avoid confrontation".
"I'm so frightened that I believe biting is my only way out of this situation".
"I don't know you, you're not part of my pack, so I don't feel any obligation to allow you to touch me."
"I love everyone, are we having a party?"
"I have little exposure to people, in general, or to new things and this is all way too much for me."
"The last time I growled and snapped people went away, I need for that to work again here."
"The last time I was here I was scared and I'm twice as scared now"
A dog can be generally submissive to humans, but confident enough to draw his lines when he feels threatened. In many cases where a dog displays aggression, the dog is reacting to the clinician's aggression (restraint, slip collar, etc.) in a defensive or fearful manner.
Even dogs that have truly dominant personalities (and these are rare) generally don't initiate aggression in a clinical setting, they simply respond to demands made on them that they feel are inappropriate.
How the dog lives will effect how he behaves in a clinical setting. If he lives a solitary life, with little socialization to people or other animals, the veterinarian's office can be an overwhelming sea of stimuli. If a dog lives with the daily stress of
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