31 July 2016

RESEARCH - How People Assess the Risk of Aggression in Dogs

Humans are sometimes pretty bad at accurately assessing risks.

This is because, as Big Think points out, “as effective as the system of risk perception can be, it is also affective – a subjective combination of the facts and how those facts feel.”

When it comes to dogs, and especially aggressive dogs, emotions are absolutely in play.

Dogs are, after all, many people’s closest companions. They are therapy dogs, service dogs, pet dogs. Dogs were the first animals to be domesticated, and this connection is so comfortable and inevitable that dogs may have been domesticated twice!

This may explain why humans tend to disproportionately fear dog breeds that have been labeled “aggressive” and to ignore the risk of aggression that is present in all breeds.

Research from the University of Lincoln in 2015 looked specifically into the perception of canine aggressive behaviour, and whether our perception of certain breeds being “dangerous” was based on fact or affect.

The researchers were interested in how aggressive behaviour in dogs is perceived and rationalized, and they looked at responses from six focus groups – two groups of dog owners, one group of amateur trainers, one group of behaviourists, one group of veterinarians, and one group of academics.

They found that the perception of “dangerous dogs” was prevalent in the non-professional focus groups, and that the main theme was fear of the unknown. Participants were concerned with unpredictability and the sense of betrayal that accompanies human-directed aggression in pet dogs.

These same focus groups had earlier dismissed aggressive behaviour in some dogs as justified or unusual, and categorized them as different than “dangerous” dogs. The researchers suggest that this demonstrates an affective, rather than cognitive, risk evaluation. These focus groups also discussed dangerous dogs in terms of hypotheticals, news stories, and stereotypes.

In contrast, the focus groups made up of animal professionals – behaviourists, veterinarians, and academics – tended to look at the role of people in the issue of aggression in dogs. Both media accountability for presenting dog bite stories with sensationalism and bias, and also owner responsibility and influence on dogs’ behaviour.

In the professional focus groups, breed stereotypes were considered less a factor than in the non-professional focus groups.

The researchers state that for the professional focus group participants, aggressive behaviour “is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon that is often elicited and aggravated by humans.”

This research is important because it provides a more nuanced understanding of how humans interpret the risk associated with aggressive dog behaviour.

Knowing where media representation is skewing perception is important, especially because the stereotype of a few “dangerous dog” breeds can obscure the real risks associated with all dog breeds.

This information can inform legislation and public awareness campaigns that work to help owners raise safe dogs and recognize dangerous behaviour, rather than simply stereotyping a few breeds and running the risk of bites from dogs who are assumed to be safe.

And, since owner influence shapes dog behaviour, this research may help legislators target owners who are specifically looking for and eliciting aggressive behaviour in dogs.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

No comments:

Post a Comment