Is it the owners, or is it the dogs? We’ve all got an opinion when it comes to unruly pets, and never more so than when an animal or child falls victim to a canine attack.
Last month in Dacorum, one dog and one cat were killed in maulings by so-called dangerous dogs, and staff at Hemel Hempstead’s giant Royal Mail sorting centre have been eagerly setting up a programme to help protect our postmen and women from dog attacks at the garden gate.
Our region is among the worst for attacks on posties, and many commenters on the Gazette’s recent mauling reports call out for everything from dangerous dog owners to be banned from keeping animals, to writing off entire breeds as savage.
With the problem appearing to grow year on year – both in the borough and nationally – one dog trainer from the area is making a stand by educating children and parents about ways they can spot a dog in distress, and keep themselves safe from the threat of mauling.
Karen Tonge, 53, runs Karen’s In The Dog House pet school across Dacorum, and focuses on positive reinforcement and ‘kind, fair’ training for the animals commonly thought of as man’s best friend – as well as their owners.
But the former childminder and youth worker has recently taken on a new initiative – an innovative dog bite prevention programme which has been working in schools across Canada for a decade already. She has begun promoting the course in schools and community groups and is hoping to spread her message to even more families.
Karen said: “My previous roles have enabled me to combine my passion of promoting good relations between children and dogs. I love the challenge of teaching children on a level they can understand and with a daughter of my own, together with many child-minded children and boarded dogs, I have had lots of practice.”
Karen, of Water End, Hemel Hempstead, does not believe owners need to ‘dominate’ their dogs to make them comply, and believes punishment through methods such as beating or electric shock collars do more to scare dogs into further attacks, rather than solving the problem.
She explained: “These methods can cause serious problems, put owners at risk – especially children – and greatly damage the human-dog bond. My aim is to deliver a fun and lively presentation to educate our children on how to stay safe.”
Karen’s sessions involve a stuffed dog – amusingly named ‘Bogey’ – and role play to ensure children understand the stresses dogs go through when faced with new people, animals or the prospect of being handled and hugged.
She believes no particular breeds are inherently dangerous, but that changes in the way dogs are now bred and sold – such as puppy farms – can be traumatising for young animals and this, coupled with the wrong handling, can be a recipe for trouble.
She said: “Punishment doesn’t change a dog’s view of the situation – they only know what not to do, and not what they should do. Positive reinforcement is the only way to condition them.
“We expect dogs to put up with a lot these days, especially with children and being handled. Some owners will think that dominating their animals will help, but if you don’t trust your animal to behave with new people and animals, it must be muzzled.”
Karen’s presentations are currently free and suitable for children, parents and babies or community groups. Book by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visiting Karen’s In The Dog House on Facebook.
Karen added: “In the local area we have had quite a lot of bad news to do with dangerous dogs, and we are coming up to the summer holidays which are statistically likely to lead to more attacks with children out and about. With a little bit more information about spotting when dogs are anxious, the safer they are going to be.”