Support, Inform, Then Enforce: Basic Principles for Safe, Humane Communities

We all agree that laws that govern responsible pet ownership are important to foster safe, humane communities, and there is wide agreement on what kind of laws do this (e.g., licensing and vaccination requirements, leash laws, confinement regulations, etc.).

The question then becomes which approaches work best to achieve widespread compliance with these laws?


First, it is important for municipal policy makers and enforcement agencies to make clear what is expected, and then to remove barriers that prevent well-intentioned pet owners from complying. The overwhelming majority of pet owners want to do the best for their pets and to be responsible members of their communities, but not all have the resources to accomplish this.

The progressive trend is to first forge relationships between animal services and pet owners, rather than penalizing first. Where relationships exist, problems can often be avoided, preventing much of the need for penalties.


The Pets for Life program is one example of a humane organization applying the principle of “in-depth community understanding” and pet owner empowerment to provide accessible, affordable pet care in under-served communities. This approach integrates door-to-door outreach, and “builds a consistent community presence” in order to focus on relationship building with the community.

This community-outreach program helps with basic health needs like spay/neuter and vaccinations, and also provides supplies such as collars and leashes, which in turn can facilitate an owner’s compliance with local animal laws. A detailed description of the Humane Society of the United States Pets for Life efforts and results can be found online.[i]

Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter is an example of a government approach, where they “aim to embody what we hope is a model for animal care and control in the 21st century.” The agency works to keep pets safe and well-cared for in their homes and prevent the need for surrenders. Again, the model is service and information before enforcement.

Animal control officers go door to door, introducing themselves and their services, even changing their uniforms to appear less like enforcers. They work with pet owners to help them understand the benefit to their community of compliance and to resolve any potential problems. When they uncovered an issue with low compliance with vaccination laws, they organized a free shots fair. The agency also provides dog houses free of charge to owners of pets living with inadequate shelter.[ii] The relationships built and resources shared by their outreach help to facilitate compliance with the area’s laws and open the line of communication with animal services in a way that simply penalizing owners with minor violations cannot. Additional information on the program at Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter can be found online.[iii]


In the Town of Pierrepont, New York, the town has adopted the strategy Pierrepontof reminding residents that there are laws regarding pet ownership, and that they are taken Pierrepont seriously, by simply posting signs announcing: “dog control laws enforced.”

Such a simple action has a powerful effect of showing people that responsible pet ownership is valued in the community.

“Free ride home” policies are often the cornerstone of forward thinking animal control programs, returning licensed or microchipped dogs directly to their families on their first offense. This prevents the dog from going through the shelter process and the community from dealing with the expense. These programs demonstrate the value of compliance with licensing / identification laws to pet owners.


While those who habitually or egregiously offend should certainly be penalized, exorbitant fines and euthanizing dogs whose owners cannot pay will never build relationships between animal services agencies and communities they serve. Community-based relationship building and removing barriers to compliance are the future of safe humane communities; focusing on punishment as a basis for relationships with community members is not.

Click here for a PDF of this blog.

[i] The Humane Society of the United States. (2014). Pets for Life: An In-Depth Community Understanding. Retrieved from:

[ii] Aided through a grant from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

[iii] Stosuy, T. (2014). Putting a Friendly Face on Animal Control. Animal Sheltering Magazine. Retrieved from:




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Dog Bite Prevention Week Fact Sheet: Companionship is the best prevention

Dogs have come into our homes to stay. More than 99% of America’s dog owners consider their dogs either family members or companions.[1]

More than 99% of the roughly 110 million people who live with dogs enjoy the benefits of this companionship[2] without ever having serious conflicts with their dogs.

Even though more and more people have been spending more and more time enjoying their dogs’ companionship over the last four decades, the trend in the number of dog bite complaints has declined dramatically.[3]

You are your dog’s first line of defense. Dogs bite when they feel they need to defend themselves. We can protect our dogs from situations that make them uncomfortable and learn how they may let us know they‘re upset.

We can do even better by learning to see the dog’s point of view by:

  • Taking care of his physical health and comfort
  • Being our dog’s protector
    • Recognizing that dogs are not static creatures and their needs and preferences will evolve. And even dogs have bad days.  Know who your dog is TODAY and meet his needs in this moment.
    • Insulating him from things that scare him
    • Socializing puppies so they won’t be fearful of things they are commonly exposed to
    • Seeking appropriate professional help when an adult dog’s fears are compromising his quality of life or the safety of the people around him.

Most important, the dog who is fully integrated into the life of his human family is much less likely to be frightened by human behavior. Companionship is truly the best prevention.



Updated May 2015


[1] American Veterinary Medical Association. U.S. Pet Ownership and Demographics Sourcebook (p. 13). Schaumburg, IL: AVMA, 2012.

[2] Pets Are Wonderful Support. (2007). The Health Benefits of Companion Animals.  Retrieved from:

[3] National Canine Research Council, (2013). Reported Bites Decreasing. Retrieved from:

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Are you happy? Disgusted? Your dog can tell the difference

Once again researchers at the Family Dog Project in Hungary have confirmed an ability that dog lovers have long suspected in our canine companions.

In an ingenious series of experiments the Eötvös Loránd University ethologists demonstrated that dogs can discriminate between human expressions of happiness, disgust, and simply blank indifference.[i]

They built on earlier studies which had shown that dogs can tell the difference between smiling and “blank” photos of their owners’ faces, but did not recognize these differences on strangers’ faces. And that dogs were more interested in investigating a box when their owner had looked joyfully into the box than one that the owner had examined with an eeew! On the other hand, the owner’s expression of ickiness didn’t necessarily deter the dog any more than a simply blank expression. The authors hypothesized that this apparent disconnect might arise from dogs often finding objects in the world fascinating that humans find revolting and that the dogs had learned to notice this. You probably don’t have to go back farther than your last walk with your dog to think of some very graphic examples.

So Borbála Turcsán, and her colleagues, among them NCRC advisor Ádám Miklósi,, decided to look at whether dogs would prefer to fetch an object that their owner had handled with happiness, over one that had elicited revulsion or indifference, hypothesizing that such a “free choice” task might more precisely identify what human emotions the dog could “read” than was yielded by simply observing approach behaviors.

The results were striking. The dogs were decisively more likely to bring back the “happy” object over the disgusting or the “indifferent” one. But if both objects bored the owner, the dog’s choices were random, as they were when the choice was between a disgusting – to the owner – object and a boring one, whichever they approached first.  And these results were consistent from the dog’s first try to the last and with puppies between 10 weeks and a year old, so the behavior is unlikely to be attributable to learning which choice would yield a reward.

Much like year old humans and even more than great apes, “dogs,” it turns out, simply “demonstrate a preference for positive human emotions while also show[ing] avoidance of the negative.”

As this kind of research progresses, we learn more and more about why this remarkable interspecies bonding occurs with such ease.

[i]  Turcsán, B., Szánthó, F.,  Miklósi, Á., & Kubinyi, E. (2014). Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behavior. Animal Cognition. Advance online publication. doi 10.1007/s10071-014-0779-3




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Breed-Specific Legislation is myth-based and ineffective according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB)

AVSAB, a national association of veterinarians who are board-certified in the specialty of animal behavior, has just released a position statement expressing their opposition to breed-specific legislation. Their position paper notes that they are “concerned about the propensity of various communities’ reliance on breed-specific legislation as a tool to decrease the risk and incidence of dog bites to humans,” noting “that such legislation (BSL) – is ineffective, and can lead to a false sense of community safety as well as welfare concerns for dogs identified (often incorrectly) as belonging to specific breeds.”

“Dogs and owners must be evaluated individually,” the authors conclude, citing the wide range of findings across the literature regarding breeds and bite risk. And many such findings are called into question by the demonstrated unreliability of visual breed identification, particularly with regard to the estimated 46% of the US dog population that are of mixed breed ancestry.

In discussing why dogs bite, these behaviorists point out that while there are many motivations, most occur when the dog feels threatened in some way, and that uncovering the triggers specific to the individual dog and responding appropriately are key to prevention. Understanding the social needs of dogs is particularly important to bite prevention, ranging from appropriate socialization of puppies to including the dog in the family, providing daily, positive interactions with people. Dogs that are kept simply as resident on the property, without such social opportunities, are much more likely to feel threatened by humans and respond accordingly. And owners who teach their dogs, through harsh training methods, that people are indeed dangerous are more likely to evoke aggressive responses from their dogs.

The AVSAB stresses that breed alone is not predictive of the risk of aggressive behavior. Indeed, this recommendation is in line with a recent study of dog bite-related fatalities which reported that in 80.5% of cases, four or more potential risk factors were present.

According to this national association of veterinarians who have specialized training in animal behavior, what does work is “responsible dog ownership and public education.” These “must be a primary focus of any dog bite prevention policy.”

The AVSAB also invites you to share this resource, “to discount common fallacies of ‘easy fixes’ that are often based on myths, and instead promote awareness that will reduce the prevalence of aggression toward people and promote better care, understanding, and welfare of our canine companions.” The full position statement can be viewed here:

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New Edition of “Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions”

Some aspects of the dog bite situation have changed since the first writing of this paper for the Animals and Society Institute in 2006. More current statistical information about dog bite incidence is available. More is now known that both documents and explains the ineffectiveness of attempting to address this issue by prohibiting or regulating ownership of dogs on the basis of breed or appearance, leading to recommendations against breed-specific legislation (BSL) across the board among public and animal welfare organizations. New research has identified factors that co-occur in serious and fatal dog bite injuries. Finally, the blossoming field of canine behavioral research is uncovering husbandry issues with strong implications for minimizing canine threat and bite behavior toward humans. This second edition is an attempt to include these findings to produce the most current and comprehensive discussion of dog bites and society.


Public concern with regard to dog bites has remained high for decades. Alarm often intensifies in response to a single fatality or medically serious dog bite-related injury. However, a review of the ongoing public health records shows that dog bite-related fatalities remain extremely rare, and new research has uncovered co-occurring factors in these events that are under the control of dog guardians. None of these factors relates to the demographics of the dogs.

During a period where people increasingly consider and treat their dogs as family members, injurious bites have gradually declined, including a decrease in the percentage of injuries sustained by children. Current behavioral studies offer possible insight into why this is so, documenting profound differences in the behavior of family dogs – who have opportunities for daily, positive interactions with people – and resident dogs who simply live on the property in relative isolation without integration into the family social unit. Public policies that educate people about and otherwise facilitate these relationships provide the most promising approach to developing safer and more humane communities.

Dog bite-related fatalities account for about 1 in 92,000 (1/1,000 of 1%) of deaths in the United States annually. Nonfatal injuries are also relatively uncommon – only 1/10 of 1% of emergency room visits. Dog bite injuries are comparable in incidence but less severe than accidents involving many common household objects.

Attempts have been made to reduce these low rates of injury still further by prohibiting or otherwise regulating dog ownership on the basis of breed or appearance, presuming some dogs – absent any scientific evidence in support – to be disproportionately dangerous. Such legislation simply arbitrarily eliminates whole groups of dogs with no evidence that they would have ever harmed anyone.

Breed-specific legislation sometimes stops short of outright bans, but regulates how certain dogs may be kept, including mandatory spay/neuter regulations and requirements to muzzle dogs in public. No credible evidence has been presented to demonstrate that any particular breeds should be considered as over represented among biting dogs, and follow-up studies show no impact on bite rates after BSL is enacted. As a result, this kind of legislation is declining.

Other attempts to identify and regulate high-risk dogs focus on prior biting. This has been shown to be effective with regard to prior injurious biting behavior. Threatening behavior, however, is too widespread among dogs, and too frequently misunderstood, to be sufficiently predictive of actual biting. Removing or regulating all threatening dogs would require enormous and unrealizable increases in enforcement personnel, which would draw resources away from other public safety issues affecting more people and would inevitably capture many dogs who would never harm anyone. Casting such a wide net could even result in a significant decrease in the number of people keeping dogs, compromising both the demonstrated emotional and social benefits of dog companionship as well as the preventive effects on widespread chronic diseases.

Two types of solutions are proposed in this paper. First, regulatory penalties should focus on people who knowingly keep dogs in clear disregard for public safety, either through lack of appropriate supervision and confinement, mistreatment, or neglect likely to provoke warning signals and biting, or through a lack of precautions taken after an injurious bite has occurred. Second, information should be widely disseminated – especially to children and their parents – about safe ways to interact with dogs, and education for responsible dog guardians should include instruction on sound husbandry, to guide the range of decisions that each guardian makes regarding how to live with and care for a canine companion.

Click here to read the full text revised edition of “Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions”

Dog Bites Problems and Solutions 2nd Edition

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