What should you do?
What DO you do in this type of conflict where dogs are at risk of biting and humans are at risk of being bitten? Well, a couple of years ago when I was on my way to Australia to lecture at APDT-Australia (Association of Pet Dog Trainers), a nonprofit called AMRRIC (Animal Management in Remote and Rural Indigenous Communities) contacted me with just that problem. “We’re having conflict between people and the dogs that live on Aboriginal town camps,” they said. “We want to develop educational materials but we need help to know what to do. Can you visit?” While I have been to Bali and seen the situation first hand, I had never been to an Aboriginal town camp. So, out of curiosity, I said “yes”, for the adventure.
I flew in to Alice Springs with my AMRRIC hosts, a town in the center of Australia and then we took the long drive into the dry heat of Australia’s desert mid-drift. After many hours of driving along a monotonously hot and barren road, during which I could only think about how I wish we were headed back home, we arrived in the relatively large town camp of Yuendemu–population, about 1000. The town featured orderly rows of houses with dirt front yards and short cyclone fences. Each property came with several dogs, all unusually overfed due to the generosity of the local artist armed with bags of dog food.
With the ability to come and go as they pleased, one might wonder what these dogs did all day. After just two days of observation it was easy to conclude that their primary pastime was to sleep off the heat. Most dog activity occurred at dawn and dusk during the coolest hours. But they also spent time following humans in a loose formation as the humans performed errands or just hanging around with the kids. In the middle of these mellow and calm interactions, the dogs would sometimes break off to spend a few minutes in naughtier endeavors. First thing in the morning, some engaged in ritual gang altercation with the dogs across the street. Both sides would bark and run into the street towards each other, but after 5-30 minutes of intermittent barking, they’d go back to their own front yards. During the day, they might break off from a play session with the kids to run off and chase some horses. And regularly, they would sprint from their yards after people walking by. It was a pretty relaxed life compared to other Aboriginal towns that had higher dog populations due to less birth control and, had way less food. In these towns, dogs were involved in many more altercations with each other and overall.
How to Improve Interactions Between People and Dogs
So how could the interactions between people walking by houses and dogs who might rush out, improve? First, keeping dogs on the property is not a cultural option here nor are widespread dog training programs. So the first step is one of education. The humans needed to understand why the dogs were barking and chasing. Like the dogs in the United States, these dogs were just doing what they had been rewarded for. Barking and chasing resulted in people leaving and even running away. And sometimes people became more aggressive and shouted which increased the excitement level even more. While most victims assumed the dogs were mean, the real cause of this behavior is most often that the dogs are actually scared. One of the common reactions of dogs who are startled and scared is that they bark. Then when the barking works, they learn to up the level.
I set out to demonstrate that this indeed was true by setting myself up as human bait and then demonstrating how I’d recommend the humans safely handle the chasing behavior.
Stationed just outside the house of some known trouble-making dogs, I got out of the car and warmed up. As my hosts from AMMRIC, Eileen Fletcher, videotaped I started jogging by and sure enough the gang of dogs came rushing out, shouting at me, volume set to “high.” But then after a few seconds, I suddenly stopped and turned to face them as if I had turned to go back and look for something I had forgotten. Their ruse thwarted, they all stopped and quickly backed away.
Then to demonstrate the point again, I started to jog a second time. The dogs adapted their plan and resumed their chasing and barking but as soon as I stopped they leapt back as if I had cooties!
Next, I showed that in addition to just stopping, I would actually make friends with the dogs by tossing treats. As I walked and tossed treats the dogs followed in a more relaxed manner.
We went to another location with known troublemakers but this time, Eileen was the bait. As she jogged by the 3 dogs—two shepardy-looking ones and a 3rd with corgi-short legs, came running out. But every time she turned around to head the other direction they backed off until she was past them. Then they’d bark again.
To further illustrate their motives, I then walked up to the dogs approaching head-on, which can be scary to a dog. The most strident barker, the short-legged brown dog, sprinted off—clearly fear had been a driving force in his behavior. The black and tan shepherd type dog that had stood stationary while barking, was lying down and remained that way with tail wagging. She was relaxed enough that I could tell she was friendly and when I reached out and noted that she remained relaxed, I petted her on the head while she clearly leaned into the petting.
Next I get out the treats and start feeding her. After a few treats one of her housemates joins in and then later a 3rd one, a puppy musters up the courage to come just close enough to pick up tossed treats. The little brown dog stayed out of the shot.
So there it was. These dogs were like dogs everywhere. They bark when startled or out of fear and then are rewarded for their barking and chasing behavior because the humans go away. Some dogs who are less fearful bark and chase too because they have learned to play this game from their canine colleagues. But overall the worst offenders tended to be the ones that were the most fearful—the ones that when you stop and face towards them, back away the fastest.
The take home tips I left for the AMRRIC:
1) If a dog is rushing out to bark at you, relax and stay calm. Turn to face or stand at a 45 degree angle to them. Once they are stationary, you can slowly walk away while still angled in this manner towards them. Avoid turning your back on them since fearful dogs tend to rush and bite when you are turned away.
2) If you’d like to change their habit of chasing, then always pass by this way and even take food and toss it towards them. Makes sure you have enough to toss pieces out at a rapid rate. Ten small treats will provide better results than one large treat. This is where you’ll see which ones are highly fearful because at first, they’ll back away as you toss the food. If you regularly toss food when you pass by, the dogs will then approach happily as if it’s feeding time when you pass by instead of getting excited and trying to chase you away.