Dogs are Worrying

In the last few years dog attacks on sheep have increased considerably. The NFU paid out £1.8m in 2022 to settle claims. This also happened to be the worst year ever for dogs attacking people, with large numbers bitten and 12 actually killed. Hardly surprisingly, this coincides with an almost doubling of the number of dogs kept as pets in the UK from 7.6 million in 2011/12 to a fairly accurate estimate of more than 13 million currently.

While the pandemic puppy goes some way to explain this increase and lockdown might have something to do with the attacks on people cooped up with their frustrated pooches, there is something else at play here. People have forgotten, although it is doubtful if many of the recent owners ever knew, that dogs are dogs. They are not friends, or child substitutes, or fashion accessories. They are pack animals which establish and maintain a hierarchy (often through fear). They are not amenable to reason. And they don’t have a conscience. Dogs need discipline, routine and boundaries with a steady relationship with their owner whom they should respect as the top dog in the hierarchy. This is not achieved through violence, but by the owner’s self-restraint and self-discipline. As one tremendous sheepdog handler said to me, ‘you’ll never beat sense into a dog; you’ll just beat out whatever sense it might have had’.

A dog must be allowed to be a dog. There is a tendency of many modern owners to want total physical control by never allowing their dog off the lead – or the body-harnesses that seem to be increasingly popular. These are a sure sign that the owner is trying to make friends with the canine and remind me of those reins that mothers used to attach to their toddlers. Of course on one view, people are just obeying the ubiquitous exhortations to keep their dog on a lead in public places. This is not because the dog is better behaved on a lead, it is simply a pragmatic solution to the owner’s lack of control. It recognises that he doesn’t have a working relationship with his charge, and means that the dog is continually testing the physical restraint of the lead rather than behaving under discipline. A trained dog, walking to heel without a lead, is under control. Whereas a dog on a lead is, in fact, out of control, living in permanent reaction, waiting for the opportunity to do whatever takes its fancy rather than what will please its master.

There was a man who moved into our village with his wife and four children. Believing a dog would be an addition to the family, he bought a Labrador pup which he and the family treated as another child and a friend. As the dog grew bigger it began to assert itself first by biting the smallest child, then over the following weeks it worked its way up the family hierarchy biting each of the children in turn, until it had a go at the wife. The man did nothing until it bit him, when he had it put down. That dog found each member of the pack up the hierarchy unworthy of respect and wanting, so it made a bid to be top dog. Had it been treated as a dog, it might well have made a decent dog. But once a dog knows it can get the better of humans, it is spoiled for all future purposes.

We had another neighbour who lived on his own and acquired a powerful Springer spaniel which he let get away with all manner of bad behaviour progressing to sleeping in his bedroom. Gradually it insinuated itself onto his bed which it came to believe was its own. If it managed to get upstairs before him it refused to allow him to get into his own bed. Then it stopped him coming into his own bedroom, snarling and bearing teeth which it had every intention of using. If the dog got upstairs first, he was reduced to sleeping in an armchair in the kitchen. If it got into the car before him it would defend its territory to the death and he could neither get the dog out nor get in with it. He had allowed the dog to become top dog.

Time was when people kept dogs for a specific purpose: farm dogs for shepherding or cattle droving; terriers for ratting, hounds for hunting, gundogs for shooting, guard dogs for guarding and so on. Hardly anybody kept a dog as a pet for amusement or companionship. In any case many people couldn’t afford to feed a dog kept only as a pet, nor could they see the point. Although a bond of affection undoubtedly could grow, especially if master and dog spent their lives together and became mutually dependent, as did a shepherd and his dog, any fondness would be incidental to the reason for keeping it. These owners would have known that dogs can bite.

As our society has become more atomised, there are many lonely people looking to bestow affection upon another living creature and as human relationships are either too difficult or not available, they light upon their canine friend and like to believe it is reciprocated. This seems to stem from a kind of narcissistic need for admiration, which they mistakenly think they are getting from their dog, when in fact the dog is lapping up (so to speak) the attention coming from its owner. They find it hard to accept that the dog they love and that admires them so much is capable of embarking on a killing frenzy when it comes across a flock of frightened sheep. And because the owner has no control over the dog and anyway feels good about indulging it and does not have the capacity to discipline it, because he has not developed the sense of responsibility needed to have the dog’s respect, it is let free to ‘play’ with the sheep. After all a dog has a much right as anyone – especially a farmer who is rearing the sheep to kill them anyway – to enjoy the benefit and pleasure of being in the country. And don’t you dare say otherwise, or I’ll have you prosecuted for discrimination.

Philip Walling

By Philip Walling

Having been a farmer and practised as a barrister, I am now a writer with two books published so far: Counting Sheep (2014) and Till the Cows Come Home (2018).

I am interested in everything to do with the countryside, rural history, humanity and the way we live now.

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