Quake-stressed dogs lashing out
The number of dog-bite complaints in Christchurch since the quakes is up, with animal experts saying the city's dogs have become more anxious and aggressive. NICOLE MATHEWSON reports.
Christchurch residents love their dogs. One in every five households in the Christchurch and Banks Peninsula area owns one.
But the region's earthquakes have made some dogs, like humans, increasingly anxious, with some even becoming aggressive.
Dog Guru managing director Simon Goddall, who runs dog behaviour training courses across the country, said his company was dealing with more anxious and aggressive dogs.
Dogs were "really, really sensitive" and felt every little aftershock, he said.
"It impacts them a lot more. The best dog can snap if pushed enough."
Some dogs had "lost their confidence", some had developed separation anxiety and others were feeling insecure at home.
"Dogs aren't relaxing properly so when they go out for walks they're anxious. Their tipping point's a lot quicker."
The problems were affecting all ages and types of dogs "which is quite unusual", Goodall said.
Signs a dog was anxious included being "more on edge", more observant, urinating inside or losing hair.
South Island operator for global dog trainers Bark Busters Mark Gall said his company had also noticed more aggression and barking since the quakes.
"Some dogs, as soon as they hear a rumble or feel a shake, they rush outside and basically start barking at the air to tell it off. [Their response is] probably something quite similar to what a toddler would think."
Some dogs were stressed and anxious "just like people", becoming more territorial or afraid of changing environments. Fear was the main reason most dogs became aggressive.
It was important that owners avoid "mollycoddling" their dogs during an aftershock, as it could reinforce the nervous behaviour, Gall said.
University of Canterbury associate professor Annie Potts, who is writing a book about the "significant moments" between humans and animals after the quakes, said she had not heard stories of aggression, but had heard many of dogs becoming anxious since the shaking started. She recalled driving through Ferrymead when a "little aftershock" happened and seeing a dog shoot across a main road within a minute.
She spent several hours trying to reunite the dog with its owners, and learned the dog had been so frightened that it had pushed open a window to escape from a house. "He was a big mongrel dog. Many people would probably be afraid of it, but it was a big sook."
Her own dogs had developed quite different reactions to the quakes - one "completely ignores them", while the other tries to run away and hide every time.
During the 2010-11 financial year, the Christchurch City Council investigated 1031 complaints of dogs attacking or demonstrating aggressive behaviour, up from 926 the year before.
They included incidents where a complainant was rushed at or startled by a dog, or where a growling or snarling dog approached the complainant.
Christchurch City Council animal control team leader Mark Vincent said the increase was mainly because of quake damage to fences, meaning some properties could no longer contain dogs safely.
He did not not expect the trend to increase, but said the numbers were unlikely to drop just yet as many of the affected properties had still not been fixed.
Most complaints related to territorial aggression, when a dog attacked someone near or on the dog owners' property.
"The public think dogs are roaming the streets ready to bite people . . . [but] generally you don't get attacks in open spaces."
The complaints were mostly from the eastern suburbs. Vincent suggested the reason could be that there were more lower socio- economic areas on that side of the city, meaning many did not have the funds to "throw lots of money into fences and gates".
He believed there were three factors that led to an aggressive dog - the first being the dog's environment, meaning where it lived and how it was contained.
The second factor related to the type of owner the dog had, and the third related to the dog's characteristics.
"Pit bulls aren't born and think 'I'm a pit bull, I want to attack things'," he said.
However, if the environment and owner were not right, pit bulls would be more aggressive to other animals, he said.
"I don't think these people set out to be bad owners or have bad dogs, but the environment's just not right.
"We want owners to be aware they have to control their dogs."
In the Selwyn district, dog bite complaints remained low, with only 202 recorded in the last five years, despite one in three families having a dog.
The district had fewer "clusters" of lower socio- economic areas where many people kept certain types of dogs as status symbols or protectors, senior animal control officer Steve Clarke said.