Kindly-meant actions can cause distress ... and more - Veterinary Practice
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Kindly-meant actions can cause distress … and more

FRANCESCA RICCOMINI discusses how summertime events – such as village fêtes and country fairs which include pet shows – can be unnecessarily stressful for the animals concerned

ECONOMICS and weather not withstanding, this is the season of the country fair and village fête. Indeed, even in larger conurbations, local community events are not uncommon.

Invariably, the aim is to raise funds for admirable organisations, bring people together and remind us all that a lot of good things go on in any locality. They may just be harder to find in some than others.

These occasions should be, and generally are, a jolly good day out and they also often include a pet show. Nothing wrong with that; far from it, for many owners their four-legged friends are part of the household and should therefore be included in any collective activity that’s on offer.

What’s more, most of us enjoy showing off a beloved pet. And when they win a rosette, be it for the waggiest tail, prettiest face or just the shiniest coat, it’s only natural that everyone cheers and friends and owners alike beam with pride. So what’s the problem?

Well, for many well-socialised, regularly handled animals, whatever their species, absolutely nothing. But it was a photo in a local newspaper that reminded me (it’s a factor encountered in many problem behaviour cases) that an awful lot of caring and otherwise diligent owners from time to time do dreadful things to their pets with the best of intentions.

What’s more, they usually do them without the slightest awareness of the reality of what they are putting their dog, cat, rabbit, guinea pig or ferret through.

Fun for some may be scary for others

The picture in question featured a nationally acclaimed actor, well known where he lives for his likability and support of local causes, judging a dog competition.

At this particular point he was shown in close proximity to, and leaning directly over, an attractive but clearly troubled border collie. Clearly that is, to anyone who is aware of the classic signs of canine stress and the fear invariably induced in animals by prolonged eye-to-eye contact with unfamiliar individuals, especially at close quarters.

The dog’s ear position, facial expression and body language demonstrated without a shadow of doubt that he or she was far from happy. In fact, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that had anyone at that stage put a foot, or more likely a hand, wrong by further invading the animal’s “personal space”, all may well have ended in tears.

The risks of escalating tension resulting in growling, snarling or snapping, with or without physical contact, would, of course, have been increased in these circumstances because the dog in question had no chance of retreating.

If/when in this inadvertently intimidating situation an unknown person extended a hand or foot towards it, the poor creature was quite literally at the end of its tether.

Not only that, from the snapshot of events it appeared that this stressed hound was also more or less surrounded by a pressing throng, making escape, even if the leash was long enough, difficult, if not impossible.

When things go wrong owner response is often inappropriate and unhelpful

This was, therefore, a stark reminder of how many much-loved dogs are inadvertently put under enormous pressure during occasional or routine events by the very people – their owners/carers – who should be protecting them.

Who should in fact be fully and constantly aware of the impact of everything that’s going on upon them, as should anyone else who deliberately, or even coincidently, interacts with them, no matter how remotely.

Unfortunately, however, too often everyone, as appeared to be the case here, is completely oblivious to the distress their kindly-meant actions can cause and they remain heedless of impending disaster. Any altercation would not only have marred this particular day but also perhaps laid owners and event organisers alike open to potential liability claims; and, as commonly happens, quite possibly had a negative impact on the dog-owner relationship.

Because under such circumstances, no matter how minor any injuries are or understanding the response of the person towards whom the aggression was directed, the dog almost always gets blamed. Often, it seems, most severely by the very carers who placed it in the challenging circumstances in the first place.

Naturally they are upset, frequently embarrassed and sometimes, to be fair, bemused by such “out of character” behaviour. And who wouldn’t be, if they had shared their lives with a seemingly sociable pet accustomed to being “another family member” and accompanying its people to a variety of different venues?

It’s even worse, of course, but unsurprising when dogs that are rarely included in activities outside the home come to grief if suddenly exposed to “all the fun of the fair” and the multitude of stressors that entails.

Awareness and realistic expectations make all the difference

The truth is that far too many people take their dogs’ behaviour entirely for granted. No wonder they are so often caught out simply because they are unaware of the influence of environmental unpredictability on the emotional state of any animal – or human for that matter.

And what could be more unpredictable and arousing than an excited throng of people and other pets rejoicing in a melee of stalls – which create narrow corridors that force everyone to invade everyone else’s space – rock bands, vintage vehicles and so on, all made more arousing still by the obligatory presence of ice cream and burger vans?

And it isn’t necessarily a fête or fair where dogs encounter such stressful and potentially scary conditions. Depending upon individual personalities and behavioural histories, it can easily be a pub garden, pavement café, sponsored walk or training class that provides the trigger for unacceptable outbursts.

Frankly, this makes it all the more amazing that so many dogs constantly cope when they are out and about, despite their otherwise caring owners’ insensitivity, lack of awareness and generally thoughtless behaviour.

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