Commentary: Few bad dogs but many bad owners. But even that can be changed
The relaxed restrictions on dogs that can be rehomed in HDB flats are to be welcomed but it’s far more important to tackle poor habits some dog owners have, says SOSD President Dr Siew Tuck Wah.
SINGAPORE: Earlier this week, dog lovers rejoiced as the Animal and Veterinary Service (AVS) announced that larger dogs can now be rehomed in HDB flats.
Dogs with heights 55cm and below are now eligible for adoption into HDB flats under the ADORE (Adoption and Rehoming) programme.
This is a 10 per cent increase from the previous 50cm height limit. The weight limit, previously set at 15kg, was also removed as a criterion for rehoming.
The ADORE programme was set up in 2012 to allow rehoming of mixed breed dogs into HDB flats. While the recent increase in height of 5cm may seem insignificant, it has far reaching implications for homeless dogs.
Most stray and mixed breed dogs here – affectionately referred to as the “Singapore Specials” - are medium to large-sized. Only one in nine to 10 fit the old ADORE criterion.
With the revised criteria, at least one in two of Singapore Specials now qualify. The small 5cm increase now gives three to four times the number of dogs a chance to find loving homes.
MOVING PAST FEARS OF BIG DOGS
The size restrictions of dogs were laid out early in Singapore’s history. Before ADORE, only some toy breed dogs were allowed in HDB flats.
In the 1970s, Singapore was a very different place. Our parents were ushered from kampungs into high-density HDB apartments. Pet ownership was the last thing on their minds.
Our parents were more concerned about making ends meet. And so our authorities rightly took a cautious approach towards pet ownership, to maintain harmony among neighbours.
As a result, a generation of Singaporeans, myself included, grew up in an environment largely devoid of dogs, especially large dogs. We were warned by our elders that large dogs are dangerous. We grew up to be afraid of large dogs.
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This perception towards larger dogs was the the biggest challenge animal welfare groups and authorities faced when ADORE was rolled out.
HDB and AVS are very careful to be sensitive towards people who are not receptive towards larger dogs. Hence, it took several years of careful planning and collaboration just for a 5cm height revision to materialise.
BAD OWNERS RESULT IN BAD DOGS
Ask someone why they are afraid of big dogs, and they will probably tell you that they were previously almost bitten or chased by one, or know someone who was. Unfortunately, these negative experiences with large dogs often happen as a result of irresponsible owners, rather than bad dogs.
Keeping a dog is a huge commitment. Besides feeding and housing them, owners must bear the responsibility of training their dogs well.
Like children, dogs may not know what behaviours are wrong, unless they are taught and corrected. Teaching the right behaviours is easier said than done, as owners themselves often do not know what is right.
For example, picking up and cradling a dog is not the right way to stop it from barking. This only reinforces their behaviour: The dog learns that it is rewarded when it barks excessively. (Ironically, for this reason, small dogs often bark more than larger dogs.)
Being a responsible pet owner means seeking the help of a certified dog trainer to correct problematic behaviours we cannot manage, then spending time to work through these issues with our dogs. In time-sparse Singapore, this is often not done.
TWO COMPLAINTS TO BE ADDRESSED
Besides excessive barking, the two most common complaints against dogs which we come across at SOSD are: Owners not picking up their dogs’ poop, and owners letting their dogs off-leash in public areas.
Not picking up dog poop is a cardinal sin which needs to change, but the latter, in my opinion, is more difficult to address, because many dog owners do not think there is anything wrong with letting their dogs enjoy the freedom of going off-leash.
The problem with allowing dogs off-leash is that we can never be absolutely sure that our dogs will not be spooked or triggered by something or someone which may bring out their worst side. We have experienced cases where off-leash dogs ended up running off and biting someone, or another dog.
Dog owners also need to understand that even if our dogs are the sweetest angels, they may chase someone, another dog, or a car out of excitement.
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Another common scenario is when an overly-friendly dog approaches a stranger. For someone who is afraid of dogs, the sight of an approaching large dog, in particular, will be traumatising, whether or not the dog means any harm.
At the end of the day, it is important to realise a dog’s size does not determine whether they are good or bad - it is the owner who makes all the difference. In densely populated Singapore, it is very easy to for human-dog conflicts to arise if we are not mindful.
SMALL GESTURES GO A LONG WAY
Animal welfare groups follow stringent screening criteria and regulations for dogs adopted into HDB flats. For example, the dogs must undergo compulsory basic obedience training by AVS-accredited trainers.
Owners must also agree to follow a Code of Responsible Behaviour, which lays down rules and etiquette they need to follow. Failure to comply can end up with removal of the adopted dog. We do all these to ensure that the owners do their part, when introducing a larger dog into the neighbourhood.
I believe that no one inherently hates dogs. But not everyone in Singapore is used to being around larger dogs as yet.
There are simple things we can do to show that we are sensitive to fellow Singaporeans, such as allowing our neighbours to take the lift first when we are bringing our dogs downstairs, or keeping our dogs on a short leash when there are other people around so that our dogs do not get too close to them.
PAVING THE WAY FOR AN INCLUSIVE SOCIETY
As we become more mature as a society, it is only natural that we become kinder and more accepting towards our animal friends. In August 2018, a pilot expansion of Project ADORE allowed members of the public to adopt retired sniffer dogs, which are larger in size, from K9 units.
It was a significant step in the evolution of pet ownership in Singapore – a glimpse into what the future may be like, when we finally understand that man’s best friend comes in all shapes and sizes.
A large dog can be very well behaved, and conversely, a small dog may not be so. It all depends on the owners. What matters is responsible pet ownership, rather than size.
With the continued efforts of dog owners and animal welfare groups, I believe there will come a day when size will no longer be such restrictions on dog ownership in HDB flats.
Dr Siew Tuck Wah is president of SOSD.