Last semester I took Paul Waldau’s course, Animals in Public Policy and the Law, where we explored the many aspects of how nonhuman animals are impacted by our often human-centered (Waldau, 2011) policy making. We read about past and current policy on the books, while also considering how and if such policies are enforced. For one of my papers I theorized that the lack of human ability to decipher, or even consider, dog communication, specifically through their utilization of body language, presents a public policy concern. Here’s an excerpt:
Our current understanding of the complexities of dog behavior is limited, particularly in the area of canine communication, which is an essential component of dog-dog and dog-human interactions. Developing an understanding of how dogs communicate is a public policy concern because of the potential for miscommunication, which has been show to result in conflict between these two species. By looking at the small, seemingly innocuous ways in which guardians interact with their dogs on a daily basis we can hope to discover and then examine potential areas for change that will benefit the human-dog intersection. When humans fail to appreciate the information a dog is communicating the potential risks increase, especially during those scenarios where a dog feels threatened or fearful. Much of a dog’s reality is spent determining whether she is safe or in danger, and this is where we see the first signs of a breakdown in dog-human communication; dogs and humans have “differing perceptions of what constitutes a threat” (Donaldson, 1996). A fearful or threatened dog is “extremely unpredictable” (Aloof, 2005) and far more likely to bite, and the fallout of this can be seen in the 4.7 million dog bites occurring in 2011 alone (www.CDC.org, 2011). This statistic grows more worrisome when realizing that not all dog bite incidents are reported to authorities. Miscommunication between humans and dogs creates a failure to address potentially pertinent issues, thereby increasing the risk of a dog displaying a threat behavior or even biting. There is a great need to reassess the academic literature on systems of communication in dogs and then re-education the public, in order to improve our interactions with these most integral companions.
Consideration for the communication styles of dogs qualifies as a public policy concern because this exploration has great potential to, ultimately, decrease incidents of conflict between humans and dogs. This decrease in conflict will certainly improve the lives of innumerable members of our society, which is arguably the ultimate goal of any public policy measure (Wildavsky, 1987). Aaron Wildavsky emphasizes this sentiment when he writes, “Above all,policy analysis is about improvement, about improving citizen preferences for the policies they-the-people-ought to prefer” (Wildavsky, 1987). The focus of public policy should be on creating ways to better the lives of the public, and addressing problematic dog-human interactions fits into that focus.
Aloff, B. (2005). Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing.
Donaldson, J. (1996). The Culture Clash. Berkeley, CA: James & Kenneth Publishers.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Dog Bite: Fact Sheet.” Retrieved December 8, 2011
Wildavsky, Aaron (1987). Speaking Truth to Power. New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.