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Experts say New Hope’s proposed rule that dog owners ‘properly socialize’ pets goes too far

Painting by Stephen Brehm.

Painting by Stephen Brehm.

An expansive new dog law governing canine ownership and control in the borough will be publicly considered on Tuesday, April 19, at 7:30 p.m. in the New Hope community room on New Street.

Calls for stronger regulation of dog ownership began in earnest at a New Hope Borough Council meeting in August 2015, where Riverwoods residents Keith and Denice Horlacher recounted the horror of seeing their pet Maltese killed by a large off-leash dog some two weeks earlier.

Since that time, borough council and their lawyer have worked on a set of new rules to more specifically govern dog ownership in New Hope, with eye toward avoiding future incidents involving “dangerous” dogs.

Many rules contained in the law mirror those of the state, like those mandating licensing, vaccination, and avoiding inhumane conditions. But while few question the intent of the proposed law, some elements are being quietly debated among pet owners and other residents, like those permitting individuals to confront dogs with deadly force if they feel threatened, and prohibiting use of electric fences, extension leashes, and tethering of any type.

One area of the proposed law that appears to be breaking new legal and animal behavior ground is the section entitled, “Responsible Dog Ownership; Socialization of Dogs.”

That section begins, “It is the duty of every owner to socialize his or her dog to ensure that the dog has the proper mental and social development, during all stages of the dog’s life. Proper dog socialization means exposure to the world the dog will be a part of in a safe manner with rules and guidelines, learning to be calm when the outside world is stimulating, and learning to respond to signals when that is what the dog does not want to do.”

The section goes on to say that New Hope residents cannot buy or adopt dogs over the age of six months “without first securing information as to the dog’s level of socialization…from a certified applied animal behaviorist, a board-certified veterinarian or other trained and experienced animal behavior expert.”

Should a given dog prove “not properly socialized” or its “level of socialization cannot be determined,” the proposed law requires owners to spay/neuter and microchip their pet, and possibly pay for the animal to undergo training with a behaviorist, vet or other professional and muzzle the dog in public.

So, what do the experts tasked by New Hope Borough Council with determining and modifying levels of canine “socialization” think of the borough’s attempt to define and regulate dog behavior?

“It is hard not to find elements of the proposed law contentious or downright ridiculous,” said Wendy J. Whitelam, BS, CPCT-KA, ABC-L2, CGC Evaluator, and ABC Mentor at the Pet Campus in Pineville.

“The death of [the Horlacher’s pet] Sobe was horrible and very tragic,” she said. “Unfortunately, those involved have overreacted beyond rational thought or any true understanding of dogs and their behavior. Dogs are animals, and not little people. They are loved as family members, and provide an addicting unconditional love that helps skew our vision of their animal nature.

“The most significant topic about anything ‘dog’ is attempting to guarantee behavior,” Whitelam continued. “You’d have to be God to attest to future animal behavior. Sadly, there are plenty of puppies who have been to puppy class and been raised by well-meaning owners who did all the right things, and yet the dogs have bitten or have had aggression issues as adults. There are plenty of other dogs who were totally neglected as puppies, and given no opportunities to socialize, and they were adopted by caring humans who uncovered a super social, kind, fabulous pet.

happy buddha“Genetics, diet, training methods, base temperament, medications, hormones, and illness are all factors that affect behavior,” explained Whitelam.  “Given all that, it would be difficult to adopt an adult dog with any type of assurance that the dog had been well-socialized. Puppies that end up in pet stores are born in small cages on wire mesh, barely see humans until they are removed from their mother much too soon for appropriate social development, shipped to a store where they are again in cages with little to no human contact. How would anyone attest to that puppy being well-socialized?”

Added Whitelam, “The topic of socialization itself is frequently misunderstood by most dog owners. Just getting the puppy/new dog out in the world is not socializing. Socializing a dog requires that new experiences be positive and rewarding. It only takes one negative experience for a new puppy to develop a lasting fear.”

Nikki Thompson, chief humane officer at the Bucks County SPCA, said that every dog there is evaluated for temperament, but agreed that, “There is no one recognized method of evaluating a dog.”

Observed Thompson of New Hope’s proposed law, “The intent seems good with what they’re trying to do with socialization, but it would be difficult to enforce. What a dog does in different situations is always unpredictable. They may behave well at the vet’s, and then you go home and have an issue.

“I’ve been in animal control for many years,” continued Thompson, “And I could not be 100% certain a given dog is 100% socialized.”

In terms of the potential effect on adoption efforts that requiring dog owners to obtain proof of socialization could have, “We don’t know yet,” said Thompson.

Lambertville Animal Welfare Co-Founder Heather Edwards is an expert dog trainer, and she is concerned that requiring adopted dogs to come with a socialization report will have a chilling effect on efforts by rescue groups and shelters.

“What are the measurable and observable behaviors of the dog which would allow you to determine its level of socialization?” she asked. “The American Kennel Club has a ‘Canine Good Citizen’ test to show that a pet dog is well-behaved and has basic training. The dog must meet specific criteria for components such as accepting a friendly stranger, walking through a crowd, and meeting other dogs. Without some very specific guidelines like those, it’s not clear what criteria will be applied to determine if a dog has been ‘properly socialized’.

“These criteria are WAY more stringent than those that might just be intended to determine if a dog may pose a danger to people or other animals,” Edwards continued.

“Rescue groups and shelters will not be able to write a report on the dog’s level of socialization and make recommendations for socializing the dog,” she said. “Most rescue workers are volunteers, and few rescue and shelter staff are expert dog trainers. The expense of having an expert assess each dog would be completely unaffordable and impractical for most groups.”

And that’s not all, according to Edwards. “Because almost all adopted or purchased dogs will not come with the required proof of socialization, effectively all dogs will be required to be spayed/neutered and microchipped, and muzzled or trained. The vast majority of these dogs will be lovely family pets posing no danger to anyone,” she said.

“It seems like they really need to think this through better and decide what specific behavior they are really trying to address,” concluded Edwards.

John Marcus, VMD at New Hope Veterinary Hospital and Evercare Veterinary Crematory Services, commented, “After much thought, I agree that encouraging and advocating ‘responsible dog ownership’ is important to our community. That being said, however, I believe it is critical that common sense be the guiding factor here, and for all New Hope residents to recognize the simple fact that dogs are animals, and thus, about as predictable as the weather.

“In fact, 50% of animals entering animal shelters across our country are being killed for no reason other than a lack of space, and I am proud to live in a community that up until now, has always felt progressive about animal adoption and fostering,” continued Marcus. “Dissuading people from fostering and/or adopting will only result in people acquiring pets from other sources, namely pet stores and puppy mills. Evaluations performed at shelters/rescues are limited, often by uneducated staff, and represent a snapshot of a dog’s behavior in a highly stressful environment.

“In other words, they are practically meaningless and certainly don’t guarantee the ‘proper mental and social development’ of any dog, regardless of who signs off on it,” Marcus added. “Furthermore, to say that no person shall take or accept a dog that is over the age of six months is completely arbitrary as, in my experience, most dogs don’t develop their personalities until much later in life.”

Concluded Marcus, “Please understand that I feel terrible for the family who experienced the traumatic event with their beloved pet last year. It is heartbreaking, but I don’t believe the answer to preventing something like that from happening again is ambiguous legislation and ticketing. How about some community programs or resources geared towards education?”

Whitelam agreed. “Educating dog owners and creating opportunities for them to get help with a loved family pet seems to me a whole lot more humane and sensible,” she said.

About the author

Charlie Sahner

“Once you can accept the universe as matter expanding into nothing that is something, wearing stripes with plaid comes easy." - Einstein


  • Leash laws, Sure no problem. Other than that lets not be so pusillanimous. Placing further restrictions on dog adoption will lead to fewer adoptions and more dogs being put down simply because some people were afraid of one possible scenario. We can still hold individuals accountable for their animals without additional legislation.

  • Once again our local grammatical genius, Pink Flamingo, has chimed in. In addition to being an expert on all things New Hope, Ms. Flamingo has now diagnosed her neighbor as a sociopath. Thank you for all the great things and opinions you provide us Pink Flamingo. P.S., It is still ok to use semicolons in your sentences if you are familiar with their application; you are not supposed to write sentences exactly as they fall out of you mouth.

  • This article is way off. There is no way you can change the DNA of certain Dogs with any amount of training and socializing. Some were bred to fight/kill and your TLC will not change that. BSL will never pass since so many organization feel it is discriminating. Therefore, owners of aggressive dogs need to be severley fined and be held accountable. Unfortunately, many owners of these aggressive type dogs are ignorant and do not contain their dogs.

  • I have worked with dogs at animal shelters for
    years. No one predict any dogs behavior toward
    other dogs. In public all dogs should be on
    leashes. Dog owners who know their dog is
    dog aggressive should mussel their dogs in
    public. I have worked with all breeds of dogs.
    NO one breed of dog is dangerous. Irresonsible
    owners need to be held accountable with
    heavy fines, their dog needs to be quarenteened
    should it bite or attack any other person or
    dog. There should be heavy fines for owners of
    unleashed dogs and if their dog injures or kills
    another dog their dog should be euthanized.
    ann warren solebury

      • Or perhaps, death to the dog owner – perhaps a first son would be sufficient, or a limb or just a finger … seems reasonable. How about spay/neuter the owner, or a child, or training and a microchip.

  • Laws without enforcement are little more than suggestions. This ordinance is not provable in court or otherwise. How about ordinances that make sense with stiff fines and jail time for non compliance? Like dogs MUST be on a leash, people MUST be able to control the dog they have leashed (if you weight 25 stone wet you won’t be able to control a large dog), people MUST have proper containment for their breed of dog, and dogs that attack MUST be put down not returned to the same irresponsible, delusional owners who allowed an attack to happen in the first place. Socialization won’t cure all dogs of abnormal aggression.

    • Who is Alexandra Semyonova?

      What are her academic credentials? What degrees does she have? She describes herself on her website as an “animal behaviorist”. Elsewhere, she claims to be a psychologist. Do you have any idea of what peer-reviewed papers she has published?

      The fact is, she has no academic credentials or degrees. She has not published any papers for peer review. And her big book “The 100 Silliest Things People Say about Dogs” is a self-published work from a vanity press. Her major premise seems to be that dogs only operate normally within an extreme, rigid dominance hierarchy (aka “Alpha Theory”) – except for Pit Bulls, who don’t respond to or accept dominance. Therefore, they’re not “normal” dogs. Of course, this is simply circular reasoning and there isn’t a more pure strain of bullshit to be had anywhere.

      There is not a single recent, credible study or paper defending dominance hierarchies and/or alpha theory. Anywhere. Semyonova even disputes her own premise in a blog entry on her own website:

      “This study shows that the existence of the phenomenon “dominance” is questionable, but that in any case “dominance” does not operate as a principle in the social organization of domestic dogs. Dominance hierarchies do not exist and are in fact impossible to construct without entering the realm of human projection and fantasy.” — The Social Organization of the Domestic Dog

      Here are some of the things real scientists & canine professionals are saying about it:

      “Writers who refer to dominance and alpha behaviour in dog training are basing their message on outdated and now disproved theory (Steinker, 2007a). “ — The Alpha Theory: based on a misguided premise – Debra Millikan, Chief Trainer of Canine Behaviour School in Adelaide

      “Both he and Dr. John Wright believe in anthropomorphism when discussing the emotional states of dogs. His theory was that to change aggression, you must change the emotional state of the dog to do so, and release stress through activity. He does not accept that there are many true dominant dogs (if any) and therefore (in his opinion) the canine/human hierarchy is really a myth.” — Training Bytes aggression symposium at the University of Guelph — comment by Linda Hamilton

      “It won’t be hard to get the wolf pack mentality to go by the board simply because we don’t think many of the experts ever really believed it. It is through social play behavior that animals learn from one another. Further, it is fun to play with our dogs even if none of us learn anything. It will certainly make more sense to the dog than to be tumbled onto its back and growled at by a human.” — A Talk with Ray Coppinger, PhD & Lorna Coppinger

      “However, scientists believe that a dogs do not have a sense of self so it could be more accurate to say that it behaves with no inhibition and it is uninhibited behaviour that we interpret as dominant behaviour. Owners often describe a belief that their dog is trying to increase its status over them. This would require that their dog has a capacity for forward planning and to know how its behaviour affects the feelings and thoughts of others, which we believe they are not capable of. So the notion that the dog behaves with lesser or greater inhibition according to who it is interacting with and the value of the resource in question may be a better way of describing what is going on.” — Canine Dominance Revisited — David Appleby MSc CCAB

      “There is strictly no such thing – people are predominantly parent figures to their dogs, not pack leaders in hierchical arrangements and there is a wealth of science from evolutionary biologists such as Professor Ray Coppinger to substantiate that view” — Interview with Dr. Peter Neville

      “The most significant problem with viewing dog-human relationships in the context of social dominance is that it implies and promotes an adversarial relationship between the two. It sets up a win-lose scenario, that actually ends up in a lose-lose scenario (as most win-lose scenarios do). It is incompatible with cooperation by its very nature, cooperation being something you need to promote an effective bond and training environment.” — What’s Wrong with Dominance Theory & Aversives — James O’Heare

      “Dog trainers have commonly accepted a model of training based on a supposed emulation of the behaviors of wolves, particularly Alpha wolves. Central to this model is the notion of “dominance”. This model is conceptually flawed in that it rests on some serious misconceptions about wolf behavior as well as serious misconceptions about the interactions between dogs and humans.” — Moving Beyond The Dominance Myth — Morgan Spector

      ““Alpha” wolves (now called “breeders” by most wolf biologists) do not train other members of the pack. Current wolf studies have also shown that they are not always the leading animals when wolves travel, nor do they always lead in hunting or eat first when a kill is made.” — Some Thoughts on Letting go of the Dominance Paradigm — Beth Duman

      “dominant and submissive behaviors aren’t what they seem: they’re more rightly called threatening and non-threatening postures. And they aren’t inherited traits in dogs and wolves, nor are they part of the pack instinct’s non-existent hierarchical structure; they’re simply communicative postures that express a dog’s inner anxiety.” — Is Your Dog Dominant, or Just Feeling Anxious? — Lee Charles Kelley

      “Dominance theory is so muddled that it often contradicts itself. For example, if a “dominant dog” is acting aggressively and the solution is through “calm-assertive” energy which makes the human the “dominant pack leader,” wouldn’t a dominant dog act calm-assertive instead of aggressive?” — The Dog Whisperer Controversy — Lisa Mullinax CPDT

      “Labeling a high-ranking wolf alpha emphasizes its rank in a dominance hierarchy. However, in natural wolf packs, the alpha male or female are merely the breeding animals, the parents of the pack, and dominance contests with other wolves are rare, if they exist at all. During my 13 summers observing the Ellesmere Island pack, I saw none. Thus, calling a wolf an alpha is usually no more appropriate than referring to a human parent or a doe deer as an alpha. Any parent is dominant to its young offspring, so “alpha” adds no information. ” — Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196-1203; Alpha Status, Dominance, and Division of Labor in Wolf Packs — L. David Mech, Senior Scientist, Biological Resources Division, U.S. Geological Survey

      “First, because it does not seem to occur in the wild, this article suggests the strong dominance hierarchy that has been described for wolves may be a by-product of captivity. If true, it implies that social behavior—even in wolves—may be a product more of environmental circumstances and contingencies than an instinctive directive. Second, because feral dogs do not exhibit the classic wolf-pack structure, the validity of the canid, social dominance hierarchy again comes into question.” — Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science; Volume 7, Issue 4, 2004, A Fresh Look at the Wolf-Pack Theory of Companion-Animal Dog Social Behavior — Wendy van Kerkhove

  • I just had to comment on this as well. I totally agree with Sarah – the issue is with the owners, not the dogs. And I believe that most of what the Boro Council has tried to do with the new ordinance is all in the sake of enforcing more responsible pet ownership. All the attention is on the owners – taking responsibility for their animal.

    I cannot stress enough – as Jean notes as well – there is a lot of scary potential going on in our area. The Council created the draft based on the Police Chief’s 6 + year history of dog related issues, previous reports that HAD been called in and recorded, and numerous emails and letters that were received before and after the August 2015 meeting regarding dog related incidents that were previously unknown. Our tragic event just ended up being the thing that finally brought this to the forefront. Sad for us…and not what we have wanted to deal with for so many months now.

    Please note – the article above states that the Borough Council and “their lawyer” have been working on this new set of rules. If you are referring to the Borough’s lawyer, then you are correct. Keith & I have retained no such attorney. All of our efforts to help with this ordinance has come from personal research, the help of the PA Dog Warden, numerous other Boroughs and Townships who willingly provided what they use as dog ordinance, (some incredibly detailed) and an attorney, who is a Riverwoods resident, who has gotten involved because he also had BOTH his dogs attacked and one seriously hurt, 8 days after Sobe’s death in another incident.

    I was a good dog owner. All my dogs could be off leash, taken anywhere and always under my control. It takes time, effort and sometimes money to raise/train a dog who won’t be a nuisance, detriment or danger to your neighborhood. And I always believed that this was the majority – especially here in New Hope – of dog owners. You don’t buy/adopt/foster a dog, slap a collar on him and hope for the best while ignoring the signs that you have a problem animal.

    That’s what I think this is all about. Unfortunately, legalese and red tape make it so much more complicated.
    I wish it wasn’t.

  • I totally support finding ways to address the dangerous dog problems that many of us have encountered but in response to the proposed ruling about dogs adopted over the age of six months, I can point out at least five dogs in New Hope who were raised from puppyhood by their owners and yet matured into dogs so ferocious that many of us literally hide at the sight of them even at a distance. These are dogs range from about 80 to160 pounds and when they catch sight of another dog they go into total attack mode trying to get loose while everyone prays the leashes do not break or that the owners do not fall and lose control. None of these dogs should be out in public without a muzzle and they should be professionally trained military style with shock collars that can act as emergency brakes to stop a dog attack because once in full attack mode, they do not respond to voice commands.

    Individual dogs have different temperaments and thinking that because someone raises a pup it will be sociable and well mannered in public is misguided. The death of Sobe was due to the family with two pit bull dogs that had escaped their fenced yard a dozen times and yet they took no action to fix the problem and allowed the dogs outside without any supervision. This horrific attack occurred after their previous pit bull had been euthanized for being loose and attacking another dog. Their lack of knowledge about pit bulls and the total lack of training of their dogs mixed with their indifference was a a lethal combination and caused the death of four dogs.

    Dogs adopted from shelters are spayed or neutered before being adopted out. Setting up a training program for the adopted dogs could be a good way for owners to become acquainted with their new pets and would give trainers running the program an opportunity to evaluate the dogs, especially in social situations where they are exposed to many other dogs. Then they could address the needs of specific animals who might need more help and/or training and also advise and train the new owners.

    There does need to be a police watch list of dogs whose aggressive behavior makes them a potential threat to the safety of people and pets in our community. Should the police deem specific dogs as posing a strong threat, they could take actions to require the owners to use a muzzle and/or get professional training for the safety of all involved.

  • These regulations will do nothing to deter irresponsible dog owners from allowing their dogs to be off leash. I have had two frightening encounters with large dogs, off leash, jumping up at the small 9lb. dog I was protecting in my arms, all while listening to their owners say, “Don’t worry, he won’t hurt you.” The “Maltese Murderer” is the owner, not the dog.

    • You are correct Sarah. They do not enforce aggressive dog laws in my town despite the amount of times ignorant dog owners have let their dogs run free and terrorize children and other pets. I have no choice but to carry my gun now when walking my small dog. I’ve only had to use it once when a Pit Bull owner was walking their dog off leash and it charge me and my Angel. Didn’t kill the Pit but two shots to his legs slowed him down enough for me to save my little Angel. The loser owner told me he was going to sue but when the cops arrived he had no case since his dog was not leashed. Anyone walking dogs today should be armed becuase Mace will not deter a viscious dog

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