The bond between man and dog goes far back in the history of mankind and countless studies point to the benefits of owning a dog. Yet, there are times where the relationship between the two species takes a turn for the worst. An estimated 4.5 million dog bites are reported in the U.S. each year. Fortunately the vast majority of bites cause only minimal injuries. In almost 800,000 of cases however, medical care is needed and in rare cases, the dog bites lead to human fatalities. Although concerning, when we put these numbers in perspective there is about 1 death by dog for every 2.5 million dogs in the country. When compared to people being murdered by other humans, we have 1000 times more chances to be killed by one of our own rather than by our canine friend! Nonetheless, serious or fatal bites draw much attention and raise concern that often lead to drastic legal measures in an attempt to control the problem. Understanding the factors leading to such dramatic outcomes can help develop preventive strategies that may save both the humans and the dogs. A very extensive study was just published in The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) and reveals some of the main factors that lead to fatal injuries from our best friend.
According to the ASPCA statistics as well as a study a survey on Pennsylvania children (Beck, 1985), close to 50% of all children are bitten before the age of 12! Our children have one out of two chances of being bitten by a dog. The majority of these bites of minor and generally go unreported, but they point out to the fact that, clearly, there is an urgent need for better information to parents and kids. Unrealistic expectations that the dog should tolerate the child’s way of playing coupled with lack of knowledge of the dog’s stress signals can sometimes lead to catastrophic results. The sources of information are out there, but if parents feel confident that they know enough about dogs to keep everyone safe, they won’t look for ways to better educate themselves. Since the vast majority of dog bites are from a dog the child knows, whether the family pet, the neighbor’s or friend’s, a false sense of security can develop.
Dogs don’t bite without a reason so the majority of bites are preventable. Let me re-frame that statement: bites are preventable when we know what to look for and what conditions may push Fido to put teeth on us. Those who are the most at risk are children between 5-9 years old and male adults. A study aimed at identifying the risk factors between children and dogs (Chlopčíková & Mojžíšová, 2010) revealed 3 main reasons why children may get bit by a dog:
1/ There are ‘alarming deficiencies in the knowledge of communication and canine body language’. In other words, our children have very little to no understanding of dog behavior and cannot tell when the dog is pushed beyond his comfort zone.
2/ When children see themselves as having authority over the dog, they are more likely to try to ‘dominate’ the dog, to be the ‘alpha’. In other words, instead of developing a relationship based on mutual respect and understanding, they tend to forcefully impose their will on the animal. Many studies (Blackwell & al., 2007; Hiby & al., 2004) establish a direct correlation between confrontational techniques, or dominance based approaches and increased aggression from the dog. When the child or adult is associated with feelings of stress, anxiety or fear, the dog is much more likely to react. In most cases, that reaction is meant as a warning sign, a way to stop the perceived abuse.
3/ When children are left unsupervised with the dog the risk is higher. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, when children are allowed to walk the dog on their own, they cannot be expected to know what to do in case another dog comes running in their direction. They may try to protect their dog by putting themselves in-between the dogs and get bit.
When bites kill:
With the majority of bites being minor and not requiring medical attention, there are an estimated of 1-2 million bites that go unreported each year. In very rare cases, however, the bites lead to fatal injuries. In those extreme cases however, it seems that the causes leading to the tragedy are often quite different. Taking a close analysis at the 256 fatality cases that occurred between 2000-2009, researchers focused on identifying preventable factors of the incidents (Patronek & al., 2013):
- There was no able-bodied person present to intervene (In 87% of cases);
- The victim didn’t know the dog (In 85% of cases);
- The dogs were intact (in 84% of cases);
- The victim didn’t have the physical ability to manage the situation, due to either age or physical condition (in 77% of cases);
- The dogs were kept as resident dogs (kept on the property) instead of family pets (in 76% of cases);
- The dogs were mismanaged by the owner (in 37% of cases)
- The dogs were neglected or abused by the owner (in 21% of cases).
In 80% of cases, at least 4 of these factors were present.
Unlike with other dog bites, when fatalities are involved, most dogs are resident dogs on the property(76%), not pets. They were kept outside on a chain or in an isolated fenced or indoor area. 15% were allowed to roam free. As mentioned above, when dogs bite, it’s generally a way to stop an unpleasant interaction, but the bite is mostly controlled, inhibited. When the dogs aren’t given the opportunity to form positive associations and attachments to people, they may inflict more serious bites when they feel the need to protect themselves.
Many studies have shown certain breeds tend to bite more than others. This study however reports that in 80% of cases, the breed of the dogs involved could not reliably be identified. In only 18% of cases were they able to clearly identify the dog’s breed. A study reported that we don’t reliably identify dog breeds, even when working with dogs professionally (Olson & al., 2012), so when most reported dog bite fatalities come from media reports, the reliability of the information is in question.
How can we prevent dog bites?
- Education plays a key factor in the reduction of dog-related injuries. The public needs to gain a better understanding of where to buy a dog and how to interact with dogs. With half the children being bit, this information needs to be part of the school curriculum.
- Making dog training an essential part of dog ownership. Few guardians understand the need to take their dog to training classes. More effort needs to be made to bring forth the idea that dog training is an integrate part of owning a dog.
- Socialize your dog and keep exposing your dog to people of all sorts, other dogs and different situations. Dogs that have the opportunity to experience the world regularly are more confident and less likely to feel threatened or scared by strangers or novel stimuli.
- Stay away from forceful and coercive training techniques that lead to stress and anxiety of the dog versus understanding, respect and positive associations between the two species. As a rule of thumb, if a dog trainer is repeatedly bit by his clients’ dogs, we should question his/her advice. This should be a clear sign that the trainer does not know how to read a dog.
- Don’t treat a dog unkindly. Abuse leads to stress and fear that can push the most docile animal to defend him/herself.
- Don’t keep your dog in isolation. Dogs are social animals and constant isolation and restrain is an abuse that can have serious consequence on their mental state and their overall behavior.
- Don’t approach dogs you don’t know. The polite and appropriate way to interact with a dog is to let the dog make contact and come towards us. When we don’t invade their space and allow them to make contact when they’re comfortable, we help them build the confidence that they’re safe in our presence.
- Supervise your dog when around young children or strangers. No matter how confident we are about our dog, children cannot be expected to pick up the dog’s stress signals and may push the dog beyond his/her comfort level.
- Don’t let your dog roam! Many dog attacks involve dogs that are running loose outside of their yard. Allowing your dog to freely roam the neighborhood is putting other dogs and people at risk.
Jennifer Cattet Ph.D.