Once again we hear of a tragedy in which a human being has lost their life through the actions of a dog. I have the greatest heartfelt sympathy for anyone whose lives are affected by such a traumatic event. I can only imagine the heartache and sorrow, not to mention the guilt, that one must feel at the loss of a loved one, especially a child.
One should never judge, or even offer an opinion, on individual circumstances without being fully aware the all of the events that led up to such a shocking and harrowing death but we can, and should, look forward to the future to prevent another family having to go through their own personal hell.
Fatal dog attacks are thankfully rare in the UK, as they are in the rest of the world when looked at in the pro rata of population, but of course even one is one sad case too many. Even sadder is that there is a degree of predictability that makes fatal dog attacks preventable in many cases.
A recently published review of statistics from fatal dog attacks in the United States shows factors that play a large part in many fatal attacks. Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009) by Gary J. Patronek, VMD, PhD; Jeffrey J. Sacks, MD, MPH; Karen M. Delise; Donald V. Cleary, BA; Amy R. Marder, VMD published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association; 243:1726–1736; December 2013.
An American study is useful because the factors are likely to be universal, and there are many more fatal attacks in the USA simply because there are both more people and more dogs. If we can predict these factors, through grouping them, we can also avoid them.
So, what are they? Well, they will not be a surprise to anyone who deals with aggression in dogs. In order of predictability they are:
- The absence of an able-bodied person to intervene (87.1%)
- Incidental or no familiar relationship of victims with dogs (85.2%),
- Un-neutered dogs (84.4%),
- The weight range of most dogs was 23 to 45 kg (approx 50 to 100 lb) (79.3%)
- Compromised ability of victims to interact appropriately with dogs (77.4%)
- Dogs were kept isolated from regular positive human interactions (76.2%)
- Nearly three-quarters of the deaths occurred on the owner’s property (74.2%)
- Nearly half of victims were < 5 years of age (45.3%)
- Four or more factors co-occurred in 80.5% deaths.
Of the three-quarters of victims that were classed as unable to interact appropriately, most were children and others were mentally or physically compromised, either medically or through drink or drugs. These would be regarded as vulnerable people in any situation. And in this situation no one was there to help them on 9/10 occasions.
Three-quarters of dogs were not adequately socialised – they were isolated from proper contact with people. They were not able to gain the necessary communication skills to interact with people. Most were un-neutered males that weighed 50-100 lbs.
Fatalities happen at home – three-quarters of deaths occurred on the dog (owners’) own property, and most victims were not the dog’s primary carer or owner, but had an incidental relationship – a family member, friend or visitor to the house.
Four known risk factors occurred in more than 8/10 fatalities. We know what they are, but deaths still happen.
Interestingly, the authors were not able to establish a definite breed for most of the dogs and didn’t attempt to otherwise categorise them, relying on “discordant reporting”. Of the 45 (17%) dogs that were positively identified from pedigree, parentage or DNA, there were 20 different breeds represented. Although this shows that (almost) any dog can be involved in a fatal attack, it seems to be a bit of a cop-out and does not progress our understanding of the effects of breed. Even if most dogs did not fit a breed standard, the authors could have been a bit more descriptive of the types involved (Hounds? Pastoral? Terriers?)
So we know many of the risk factors for fatal dog attack and we know that there are many non-fatal attacks that will fall into the “there-but-for-the-grace-of-God” category. But how will this knowledge help prevent future attacks?
The first thing is to publicise the knowledge through education. I’ve started. I wrote Dogs that Bite and Fight before the US study was published, but it contains the same warnings and how to go about reducing the risks.
Secondly is to promote responsible dog ownership. This can only now be done through a combination of education and legislation. I understand that a government sees no votes in bringing back a dog licence, but with the licence could come all kinds of benefits for welfare and for safety.
There are huge benefits to owning a pet dog, to our lifestyle and health for starters, but with benefits come costs.
Owning a dog is not a human right, it is a privilege. A privilege that begets responsibilities: the responsibility to educate yourself in the breed and species; to insure and chip; to vaccinate and health-check; the responsibility to train your pet and integrate it into human society; the responsibility to re-home pets in a responsible way; the responsibility to take responsibility for your dog’s actions; the responsibility to keep your children and vulnerable adults safe; the responsibility to know when you are out of your depth and need help, and to seek that help from an appropriate place.
How about a licence that applies a sliding scale of discounts for proof of insurance, health checks, attending training and a clean bill of complaints?
How about education for all dog owners at first ante-natal class? How about pet education in schools factored in to the national curriculum? How about some of the bigger charities getting together to publicise the risk factors?
If you have a dog and think that some of the risk factors apply to you and your family, act now. Don’t panic, but assess your situation.
- Do you have a medium to large muscular dog?
- Is he neutered or not?
- Do you have children under 5 or other vulnerable people visiting your home?
- Is there ALWAYS an able-bodied adult there who can intervene? (Not in the next room, making a cup of tea, that’s too late.)
- Do you know that your dog is well socialised with the category of vulnerable person who lives in or visits your home? If you do not KNOW, you have to assume they are not – this includes rescue dogs whose exact provenance is not known.
If you are now worried, don’t abandon your dog, but get some professional guidance. There are stacks of ways of working with your dog and your children or vulnerable adults to make theirs a safer relationship, but each has to be treated as an individual.
If you have family or friends that you think might be at risk, tell them. Don’t accuse them and demonise their dog, but mention that there’s a study… and what the risk factors are. Help them to make an informed decision. Educate.
And in the meantime don’t EVER leave your dog (of any kind and however dependable you think he might be) alone with a child or vulnerable adult – it just isn’t worth the risk.