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Fatal Dog Attacks – Prevention is the Answer

IMG_9144 fox claireOnce 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. 

5 replies on “Fatal Dog Attacks – Prevention is the Answer”

Fantastic article and I agree with every word, but I have a question on the lines of dog licencing; from what I have read about them, they involve a small, annual fee yearly in order to renew them? And anyone can apply for one?

My question is; if dog licensing were brought back as it was, is there a risk that the vast majority of caring, law abiding dog owners will then have yet one more fee that they may not be able to afford, and the owners who mistreat their dogs- be it consciously or through lack of information- will simply slip under the radar and or continue to treat their dogs the same way once applying for a licence?

I thoroughly agreed with the line: “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?”

But I would still worry about how much affect it would have on promoting good dog ownership in certain owners, is there any way that we can make this idea- a licencing structure based on promoting and maintaining good dog ownership- more widely considered and even bring it to the attention of the government in a way in which it will be seriously considered?

Thank you for your time 🙂 I am always so glad to see your common sense articles!


If we have licensing we have to have enforcement to ensure compliance. Responsible dog owners owe it to all dogs to maintain a system that promotes responsible dog ownership. A realistic fee that reflects the process would therefore be necessary, rather than the token one of the past.

A great deal is made of dog attacks but from 2005 and 2013 there were 15 fatal dog attacks.

There are just short of 2 murders a day, 2 a week killed by their partners and 2 children killed by their own parent or close relative.

There is one dog for every eight people which would mean that if dogs were only as dangerous as humans there would be eighty fatal dog attacks per year.

In my experience there are three main reasons for dog attacks. The first is inexperienced dog owners who become apprehensive when someone approaches, the dog thinks that the person approaching presents a risk. The others are the kinds of people that are aggressive in themselves and the dog is just an extension of this. The other is a lack of socialisation, if dogs are taken where socialisation with other dogs and people is the norm then the dog and the owner become relaxed and confident.

If the relationship is right the dog will come to the owner for protection not the other way round. The

Great to find someone who is an authority in the dog world advocating licensing, I have written to MPs about this and all I ever get back is ‘it would cost too much’ and ‘irresponsible dog owners wouldn’t bother’. As you say, no votes in it.

Of course effort would have to be made to enforce it and the fee would have to be realistic. plus there would need to be evidence of the ability and intention to be a responsible dog owner. A sighthound rescue I homecheck for requires all potential adopters to complete a basic online canine psychology course (I think it casts £10) before they are allowed a dog. A questionnaire on legal responsibilities would also be helpful.

I do feel statistics need as always to be treated with some caution. More court cases may arise from more and more dog behaviours being defined as ‘dangerous’. Higher hospital statistics may reflect a change in reporting practices. And while some dogs are clearly not adequately trained and controlled (I meet lots when out with mine, often of the small and cute variety) I’m not sure we aren’t developing a generation of dangerously repressed dogs because so many canine behaviours are now classified as ‘dangerous’ and responsible dog owners fear their dogs being accused of being ‘out of control’ if, for example, they bark excitedly while playing. Plus the increased paranoia about dogs – I’ve had people run away screaming at one ‘woof’ from INSIDE my car and he’s only a collie! And any dog with it’s mouth open is ‘baring its teeth’ – when you have a greyhound they feel the heat and tend to walk around open-mouthed in the summer. Ironically one study fond that when shown pictures of a dog ACTUALLY baring its teeth over 50% of children believed the dog was ‘smiling’. Education, education, education – and not only of dog owners!

Thanks Harriet,
I largely agree, but the definition of “dangerous” hasn’t changed since 1991, neither have the hospital reporting practices – they only count an overnight admission. I know the Blue Dog study you refer to and sadly many adults also can’t interpret canine communication either.
Thanks for your perspective.

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