How to Avoid Future Dog Bite Tragedies

For the past 11 years, I have been the CEO of the non profit, Pinups for Pitbulls, Inc. We work to educate and advocate on behalf of all dogs. To support our mission, I attained a Master of Science in Public Policy and based my research on breed specific bans and whether or not they can create safer communities.

Recent media reports of a dog bite fatality left our community wondering how we can prevent future tragedies and left us with more questions than answers. I would like to take this opportunity to share my research which focused on peer reviewed, fact based, unbiased studies.

The American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior conducted a study on dog bites and aggression over a 7-year period. What they found was that dog bite fatalities are extremely rare as a percentage of the dog population. The study concluded that there are an average three fatal bites per ten million dogs per year. Those three fatalities are tragic and unnecessary. However, they are avoidable with education. There are common occurrences in dog bite cases described in recent Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) research that could help us avoid future tragedies:

• Absence of an able-bodied person to intervene;
• Victims are typically strangers or have little interaction with the dogs;
• Owner failure to neuter dogs;
• Children, elderly, and physically or mentally impaired people can lack the ability to interact appropriately with dogs without correct supervision;
• Dogs kept isolated from regular positive human interactions are unsocialized.

In almost every case where a child was bitten by a dog, these factors were common:

• An adult is rarely, if ever, present.
• When an adult or able-bodied person was present, they did not recognize warning signals or discomfort in the dog.

There has been much discussion of breed. Any dog may bite, regardless of the dog's size, sex, or reported breed or breed mix. In 2013, the JAVMA shows that twenty breeds and mixes were identified as being involved in 256 fatal attacks between 2000-2009 in the U.S. It is also important for the reader to know that in these studies, the owner was not present during 87% of the fatal dog bite related attacks. Furthermore, 85% of the victims had only an incidental relationship with the dog, or none at all. This is one of the most important factors relative to what happened recently in a Henderson County, North Carolina incident.

A study released in 2005 by three veterinary referral centers (Denenberg et al.) in three countries (U.S., Canada and Australia) found that Jack Russell Terriers, Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers were the breeds most frequently referred for aggression. What they found, however, was that breed alone is not predictive of the risk of aggressive behavior and that dogs and owners must be evaluated individually. What we put into a dog is primarily what we will get out of a dog. Context plays a major role in the way that a dog reacts in a situation.

The AVMA advises that dog management factors are key players in avoiding an unnecessary bite injury or fatality. Spaying and neutering, not tethering for long periods, and child supervision are critical. Animal control officers and community wellness advisors are encouraged to instruct adults to never leave a child alone unsupervised with any dog. Dogs do not understand when a child is teasing and children do not understand when a dog is offering a warning signal. Risks like these can be avoided through education.

A loved and family owned dog traditionally does not make headlines. A dog that has shelter, food, training, and care is typically a loyal dog, regardless of the breed into which that dog was born. We can avoid dog bites with basic training, direct supervision of both children and dogs, and the following factors:

• Enforcement of existing leash laws;
• Raising fines on dog-related incidents by holding reckless dog owners accountable;
• Enforcing tethering laws (i.e. do not allow dogs to be tethered for long periods or unsupervised);
• Spaying/Neutering pets.

This is not a breed specific issue. It is important that we as a community understand that we can create a safer, humane community by working to educate our constituents and ourselves. All dogs are individuals. Let's set them up for success, not failure.