There is no individual characteristic, or combination of characteristics, that reliably explain why a dog responds with a bite. An injurious dog bite is the rare co-occurrence of multiple circumstances and variables, both past and present.
Many dog bite studies have attempted to analyze these incidents on the basis of dog-specific characteristics. This area of research has been unsuccessful, yielding no consistent findings from study to study. The characteristics explored have included: reproductive status (altered vs. unaltered), presumed breed, sex, and size.
Attempting to isolate dog-specific characteristics has resulted in salient circumstances being ignored, in favor of the factor previously deemed the factor of interest. Consider the case of an intact, male dog chained to a barn, without food or water for 2 days, and suffering from cancerous tumors. The dog bit a 4-year-old boy. A report attempting to isolate "dog-specific factors," could then attribute the incident that had occurred to an unaltered, male dog, at minimum ignoring this particular dog's illness and mistreatment.
Mistaken beliefs about dog-specific characteristics have often diverted us from a consideration of critical factors pertinent to the discussion of community safety and dog ownership.
There are at least two parties involved in a dog bite; a dog and one or more humans. Dogs behavioral responses cannot be adequately understood apart from humans, or the situations in which humans have placed them.
Research has shown that dogs that live in close contact with their owners are more likely to look to their people to help them solve tasks.
Most U.S. jurisdictions have policies to address dog owners who allow their dogs to become a nuisance or cause injury. Prevention involves more than addressing incidents after they occur. Each human-canine relationship develops out of public view. Most dog bite-related injuries occur where the dog lives and involve either someone who lives there, or who is there by invitation. Wherever they occur, dog bite-related injuries are characterized by factors potentially within the control of dog owners. Prevention involves raising the standards of pet keeping, and persuading dog owners to integrate their dogs into the life of the family with daily opportunities for positive interactions.
Responsible pet ownership practices are the foundation: Responsible pet ownership standards include humane care (providing proper diet, veterinary care, socialization and training), humane custody (licensing and providing permanent ID), and humane control (following leash laws and not allowing pets to become threats or nuisances to the community). Education of dog owners about dog well-being and their responsibilities for the humane care, custody and control of their dogs can decrease the incidence of dog bites. In fact, one European study actually found that all of the bites to children from unfamiliar dogs outside of the home could have been prevented by simply leashing the dogs.
Specific strategies for safe interactions with dogs: Americans have hundreds of billions of interactions with dogs on a daily basis. Of the very small number that result in human injury, many could be avoided by informed supervision of infants and small children around dogs. The same study as noted above found that in none of the 69% of bite incidents that occurred in the child and dog’s own home was there an adult present. Multiple studies of dog bites to children in particular recommend education about safety around dogs, both for parents and for the children themselves. One such study found that while adults were present at the time of more than half of the incidents in the sample, they were apparently unaware of common situations that can be perceived as threatening to dogs.
Several respected organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association, Humane Society of the United States, The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and Dogs and Storks have published widely accepted plans for minimizing dog bite incidents of any kind. A modest amount of information about dog behavior, and how dogs are likely to see the behavior of infants, children, and adults, can make these relationships even safer and more rewarding than they already are.
If we want better outcomes in our communities, we need to promote responsible pet ownership: the humane care, custody and control of all dogs.
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Advance your understanding with the updated edition of "Dog Bites: Problems and Solutions"
Updated April 11, 2016
Sources AND Notes:
3. Kahn, A., Bauche, P., & Lamoureux, J. (2003). Child victims of dog bites treated in emergency departments: a prospective survey. European Journal of Pediatrics, 162(4),254-258.