Building Social Competence: The real deal in dog safety training

In 2013 the most comprehensive study to date asked whether the dogs (fewer than 1 dog in 2 million)  involved in dog bite-related fatalities (DBRF) had anything in common with one another. The collaboration of a veterinary epidemiologist, a public health expert, an animal behaviorist and dog behavior researchers examined the available evidence regarding every DBRF in the US over a 10 year period, a total of 256.  

They found 7 situations that were often missing in the lives of these dogs. All  7 provide important opportunities to develop what’s called “social competence,” the scientific term for learning how to get along with their human families. More than 80% of the dogs lacked at least 4 of the 7.

We cannot claim that the lack of these circumstances causes dogs to be at higher risk of being involved in a DBRF as it is impossible to know how many dogs are deprived of such interactions and supervision in their relationships with people and never injure a person at all. However, it is still worth examining how addressing these correlations may reduce the already extremely rare instances of DBRFs or even seriously injurious bites in general.



A responsible and capable person is present to manage interactions between the dog and any vulnerable person.

In only 12.9% of cases studied was there someone else present to intervene. Victims are usually alone with the dog.


A person very familiar to the dog is present (both in interactions with no one else present and in introductions to strangers).

In only 14.8% of cases, a person with a familiar relationship with the dog was present. Including 1 on 1 interactions with no one else present and in introductions to strangers.

A person whom the dog sees as inner-circle familiar, e.g., the owner and thus reliably safe and a source of good things, is unlikely to be the target of extreme defensive behavior, and is likely to be looked to for direction when the dog is doubtful about a stranger.


An owner who has the dog spayed/neutered.

In only 15.6% of cases was there an owner who had the dog spayed/neutered.

This factor may be less about de-sexing the dog and more about simply indicating an owner who provides recommended veterinary care.


People who are physically or mentally unable to manage their interactions with the dog are not left alone with them.

In only 22.6% of cases were people who are physically or mentally unable to manage their interactions with the dog not left alone with them.

People who look and act in ways that are unfamiliar to an individual dog are often seen as potentially threatening and thus their interactions with the dog are less likely to escalate if supervised.


The dog has daily opportunities to develop social competence through positive daily interactions with family members.

In only 25.8% of cases did the dog have daily opportunities to develop social competence through positive daily interactions with family members.

Dog has sufficient regular, pleasant, consistent interaction with people he lives with to know that they are safe and to know what is allowed. The rules can vary widely from household to household as long as the dog is familiar with what socializing is acceptable. 


Owner has no history of having mismanaged the dog.

In 62% of cases, no record was found of the owner having mismanaged the dog.

For example, by failing to confine the dog securely, resulting in the dog roaming. However, the history of prior mismanagement, other than actual animal control recorded complaints, is more difficult to document than circumstances of actual DBRF events, so it is possible that this is an overestimation.



Owner provides for dog’s basic needs, e.g., food, water, shelter, and has no history of having treated the dog cruelly.

In 79% of cases, there was no record of the owner having been cited for neglecting or abusing the dog.

However, most animal cruelty goes unreported and as general history of the dog’s living conditions, is more difficult to document than the immediate circumstances of a DBRF, so this may be an overestimation.


Breed is not a factor – a dog’s appearance tells you nothing about whether he is likely to hurt someone.


Among the small number of dogs involved in DBRF’s, whose breed could be credibly identified, there were dogs of 20 different breeds.


Of animal professionals are wrong when  visually identifying breed

Due to misinformation on breed identification, focusing on breed is not helpful in preventing dog bite-related incidents. 

Media Is Unreliable

Especially when reporting about breed

40% of the dogs reported by the media differed from the breed(s) listed on the animal control case reports.

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90% of media reports identified dogs as a single breed however 46% of dogs in the US are mixed breed dogs.

This paper confirms recommendations of the CDC and the American Veterinary Medical Association. Prevention of DBRFs and dog bites in general needs a multifaceted approach. Focusing on one factor, or unscientific stereotypes, can lead to ineffective policies like BSL, which only distract from real solutions.

Policymakers should focus resources on helping pet owners learn how to live safely and harmoniously with their dogs instead of punitive legislation.