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"The dog-bite epidemic: Where does the real danger lie?"

- by Jean Donaldson

"I am not a dog person, although I have owned dogs. I heard on the news a couple of months ago about an elderly woman near Los Angeles having both arms amputated by her great-grandson's pitbull. Shortly before this I read of three large, powerful dogs killing a child in New Brunswick. My neighbour's dog growled and barked at my husband when he poked his head over the fence this weekend. These incidents seem to be on the rise. With all due respect, what are you dog people doing about it?"

This is an explosive topic, but an interesting one. The interest lies in

how different the reality is from the public perception of how dangerous dogs are to people and whether this is worsening.


Meaningful discussion about dogs and public health is retarded by:

 

  1. the lumping of routine dog threat behaviour and non-damaging bites together with the extraordinarily rare events of fatalities and serious maulings (this is like lumping human arguments and office politics together with aggravated assault and murder); and
  2. the stupendously exaggerated estimation of one's own risk of serious dog attack based on the prevalence of stories about them in the media.


Dogs are, compared to other 'hazards' we accept without question in our society, fantastically safe. My friend and colleague, Janis Bradley, has been researching this issue for an upcoming book on the subject and has compared dogs to everything from kitchen utensils and water buckets to strollers, Christmas trees, balloons and marbles. To these items they compare favourably. They compare even more favourably to things like swimming pools, bicycles and playground equipment. And, when it comes to the heavy duty statistic-makers in our society, she writes, "dogs can never compete as hazards with fathers or mothers or sisters or brothers or aunts or uncles or friends..."

 

Bradley underscored her point about how vanishingly rare fatal dog attacks are by comparing them to the universal cliché of being struck by lighting. We are each "five times as likely to be killed by a bolt of lighting - not just struck by one, mind you - killed" than to be killed by a dog or dogs. Considering that less than 20 per cent of lightning strikes are fatal, this makes being struck by lightning 25 times more likely than being the victim of a fatal dog mauling. If the risk by exposure is then considered - there is one dog for every four or five people in the United States for instance, and most of these dogs encounter several people every day of their lives - dogs are almost incalculably safe.

 

And, contrary to the shrieking newspaper headlines, dog-related deaths are not trending upwards. The rate has remained astonishingly steady over all the decades that records have been kept. Bradley surmises that this may indicate that the floor has been reached - i.e., that the rate is as low as it could conceivably get. In fact, she cautions that well-meant swells to "do more" after every headline-grabbing incident might not only do nothing (except rob resources from elsewhere), but rock a boat that is currently at rock bottom: "Basic systems theory teaches us that it is perilous to change the system to eradicate the exception, and dog bite deaths are about as exceptional as it gets. It is perilous because when you change large scale situations to prevent extremely rare events, you cannot even begin to predict what other aberrant, or even widespread, events may pop up."

 

When it comes to bites at the kitchen-injury level, however, dog bites are relatively frequent. What do I mean by "kitchen-injury" level? Injuries are classified on a scale from one to six, with level one being defined as a quick recovery with no lasting impairment and six defined as likely fatal. Ninety-nine per cent of all treated dog bites fall into the "one" category. For comparison purposes, Bradley discusses falls, the most common type of injury, which average a four rating, defined as requiring weeks or months for full healing or some lasting minor impairment.

So what about frequency? Based on inferences from the available research, for instance, it is often quoted that half of all children will be bitten by dogs at some point and that every human who lives to the age of 60 will be bitten at least once. This qualifies low-level dog bites as mundane events. Absurdly mundane, according to Bradley, who points out that a huge proportion of adults will also nick themselves with paring knives countless times during their lives, and that "something close to 100% of kids will fall off of their bikes multiple times with out injury."

 

What's amazing about dog bites is that we are grimly trying to count them: "There is no other such phenomenon that anyone even attempts to study when it doesn't produce physical harm." In other words, no one talks about the paper-cut epidemic, the chef's-knife-injury epidemic or the falling-in-bathtub epidemic. Why do dogs get to have "an epidemic" when five-gallon buckets, which are more dangerous, don't?

 

Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and author of The Culture of Fear, points to the disproportional media coverage given to certain kinds of events relative to the "near invisibility" of other kinds of injury that seriously hurt and kill people. Dogs meet criteria for what Glassner calls "cultural scapegoating." Bradley puts it well when she notes that dogs (or perhaps their "irresponsible owners") might qualify as "unambiguous villains that allow us to distance ourselves from the responsibility for the real problems in our society."

Another reason for humans' exaggerated fear of dog bites is our evolutionary heritage. Just as we inherited a craving for fat and sugar that served us well in our distant past amidst dietary scarcity and now is maladaptive, we inherited a preparedness for fearing certain environmental elements, such as animals with big teeth. These were genuine and prevalent concerns back then. Now they are not, but we can't shake the feeling (nor replace it with one that would be more adaptive, such as, say, motor vehicles at high speed).

Rational discussions about routine dog bites and especially about serious dog attacks can get derailed when they raise the hackles of dog-bite victims and their advocates who feel their suffering is being minimized. I dread seeing Janis misunderstood and attacked on Larry King Live or in print, which I fear is her destiny. But I hope that cooler heads will ultimately prevail.

 

Reprinted with permission of the author, Jean Donaldson.

This article first appeared in the May 2004 issue of “Dogs In Canada” magazine.

 

Jean Donaldson is a respected author and dog trainer.  She is a regular contributor to Dogs In Canada magazine, and also wrote the acclaimed book, "The Culture Clash" (James & Kenneth, 1996).  She currently works with the San Francisco S.P.C.A.

 

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