"The dog-bite epidemic: Where does the real danger lie?"
- by Jean Donaldson
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.
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
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
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.