We live in an increasingly unpredictable world where social and political events seem to rush ahead at a bewildering speed. However, one thing that is sadly predictable is that a large number of children will be bitten by dogs and some will be killed. This almost always ends badly for the dog.
The comments from owners when serious incidents happen are likely to be that the dog was acting out of character, that the behaviour came from “out of the blue” and that the dog had not given any warning.
That is very unlikely to be true. It is much more likely that the dog had given signal after signal that was simply ignored until the dog escalated the action into an attack or that the provocation was so severe that the dog retaliated accordingly out of self-protection. The vast majority, if not all, of dog attacks are preventable.
Dog attacks are almost always considered from the point of view of the people involved. Perhaps if we consider the dog instead, we may come closer preventing the annual toll of injuries and fatalities involving dogs and people.
The vast majority of fatalities and injuries by dogs are inflicted on children. Injuries tend to be more severe and involve the face because of the relative size of children. Most adults tend to be bitten on the hand, arm or leg because they were trying to separate fighting dogs or because the dog jumped up and bit the first place that it could reach.
Children behave badly and are not supervised closely, not just around dogs. Screaming and running around flapping arms can frighten and provoke dogs and the high pitch of the child’s voice mimics prey arousing dogs to the level where their bite instinct kicks in. Increasingly liberal, if not actually disengaged, parenting and schooling that shies away from training and discipline means that children and a whole generation of adults do not know how to approach dogs safely or how to behave in their presence. Dogs are viewed as walking toys rather than creatures with emotions in their own right, both in the home and in public. There is an assumption by the majority of people that a dog in public is fair game for touching, photographing and generally distracting without the need to even make eye contact with the handler or give the dog any warning of an approach. Any admonishment on the part of the handler is likely to be met with a barrage of aggression and abuse.
The vast majority of dogs are untrained and have no set boundaries in the home or outside. Many owners pay little or no attention to their dogs at all when out, preferring to talk to other people or play with electronic devices. The same is true of children who, in addition, are also allowed to career around on scooters and skateboards thus turning themselves into fast-moving prey in the dog’s eyes as well as being a general menace.
Two True and Tragic Stories
A family with two children had a terrier. One day the terrier bit the boy on the hand. His father immediately took the dog to the vet to be euthanised. Years later, the girl confessed that her brother had tormented the dog mercilessly at every opportunity and, on the day that the dog finally bit him, he had just jabbed a hat pin into the dog’s flank.
She said that she felt guilty about not telling the truth at the time.
The dog stopped feeling anything because it was ordered to be murdered by the very people that it should have been able to trust.
If the children had been supervised and never been left alone with the dog, this could not have happened. If the father had not assumed that the dog was automatically at fault, it may have lived the fulfilling life that it deserved.
More recently, a couple with a child had a young Dalmatian euthanised after it bit the child on the face causing life-changing injuries. They had considered it to be an ideal family pet. Their vet, convinced that the dog must have had a neurological reason for biting such as a brain tumour, decided to perform a post-mortem examination at his own expense and, of course, with the owner’s permission.
He found that the child had rammed a crayon down the dog’s ear.
If the child had been supervised and never been left alone with the dog, this could not have happened. If the couple had not assumed that the dog was automatically at fault, it too may have lived the fulfilling life that it deserved.
Dogs in Households with Children
Consider very, very carefully whether it is fair on a dog to bring it into a household with a child. It is common for owners to want to bring their child up with a dog, not least because they have a rose-tinted view, encouraged by advertising, of a dog romping alongside their offspring through a flower-filled meadow or a Huckleberry Finn ideal of them getting into winsome mischief together before coming home for tea.
The reality for the dog is that it usually comes a very poor second to the child in terms of time and other resources. It is rarely given the chance to escape from unwanted attention and children are not trained how to behave around dogs. For that matter, many adults don’t know how to behave around dogs either. Many “family” dogs are accessories to the family lifestyle rather than an integral part of a home where their needs are given priority. The Labrador leaning against the Rangemaster is just as much a status symbol as the pitbull cross being hauled on a chain around a sink estate. Both as just as likely to be untrained, but the Labrador is likely to have far less time devoted to it. If you perceive your dog as being essential to your community standing and even safety, you will rarely be seen without it. If you also have few opportunities for affordable recreational activities and little money to spare from buying necessities, the dog will be valued as your one luxury. If you perceive your dog, consciously or otherwise, as representing the country estate or Country Life feature-perfect family that you actually don’t have (and cannot afford), it will just be an adjunct to complete the picture, competing with the time that you spend ferrying Harry and Arabella to their after-school activities and landing you with the unfortunate chore of going to the park where you spend your time glued to a mobile telephone or chatting with your neighbours while your dog runs rampage.
Children are allowed to run free with puppies and young dogs, handed the lead of untrained dogs that the adults can’t handle properly and allowed to pester dogs unceasingly. Go to any dog show and watch, if you can bear it, the “child handler” class. Toddlers who can’t even see over the top of the dog being awarded first prize, parents with dogs that interfere with other competitors, wreck the ring and mug the judge expecting a child to be awarded a rosette just for being there. Walk down any high road and count the number of dogs that cannot walk properly on a lead being handled by children. Go the local park and see children molesting puppies, picking them up without support and squeezing them and dragging them by the neck whilst the parents look fondly on.
Miraculously, many, many dogs tolerate this, but they shouldn’t have to.
If a few rules had been adhered to, then a fair number of bites and fatalities could be avoided.
NEVER, EVER ALLOW A CHILD TO BE UNSUPERVISED AROUND A DOG
That includes children from 0-18yrs. Humans do not develop full cognitive abilities until their mid-20s. Dogs reach that stage of their development much earlier. Teenagers can be just as irresponsible as younger children and may egg each other on to behave in ways that are unacceptable for the dog. Drugs are rife amongst young people and dogs may suffer while teenagers are under the influence.
Supervised means within handling distance of the dog. Bites happen quickly and may not be preceded with a growl, especially if the dog has been provoked over a period of time.
Keep the dog and child in sight at all times. A split second of inattention can lead to lifetime of regret – and the loss of the dog’s life through no fault of its own.
NEVER, EVER ALLOW A CHILD TO APPROACH A DOG WITHOUT PERMISSION
That goes for adults too.
A 5 minute walk down an urban street with my dog usually means that at least three or four people have roughed his head in passing, clicked at him, wiggled their fingers in his face or trailed their hand down his back. They have not even made eye contact with him, never mind me. Sitting on a bus, passenger after passenger thumps him on the head as they pass, often grinning manically at me expecting approval. He has been grabbed while sleeping on the train, had people bend down and stare into his face and had camera flashes set off in his eyes. Adults release their children to thrust their hands into his face or let them grab him as they scoot past on two wheels. He’s a pretty boy and is at a height that makes it easy for people to touch him. Luckily he is very chilled too but he shouldn’t have to put up with it.
If you want to ask permission to approach and touch a dog, then ask for it. Don’t ask “Is he friendly?”, “Is he all right?” or any other question that may reasonably be answered as “yes”, because it does not mean that the corollary is that you can touch the dog.
TAKE “NO” FOR AN ANSWER
… and don’t argue back. It is up to the handler to decide whether or not their dog should be approached and none of your business as to why they may refuse. It probably has nothing to do with the dog’s temperament and they should not therefore be obliged to put a muzzle on their dog or take up any other suggestion that you choose to make.
LEARN HOW TO APPROACH A DOG CORRECTLY
It cannot be repeated too often – DOGS HATE HUGS. Putting an arm over a dog is intimidating and extremely unpleasant for the dog. Pulling a dog into you without giving it the chance to escape is frightening for the dog. Shoving your face into the dog’s face, staring into his eyes, smothering him with kisses – all perceived as threats by dogs.
DOGS DO NOT WANT YOUR FINGERS WAGGLED IN THEIR FACE
DOGS DO NOT LIKE ROUGH HANDLING – even if you think that your dog does, I bet he doesn’t
DOGS DO NOT WANT YOU STARING INTO THEIR EYES – even if they are blue
DOGS DO NOT WANT YOU CLICKING AT THEM AS THEY PASS BY – it is irritating for owners too
DOGS DO NOT WANT YOU PRETENDING TO LURE THEM WITH FOOD
DOGS DO NOT WANT YOU TO FEED THEM – well , yes they do, but you have no idea if the dog has intolerances or allergies, is about to go to the vet and needs to be starved or, probably, what will poison him. I have had people try to feed my dog onions, raisins, grapes, nuts and chocolate and they have fed him all manner of other things that have made him ill, sometimes for days afterwards.
DOGS ARE NOT OBJECTS THERE FOR YOU TO PHOTOGRAPH JUST BECAUSE YOU LIKE THE LOOK OF THEM – they also do not like flashes going off in their faces
Day after day, such insults can build until the dog finally snaps – literally and figuratively. Many owners then regard the reaction as being out of character and unprovoked when it is nothiong of the kind.
Why Do Dogs Attack?
It is not in dogs’ interests to engage in violent activity often because of the risk involved of injury. Most dogs, and most other animals, will go through a wide repertoire of calming and warning behaviours before attacking unless they are cornered or surprised. Behaviourist Kendall Shepherd devised the canine ladder of aggression to explain that dogs start from different levels of arousal, thus affecting the likelihood of biting. Each dog has its own bite threshold which can be assessed by competent behaviourists. As with people, many things in dogs’ lives will affect their arousal. Some people are naturally hot tempered, others more sanguine and neither dogs nor people are immune from external provocations or just having a bad day.
Poor Breeding and Rearing
It is often stated as a truism that there are no bad dogs only bad people. This however is not the case. Breeding and early environment have a major, and often ineradicable, effect on dogs for the rest of their lives. Poor breeding and rearing make it much more likely that a dog will find it difficult to cope and react aggressively.
The extremely high prevalence of in-breeding in many pedigree dogs has disposed many, many dogs to painful conditions which may go undetected by owners, be rewarded as desirable in the show ring or be exacerbated by poor handling. Sick dogs and dogs in pain are more likely to react aggressively and surprise their owners.
Of course, none of this is the dogs’ fault but it does mean that some dogs are beyond rehabilitation and can never be trusted fully.
The latest PDSA PAW Report estimates that a third of dogs in the UK are overweight or obese. A recent peer-reviewed study estimated that more than a quarter of Crufts entrants were overweight. Under-stimulated, under-exercised dogs will eventually vent their frustrations in the only way they know how. Over-exercising dogs by forcing them to run behind bicycles or with a jogger can lead to pain and consequent aggression.
Many, many owners fail to socialise their dogs or give them any guidance as to how to cope in their environment. This seems to be particularly true of smaller dogs as owners think that a bigger dog will always be responsible for causing trouble. Often, they react to their own dog’s aggression by scooping their dog up, exacerbating the problem, not to mention putting themselves at risk of injury.
An equally large number of dogs live in noisy households where they have little chance to relax and are frequently overwhelmed by people, especially children.
The popularity of using gadgets such as harnesses, head collars and cages as a substitute for good training mean that dogs are increasingly confined and, if untrained, may not be let of lead when they do go out.
Poor Owner Choices
The vast majority of dogs are bought because of the way that they look. The untrained Labrador sporting a canine Barbour is just as much of a status dog – and a potential nuisance – as the untrained Staffie cross bristling with leather and studs. Dogs are expected to learn, perhaps by osmosis, how to behave. Dogs are punished daily for not understanding what is expected of them. Owners shout and scold, even when a dog makes a reasonable guess at getting it right, and many owners strike their dogs. Of course some dogs are trained – to be intimidating and aggressive and to fight, but they are very much in the minority.
The Prevalence of Rescue Dogs – The Lack of Skills
From the best of motives, people take on “rescue” dogs, either privately or through formal adoption. This may seem like a better option than collaborating in the breeding of yet another dog when kennels are putting down hundreds of dogs a year. There is also some pressure from organisations that have a “no kill” policy to take on a dog and make room for the next one. Sadly for a noticeable percentage of these dogs, they go to homes where the owners lack the skills to cope with the additional challenges that are often presented, thinking that “love” will rehabilitate their dog. Anyone can set up a canine rescue and checks on potential owners range from the ridiculously Draconian to the virtually non-existant. Feral dogs are being taken off the streets of Mediterranean and Eastern European countries, imported at huge cost, and then being expected to cope with urban living, the owners congratulating themselves fomr having “saved” the dog from a fate worse than relatively free on-street living.
A Dog Is A Dog, Not A Furry Sub-human Accessory
Dogs are being touted by some rescue centres with overflowing kennels as being a panacea for loneliness and other social ills. Quite apart from the poor grammar in this Battersea Cats and Dogs Home campaign, they actually go as far as to call dogs and cats “these furry additions to your home”. They may as well be describing scatter cushions. If even the professionals treat dogs this way, is it any wonder that owners do the same?
Until we start realising that dogs are animals in their own right with species-specific needs and expressions, we will continue to have attack after attack and dogs will continue to die.