Dog attacks are all over the media right now. Dog on dog, dog on elderly human, dog on airline passenger, you name it. I can’t open my computer or look at my phone without being bombarded by brutal tales of dogs biting, mauling, and generally savaging humans and other dogs. As a person who loves dogs on a deep and spiritual level, it is painful to see. As a person who has been personally affected by dog bites and attacks, it is all too familiar. As a professional, it is absolutely maddening.
“Solutions” abound; mandatory muzzles, breed-specific legislation, and public access regulation changes for dogs are all on the list. Criticisms and unplaced blame also run rampant. When someone vulnerable–be it elderly woman or ten pound poodle–is killed by a dog everyone wants someone to blame. The breed, the owners, the corporate pet food store, the craigslist-ad-placer, the breeder, the trainer; blame flies like stray arrows when tragedy strikes. None of this is helpful; so what is? What can be done?
According to the CDC 4.5 million dog bites occur in the United States each year. There are about 89.7 million dogs alive in the US today. That means that roughly 5% of dogs will commit a reported bite in their lifetime. These statistics only reflect dog on human bites, we don’t have accurate data on dog to dog attacks to my knowledge, but I would wager it is at least twice this number if not much more. Statistically, we are at much higher risk from bees and wasps than dogs. Why are we even worrying about this? Most common over the counter medications hold greater than a 5% risk to our health, and if getting behind the wheel only held a 5% risk we’d all rejoice at the new safety we had on the roads. When something has a 95% safety margin, we are usually pleased.
The difference is that dogs are members of our household; they are family. 5% risk that a family member will cause us bodily harm isn’t as comforting as the 5% risk of a medication that does not know and love us. When a dog bites, we are hurt in ways that extend far beyond the typically-minor injuries dog bites cause. Still, one in three women in the United States will experience violence from a partner in this year alone; and that is based on reported cases. Yet when a person kills another person with whom they are intimate, this only makes national news when the people in question are somehow famous or “important.” Dog attacks are far less common than spousal attacks; plain and simple.
We’ve established that the overwhelming response to dog attacks and bites is related much more to our emotions regarding these creatures than the actual statistical risk of being around them. But there is a risk to having a dog in your home, and the smartest thing we can do here is to get real about that risk. Dogs are not human beings, they are not helpless animals, they are predators with a mouth full of weapons; weapons they are born knowing how to use.
Some breeds are more capable of causing harm than others, and some breeds are in fact more likely to do so. Saying an American Pit Bull Terrier is more capable of harm than a Maltese is a fact (generally speaking). Certain breeds are more prone to stranger-directed aggression, some to dog-directed aggression, and some have low ease of socialization. These are the facts; and we would all do better to accept and embrace them. What happens when we do so is we acknowledge that these animals we choose to live in intimate connection with are capable of causing injury or even death with their teeth. What happens when we admit this is everyone is safer.
It isn’t a shiny new law. It isn’t a regulation on big dogs, bully dogs, or even off-leash dogs. It isn’t even changing how people train, breed, or sell dogs (though all of those things could use some reform). It’s deciding today that YOU are going to look at your dog differently.
YOU are going to accept that yes, even your lovely dog can bite, because they all can. When we start treating these incidents as the unfortunate and inevitable price we must pay for having these animals so tightly woven into our lives we will see them reduce. Why? Because no one can prevent something that they can’t predict. Assume the dog will bite and go from there as opposed to assuming he won’t and then scrambling to fix things when he does. Lucky for all of us, it’s a relatively low risk. But treat it that way and we will only see it increase.
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