Liverpool. Another horrifying video of dog attack has gone viral on social media. It shows three large bulldogs jumping and pouncing on a screaming woman in a park. It is understandable that when such videos and media reports circulate, demands arise about banning certain breeds. The latest is the American Bully XL, a breed developed from the Pit Bull Terrier, which can weigh up to 60 kg. But are such breeds really to blame for the growing dog bite problem?
Research shows that one in four people are bitten by a dog at some point in their lifetime, but less than 1% of bites require hospitalization. Our research shows that there has been an increase in hospital admissions due to “being bitten or attacked by a dog” over a 20-year period between 1998 and 2018. This data is critical not only for visits to the emergency department, but also for hospitalizations.
Over the same period, the rate of dog bite deaths in England and Wales averaged around three per year. Ten deaths occurred in 2022. It’s unclear whether this is a new trend, or whether 2022 was a tragically unusual year. The increase in the incidence of dog bites appears to be limited to adults, where the number has tripled in 20 years. In general, men are more likely to be bitten and delivery workers are common victims.
Dog attacks on middle-aged women are on the rise the fastest. We don’t know why, but it may be that the profile of people who own and spend time with dogs is changing. We find higher rates in more disadvantaged communities. The reasons for this are unknown, but a similar trend is seen in other types of injuries. Are some breeds more aggressive than others? There is no consistent scientific evidence that some breeds are naturally more aggressive than others.
Our evaluation shows that the breeds that have reported bites are the most popular breeds in that area. However, when we examine the breeds involved in the deaths, it is clear that most are large and powerful breeds. This doesn’t mean that smaller breeds can’t kill – they have been known to do so.
Because American XL Bullies are a new sub-breed of the American Bulldog, there have been no scientific studies of bite risk and bite rates were on the rise long before they existed. They and other American Bulldogs and related Pitbulls rank high on the list of fatalities.
Yet so do Rottweilers, German Shepherds and Malamutes. Home Secretary Kenneth Baker, who shaped the Dangerous Dog Act banning pitbull terriers, admitted in his autobiography that a ban on Rottweilers, Dobermans and Alsaceans would “enrage” the middle class. A confounding factor here is race distribution, as powerful races have long been associated with disadvantaged communities where violence and injuries are already high. what
There is little evidence linking these breeds to status or criminal use, but most are family pets. Most dog bites are from dogs known to the victim. Often it is a family pet and the bite occurs while petting, restraining, or simply playing.
The dog often reacts to discomfort, whether pain or fear. What can we do to avoid dog bites? Genetic predisposition is an important factor in breeding lineage, so when selecting a dog, it is important to look at and assess the parents of the pups. Dogs of the same breed vary greatly in their behavior.
Behavioral tendencies are inherited from parents. Look for signs of nervousness or shyness around people, as well as overt aggression (barking, growling, snapping). Dogs from puppy farms in particular are prone to health and behavioral problems. Unfortunately, large scale dog breeders often make the unscrupulous act of selling many puppies by pretending they belong to a loving family.
Banning more breeds will not work. New varieties will fill this gap, as happened with the pitbull. Dog bites are a complex social problem and we cannot expect a quick legislative solution (such as banning a breed or reintroducing dog licensing) to solve it.
Dog licenses are extremely expensive to manage and without strict enforcement, this would be easy to avoid. Some useful environmental measures can go a long way in preventing people and dogs from being exposed to risky situations, for example installing outdoor letterboxes as standard.
People often point to education as the answer. But this is only a small part of the solution. Public education needs enforcement measures and supportive policy to make it work. Improving people’s expectations about the good welfare of dogs is the key to reducing frightening and frustrating situations for dogs.
This includes not mistreating dogs in the name of training and providing adequate exercise and space. Training methods should be kind and reward-based, as punishment-based methods are associated with less success and more stress, fear, and aggression.
Educational efforts should focus on the belief that “it won’t happen to me” and introduce new social norms such as never leaving children alone with dogs. The Mercy Dog Safe website has lots of resources about safe dealing with dogs. Don’t pay too much attention to the thought “my dog won’t bite anyone”. Every day, dogs bite who have never bitten anyone before.
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