Some aspects of the dog bite situation have changed since the first writing of this paper for the Animals and Society Institute in 2006. More current statistical information about dog bite incidence is available. More is now known that both documents and explains the ineffectiveness of attempting to address this issue by prohibiting or regulating ownership of dogs on the basis of breed or appearance, leading to recommendations against breed-specific legislation (BSL) across the board among public and animal welfare organizations. New research has identified factors that co-occur in serious and fatal dog bite injuries. Finally, the blossoming field of canine behavioral research is uncovering husbandry issues with strong implications for minimizing canine threat and bite behavior toward humans. This second edition is an attempt to include these findings to produce the most current and comprehensive discussion of dog bites and society.
Public concern with regard to dog bites has remained high for decades. Alarm often intensifies in response to a single fatality or medically serious dog bite-related injury. However, a review of the ongoing public health records shows that dog bite-related fatalities remain extremely rare, and new research has uncovered co-occurring factors in these events that are under the control of dog guardians. None of these factors relates to the demographics of the dogs.
During a period where people increasingly consider and treat their dogs as family members, injurious bites have gradually declined, including a decrease in the percentage of injuries sustained by children. Current behavioral studies offer possible insight into why this is so, documenting profound differences in the behavior of family dogs – who have opportunities for daily, positive interactions with people – and resident dogs who simply live on the property in relative isolation without integration into the family social unit. Public policies that educate people about and otherwise facilitate these relationships provide the most promising approach to developing safer and more humane communities.
Dog bite-related fatalities account for about 1 in 92,000 (1/1,000 of 1%) of deaths in the United States annually. Nonfatal injuries are also relatively uncommon – only 1/10 of 1% of emergency room visits. Dog bite injuries are comparable in incidence but less severe than accidents involving many common household objects.
Attempts have been made to reduce these low rates of injury still further by prohibiting or otherwise regulating dog ownership on the basis of breed or appearance, presuming some dogs – absent any scientific evidence in support – to be disproportionately dangerous. Such legislation simply arbitrarily eliminates whole groups of dogs with no evidence that they would have ever harmed anyone.
Breed-specific legislation sometimes stops short of outright bans, but regulates how certain dogs may be kept, including mandatory spay/neuter regulations and requirements to muzzle dogs in public. No credible evidence has been presented to demonstrate that any particular breeds should be considered as over represented among biting dogs, and follow-up studies show no impact on bite rates after BSL is enacted. As a result, this kind of legislation is declining.
Other attempts to identify and regulate high-risk dogs focus on prior biting. This has been shown to be effective with regard to prior injurious biting behavior. Threatening behavior, however, is too widespread among dogs, and too frequently misunderstood, to be sufficiently predictive of actual biting. Removing or regulating all threatening dogs would require enormous and unrealizable increases in enforcement personnel, which would draw resources away from other public safety issues affecting more people and would inevitably capture many dogs who would never harm anyone. Casting such a wide net could even result in a significant decrease in the number of people keeping dogs, compromising both the demonstrated emotional and social benefits of dog companionship as well as the preventive effects on widespread chronic diseases.
Two types of solutions are proposed in this paper. First, regulatory penalties should focus on people who knowingly keep dogs in clear disregard for public safety, either through lack of appropriate supervision and confinement, mistreatment, or neglect likely to provoke warning signals and biting, or through a lack of precautions taken after an injurious bite has occurred. Second, information should be widely disseminated – especially to children and their parents – about safe ways to interact with dogs, and education for responsible dog guardians should include instruction on sound husbandry, to guide the range of decisions that each guardian makes regarding how to live with and care for a canine companion.