Mother’s Day, Father's Day, and Scurvy Awareness Day come only once a year, but I assume you don't neglect your mom and dad the other 364 days of the year, or that you stop appreciating oranges after May 2nd. The same can be said for Dog Bite Prevention Week (#preventdogbites), which arrives each May to promote safe interactions between dogs and people. I don’t want to avoid dog bites just once a year. I’m going for 52 weeks a year, with every dog I meet.
Dogs and people need this yearly event. Dog Bite Prevention Week is an opportunity to learn the realities of dog bites (for example that children—particularly young children—are more likely to be bitten), as well as prevention tips focusing on both dog and human behavior. Think dog bites come out of nowhere? Dog Bite Prevention materials highlight the role that environment, social and other factors can play in whether or not a bite is likely to take place (in my next post, I’ll link to some reputable resources on these topics).
Dog bites hurt people and dogs; they can lead to relinquishment, heartache and worse. Taking dog bites seriously means holding up our commonly held beliefs about dog bites and testing whether they hold water. For example, there’s a common myth that, if clarified, could entice more people to dive into dog bite prevention resources (which, after all, are best attended to before a bite).
The Myth: Aggressive Dogs Bite
Hang with me, I haven’t completely lost my mind. You may very well have come across the phrase, “aggressive dog” in an article about a dog who has bitten, but here’s the kicker. The phrase “aggressive dog” gives the impression that you can spot an “aggressive dog” a mile away, almost like the Looney Tunes cartoon of the bull gearing up to charge. Or maybe “aggressive dog” gives you the impression that if you just steer clear of “those dogs” (whatever that means to you) you’ll be a-ok. “Aggressive dog” gives the feeling that some dogs are good and “safe,” while others are bad and “unsafe.”
The Truth: Dogs Bite
Unfortunately, aggression is not “a fixed characteristic,” explains Rachel Casey (@DrRachelCasey), a veterinary surgeon, animal behaviorist, and welfare scientist at the University of Bristol. She and her colleagues recently published a study exploring the risk factors for human-directed aggression in companion dogs living in the UK. In the study, around 4,000 dog owners reported whether their dog displays aggression (barking, lunging, growling, or biting) in any of three different contexts: toward strangers in the house, strangers in the street, or family members.
Instead of finding that some dogs are universally “safe” while others are universally “unsafe,” dogs’ displays of aggressive behaviors depended more on the situation than on the individual. This finding, the researchers explain, supports “the current hypothesis in clinical behavior practice that dogs usually learn to show aggression in response to specific perceived threats occurring in particular contexts, rather than aggression being an overall characteristic of individuals.” For example, a dog may show aggressive displays toward family members around resources, like their food or toys, but be totally fine when new people stop by the house. Another dog might behave as if noisy people (aka people on roller-skates) are the devil incarnate, but unknown people traveling by foot are just dandy.
This also means learning could play a role in dog aggression, and dogs could have the potential to change their behaviors if they learn something different. For example, check out this short video of Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, working with a dog who initially is not keen on people coming near the car. By the end of the video, the dog is singing quite a different tune.
Rachel Casey's research belongs in the public eye, and she has done a great job sharing her study. Recently, at 'The Conversation,' she explained, “Understanding that any dog can potentially be aggressive given the right circumstances is key to reducing injuries. Approaching an unfamiliar dog without checking with the owner first is not a good idea, even if it looks cute and friendly with others. And owners need to understand that even their gorgeous, loving pet can show aggression if exposed to a situation where it feels anxious or threatened enough.” Taking dog bites seriously means not painting some dogs in rosy, “that dog could never bite” glasses and others in tinted “biter” glasses.
Ready to jump into dog bite prevention? In the next post, I’ll direct you to resources covering the when, where, and why of dogs bites and how to avoid them.
Casey, R. 2013. Aggressive behaviour in dogs: a survey of UK dog owners. Reigning Cats and Dogs.
Casey, R. 2014. Dog aggression has little to do with breed, so test the owners. The Conversation.
Casey, R.A., Loftus, B., Bolster, C., Richards, G.J. and Blackwell, E.J. 2013. Human directed aggression in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): occurrence in different contexts and risk factors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 152, 52-63.