A Conversation with Carri Westgarth

An interview with Dr. Carri Westgarth about how to prevent dog bites and her research on dog walking and getting a puppy.

A conversation with Carri Westgarth

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Carri Westgarth and Francine Watkins new paper explores the perspectives of victims of dog bites. The results give important new insights into dog bite prevention. Carri kindly agreed to answer questions about her research on dog bites, dog walking, and puppies, and her own companion animals. 

How did you get interested in studying dog bite prevention?

Carri as a child; Top photo: Carri with her dogs Jasmyn and
Ben, and her friend's dogs Alfie and Zephyr
My mum might say it started as a toddler when she dashed upstairs to get a nappy and left me with two Jack Russell’s, one elderly and blind in one eye (sorry mum – she never has forgiven herself!).  I still have the scar on my forehead and a nice little bald patch. I initially wanted to be a vet, didn’t get into vet school, but after a zoology and genetics degree, worked various jobs in rescue and assistance dog training until I came back into academia. 

Through all this I developed a fascination with the relationship people have with their pets. I love animals (well at least my own) but am also perplexed as to what we put up with for the sake of what we get out of them. 

There are two sides to this relationship, a major issue being dog bites. My current research fellowship allowed me to study again, this time for a Masters of Public Health. I needed a topic for my dissertation, and for once I wasn’t bounded by what I could get funded. It seemed like a fantastic opportunity to pursue this topic, and I convinced Francine, a Public Health expert, to collaborate with me.

Your recent study involved detailed analysis of interviews with 8 women who had been bitten by a dog. Why is it so important to understand the victim’s perspective?

Carri at work. Photo: McCoy-Wynne
Once I actually looked around at the research on this, I couldn’t believe how little there was. As canine-minded professionals, we all think we know why people get bitten (because people do stupid things to dogs). So we try to educate them to make them less stupid at reading dog body language. 

However, nobody had ever asked victims why they thought they were bitten, and why they do stupid things to dogs. How can we begin to understand how to change people’s behaviour, unless we find out why they behave in this way?  I am very excited that I now have a new PhD student who will be taking the research further.

One of your findings is that people have a belief that “it won’t happen to me”. What do dog bite prevention campaigns need to do to get people to pay attention to their message?

This project has to be the most mind-blowing research experience I have ever had. Once I began talking to dog bite victims, I discovered that many of them were not necessarily doing stupid things to dogs at the time. If they were, they may well even recognise this. However, one of the key findings is that there was often a belief that ‘it wouldn’t happen to me’. As explained so eloquently by one of my interviewees, even though she knew she shouldn’t do that with that dog, the dog had even bitten her before, she still did it because she had some sort of trust with the dog, and with her own experience. She just didn’t think it would actually happen this time. 

Carri with Jasmyn
Therefore, we can try to educate people all we want, but if they don’t think THEY will get bitten, or THEIR dog will bite, they won’t take in that information or act on it. We need to develop messages that also address this somehow – show that it COULD happen to YOU! 

Some educational campaigns already illustrate that most bites happen in the home with the family pet, which is good. We might also be able to lend ideas from other campaigns which incorporate this approach, such as drink driving advertisements.

You said that "Reducing the damage caused when a dog does bite, through careful pet dog selection and training, is something we should aim for." How do we do this?

We might not always be able to prevent a dog bite from happening, unless people and dogs never interact (which would be terrible!). But I now appreciate more fully that injury prevention is also about damage limitation (think about car seat belts). There are two halves to addressing dog bite risk and maybe we don’t emphasise this side enough with current dog bite prevention initiatives. 

Roxie does agility
As well as educating ourselves about dog body language, we can also make choices about which dogs we own as pets and how we manage them within our particular families. I recognise that this may be a contentious area, but realistically we can be asking ourselves, who would we prefer to be bitten by? I think having a toddler and two dogs in the house has really made me think about this. Putting aside their personalities and capacity to enjoy children, and my ability to supervise and separate as appropriate, our bigger dog could simply do more damage than the small one, were one of them put in a position where they felt the need to bite him. Therefore I need to be mindful of this in how I manage them together. 

There is a role for breeders and shelters here to supply dogs to society that not only are less likely to bite, but will not cause a great amount of damage if they do bite. We can also train our dogs as puppies to control the strength of their bite, known as bite inhibition.

One of your earlier studies found that it’s important for people to see one or both parents before choosing a puppy. Can you tell me a bit more about why this matters?

Roxie's first birthday
That study found that dogs whose owners had met both parents of the dog when they selected the puppy, were much less likely to then be referred to a counsellor for behaviour problems later in life. We cannot rule out whether those owners were simply more experienced with dogs, but it plausibly backs up the notion that you should observe carefully that the parents of your puppy are friendly and sociable when you pick it. The best evidence of risk factors for aggression also points to genetics – aggression is inherited. So how you pick your puppy is also important for dog bite prevention; again we can make choices here that have an impact.

You also research dog walking, including your current project on “understanding dog ownership and walking for better human health.” How does the relationship between a person and their dog affect dog walking?

It’s great to be able to talk about the positive aspects of dog ownership too, because on the whole pets are more beneficial to our health than damaging. Studies have shown us that both adults and children who are more attached to their pet are also more likely to walk with it – great for the health of both people and animals. 

Carri at work. Photo: McCoy Wynne
However we don’t know what comes first; the relationship makes a person walk a dog or the relationship is built through walking the dog. I am exploring this at the moment, and I think it is probably a bit of both.

You’re a full member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, and sometimes take animal behaviour cases or teach dog training classes. How does this experience influence your research?

Completely, and I feel all the practical experience I gained from working ‘dog jobs’ really feeds into my understanding of the minds of dog owners, and the usefulness of my research in policy and practice. Sadly I don’t have much time to do the practical side anymore, but when I became a member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors I obviously talked to many people bitten by their dogs. These conversations were what gave me clues as to the complexity of the issue of dog bite prevention. It also showed me how much people love their animals and would do anything for them, because of the huge benefits they bring to their lives (once we have fixed the training problems!). The dogs and owners that I have worked with are my inspiration.

Tell me about the companion animals in your life.

Currently we are at two dogs, a cat and two axolotls, as well as there being many other dogs and cats in the ‘extended’ family. Jasmyn is a rescue stray spaniel-type crossbreed who has lived in 13 houses with me in her 13(ish) years; we’ve seen it all together. Roxie is our firstborn, a bit of a ‘designer dog’ (yes I will admit it!), a four year old pug crossed with a chihuahua and pomeranian mix (according to DNA testing). At the time she was going to be our third dog and we needed a dog who was small (to fit in the car) and cuddly (I was broody), but also agile and robust (to do agility and cope with two big dogs). Sadly Ben the reject farm collie passed away a few years ago. 

Left-to-right: Roxie, Jasmyn and Ben
Having a small dog after big ones (Jack Russell’s are honorary big dogs) has been a revelation, and I don’t think I will ever go back. The yapping is annoying but she is just as much ‘dog’ in an easier-to-manage package. And she fits in my lap more comfortably.

I would like more pets, but my husband says I don’t have the time! He’s probably right. I spend a lot of time thinking carefully about what our next dog might be though.

Thank you Carri!

You can follow Dr. Carri Westgarth on twitter and her dog walking project is also on facebook

Bio: Carri Westgarth studied Zoology and Genetics at the University of Liverpool before working in an animal rescue shelter and then as an Instructor for the charity Hearing Dogs for Deaf People. She then returned to the University of Liverpool to complete a PhD funded by Defra, post-doctoral research funded by WALTHAM, and now holds a personal fellowship from the UK Medical Research Council. Based in the Institute of Infection and Global Health and also the School of Veterinary Science, her main research focus is the relationship between people and their dogs, and how this impacts their physical activity. She also has a Masters degree in Public Health and is interested in all public health issues surrounding companion animal ownership, including risk of dog bites. Carri has also spent time teaching dog training classes and conducting behavioural consultations and is a Full Member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors. Recently she became a Board Member of the International Society for Anthrozoology. Her mission is to maximise welfare and wellbeing for pets and their people.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

Useful links:

Photos: Carri Westgarth unless otherwise stated.
Westgarth, C., & Watkins, F. (2015). A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog-bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.035 
Westgarth, C., Christley, R., & Christian, H. (2014). How might we increase physical activity through dog walking?: A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 11 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1479-5868-11-83
Westgarth, C., Reevell, K., & Barclay, R. (2012). Association between prospective owner viewing of the parents of a puppy and later referral for behavioural problems Veterinary Record, 170 (20), 517-517 DOI: 10.1136/vr.100138

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