A New Approach to Dog Bite Prevention

Strategies to prevent dog bites need to get past the belief that ‘it won’t happen to me.’

How to prevent the risk of dog bites illustrated by a worried Dachshund in her owner's arms
Photo: ARENA Creative/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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4.5 million people a year are bitten by a dog in the US, of whom 885,000 need medical attention (Gilchrist et al 2008). In England in the last year, there were 7,227 admissions to hospital for injuries due to dogs, over 3000 more than a decade earlier. Developing a better understanding of how to prevent dog bites is essential. 

A new paper by Carri Westgarth and Francine Watkins (University of Liverpool) suggests new directions for dog bite prevention. They interviewed 8 women about their experience of being bitten by a dog. Four of the participants had received medical attention for their bite, and six had also been bitten by a dog before. The results show that dog bites are a complex phenomenon. 

Dr. Westgarth told me, “the most important finding is the belief that it wouldn't happen to them, or that dog bites are just one of those things that happens and it's no big deal. People won't see the need to engage with (or apply) dog bite prevention initiatives without tackling these barriers, no matter how much 'dog behaviour' education we try to give.”

People blamed the owner, not the dog. For example, one participant said, “Yes, I’m to blame. I still hold that my reactions to his [dog] aggression are what caused the bite.”

In two cases, the person was not aware a dog was present until they were bitten (e.g. they were out jogging and a dog ran up and bit them).

Participants did not expect a bite. One spoke of how she felt as the situation with the dog ramped up: “A little bit nervous, because it was like two dogs jumping around there. But I still at that point didn’t think I was going to get bitten... Not for a moment did I think I was going to get bitten.”

Another person knew she was taking a risk, but still didn’t expect a bite: “Basically as he was asleep, I was reaching to grab the remote from near him and, I should have known better, and I knew he’d go for me but you kind of expect that when you’ve got that trust bond with your dogs that they maybe wouldn’t, even if you do something to upset them.”

If people don’t believe they are at risk of dog bites, then they are not likely to change their behaviour, say Westgarth and Watkins. 

A person teaching bite inhibition to a puppy to prevent risk from dog bites
Photo: Tomasz Nieweglowski/Shutterstock

Dog bites were also seen as one of those things that ‘just tend to happen’. For two participants the risk of bites was high, but they did not feel they could do much about it. One said of her dog, “She didn’t want me to do what I was doing. And she’d already told me not to. But I carried on.” This low self-efficacy is another barrier for dog bite prevention programs to overcome.

Reflections after the bite suggest people had learned from the incident. One said, “It just makes me more aware of what people have said to me, you know when I was younger, you know you don’t just go straight up to a dog and pat it on its head.” But despite this, the people who had been bitten by their own dog did not see a behaviourist or change the way they interacted with the dog.

Westgarth and Watkins say, “Rather than assigning fault to victims or owners and targeting ‘high-risk’ individuals, the focus should be on intervention at the population level: on creating a primary environment where dog bites are less likely to occur in the first place and minimising damage caused when dogs do bite.”

Strategies they suggest include focussing on realistic situations in education campaigns and using social contacts or social media to spread information. A wider focus for dog bite prevention includes borrowing ideas from other injury prevention campaigns, looking at where people get dogs and puppies, breeding, the importance of socialization and acquired bite inhibition, and dog training. 

For example, if puppies are taught bite inhibition (how not to apply too much pressure with their jaws), this reduces the amount of damage they will cause if they ever put teeth on skin.

Like the participants in this study, a tendency to “assume safety” around an unknown dog has also been found in parents (Morrongiello 2013) which is especially worrying because children are most at risk. These results are also consistent with a US report by Patronek et al (2013) into the very rare cases of fatal dogbites. Such cases were multi-factorial, typically with five (potentially preventable) contributing factors, including husbandry.

If you liked this post, check out my book Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy. Modern Dog magazine calls it "The must-have guide to improving your dog's life."

The paper is open access and can be read via the link below. I’m delighted to report that Dr. Carri Westgarth agreed to answer some questions about her research

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:

Gilchrist, J., Sacks, J., White, D., & Kresnow, M. (2008). Dog bites: still a problem? Injury Prevention, 14 (5), 296-301 DOI: 10.1136/ip.2007.016220
Morrongiello BA, Schwebel DC, Stewart J, Bell M, Davis AL, & Corbett MR (2013). Examining parents' behaviors and supervision of their children in the presence of an unfamiliar dog: does The Blue Dog intervention improve parent practices? Accident; analysis and prevention, 54, 108-13 PMID: 23499982  
Patronek, G., Sacks, J., Delise, K., Cleary, D., & Marder, A. (2013). Co-occurrence of potentially preventable factors in 256 dog bite–related fatalities in the United States (2000–2009) Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 243 (12), 1726-1736 DOI: 10.2460/javma.243.12.1726  
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

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Can fatal dog attacks be prevented?
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