Dog Attacks on Guide Dogs: The Personal and Financial Cost

A new report finds there are 11 dog attacks on guide dogs every month in the UK, on average.

Severe consequences of dog attacks on guide dogs. Photo shows golden retriever puppy
The lifetime cost of a guide dog for the blind is approximately US$75,000

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Guide dogs provide essential assistance to people who are blind or partially sighted. When other dogs attack guide dogs, the consequences can be severe. The charity Guide Dogs has been keeping records of these attacks, and a new paper by Rachel Moxon (of Guide Dogs) et al details the problems faced over a 56 month period from 2010 to 2015.

During this time, there were 629 attacks. 68% of the victims were qualified Guide Dogs (almost three-quarters of which were in harness at the time of the attack). 20% were dogs in puppy walk (aged up to 1.5 years), 8% were dogs in training, and the remainder were retired, breeding dogs, or buddy dogs.

“Within the current study, 20 dogs were withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme as a direct result of a dog attack,” write the authors, “20% of qualified guide dogs required time off from working and 13 dogs were withdrawn from working as a guide. The implications for the guide dog owners of these dogs are likely to be long-term and complex affecting not only their mobility and physical health, but also their social and emotional well-being.”

Dog attacks on guide dogs have severe consequences for both dog and handler. Photo shows seeing eye dog at work.
Photo: Jeroen van den Broek; top, Pornchai Chanachai. Both Shutterstock

Because 50 incidents had 2 or more attacking dogs, there were a total of 689 aggressing dogs responsible for these attacks. The person with the guide dog described the attack as being due to lack of control of the aggressing dog (29%), caused by the aggressing dog (22%) or unprovoked (19%). The attacking dogs were usually with their owner (46% off-leash and 31% on-leash), but in 22% of cases the dog was off-leash with no owner present.

97% of the attacks occurred in public areas, just over a quarter of them in places where you expect to see off-leash dogs. At the time of the attack, 56% of the victim dogs were in harness and working, 26% on leash and 18% were loose.

Most of the Guide Dogs are yellow or black. More dark-coloured dogs and fewer light-coloured dogs were attacked compared to the average numbers of those dogs, but it’s not known why.

43% of the dogs had injuries, and three quarters of these needed to see a vet; some dogs with no injuries also visited the vet to be checked over. Dogs were more likely to be injured if they were off-leash at the time of the attack, rather than in harness or on-leash. Only 6 owners of attacking dogs paid for vet bills. In 5 cases, vets kindly treated the dogs for free.

There was an impact on working ability for 42% of the dogs, with 22% having to take some time off work. 20 dogs had to be withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme, which included 13 qualified dogs, 6 that were in training and 1 puppy. The authors say, “Dogs were withdrawn because the dog attack impacted their behaviour and their ability to safely guide a person that is blind or partially sighted.”

The charity estimates the cost of withdrawing these dogs to be over £600,000. It costs £39,700 to breed and train a guide dog and the charity typically spends a further £13,000 to support the ongoing relationship with the handler until the dog retires.

The attacks also had significant effects on the handlers. 59 handlers and 28 other people were injured in the attacks. In 71% of cases, the handler said it affected their emotional well-being; feelings of anxiety, being shaken and upset were the most common reactions.

"The guide dog harness is designed to be visible and should have been apparent to the owners of aggressors who were present in 76.8 per cent of  attacks," write Moxon et al. “It is feasible that a proportion of these attacks could have been avoided if the aggressor was put on a lead when the owner saw a guide dog in harness.”

You should never distract a guide dog in harness because they are working. Even if your dog is friendly, it would be helpful to put him or her on leash if you see a guide dog, so they can work without distractions. Or, as Julie Hecht puts it, “only you can prevent sniffing of guide dogs’ butts.”

Under UK law, the owner of a dog that attacks an assistance dog may receive a fine and/or up to three years in prison.

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

Moxon, R., Whiteside, H., & England, G. (2016). Incidence and impact of dog attacks on guide dogs in the UK: an update Veterinary Record, 178 (15), 367-367 

P.S. How we can improve working dog programs and differences between show and field Labrador Retrievers.

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