Don’t Tether Dogs, and Other Insights into Dog Bite Prevention from Detroit

Despite common belief, owned dogs escaping from yards – not free-roaming dogs – are the main risk for dog bites in Detroit.

Don't tether dogs, and other insights into dog bite prevention from Detroit. Photo shows Beware of Dog sign
Photo: Carla Burke/Pixabay

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Dog bites can have serious consequences and so understanding the circumstances in which they occur is important. New research by Dr. Laura Reese and Dr. Joshua Vertalka (Michigan State University) and published in Animals looks at the factors involved in all of the dog bites reported to police in Detroit from 2007 to 2015.

It’s important to note that Detroit is a special case, as unlike many other cities in the USA, it has a free-roaming (i.e. unowned) dog population, on whom bites are often blamed. At the same time, the effects of poverty and economic malaise in Detroit mean that foreclosures and vacancies have created circumstances in which there are many stray dogs, an environment in which they can survive, and a city that is strapped for cash.

In Detroit, almost 4 times as many people visit the emergency room for dog bites as in other cities in the US. The study looked at 478 dog bites, and the results show that owned dogs – not free-roaming dogs – are responsible for most of the bites.

In fact, the most common scenario was that someone was bitten in their own yard by a neighbour’s dog that had escaped from its own home or yard, often by escaping from a chain. People were also bitten simply walking in the neighbourhood. The vast majority of bites (88%) took place outdoors.

In many cases, the dog was simply running loose in the neighbourhood (32%), and 25% of the time it had escaped from a yard (including fenced and unfenced yards). Even when the dog had escaped from a yard, it had often been chained in the yard.

The paper notes that while tethering dogs for any great length of time is not legal in Detroit, there are not enough animal control bylaws officers to ensure this is followed.

Although reports of breeds are notoriously fallible, the study found that the types of dog most commonly involved were listed as bully breeds; however, they also say that these are the most common breeds in Detroit, so this is to be expected. Other types of large dog were also responsible for bites, with little dogs only accounting for 3% of the bites.

42% of the police reports recorded that the victim had done something to encourage the bite, however in most cases they were not harassing the dog. Often they had tried to run from the dog, tried to pet or pick up a dog they did not know, or were trying to give food to a dog that was on a chain.

The researchers write,
“Dogs that are chained in yards or otherwise kept outside often lack proper socialization and can become bite risks if they escape the yard or tether. Dogs need to be properly socialized, ideally kept inside the home, with time outside spent in a secure yard or being walked by their owners on a leash. 
“Humane education is needed to foster better human caretaking of owned dogs. Children and their families need to be educated about the proper care of dogs, how to best interact with them, and how to behave when faced with an unknown or roaming dog.”

They also recommend dog training programs to teach people about dog behaviour and how to use reward-based methods to train dogs.

These suggestions are in line with other research that shows the importance of responsible dog ownership (including socialization of puppies) in preventing dog bites. The importance of education and responsible dog ownership can been seen in other research looking at the circumstances of bites in locations such as Calgary (which focusses on these issues) and Odense (where Breed Specific Legislation has not worked).

Given the prevalence of dogs escaping from yards here, it’s also interesting to note that other research shows that when older children are bitten by a dog it is typically outside, by a dog they do not know. Keeping dogs in the house and ensuring the yard is fully fenced could go a long way to stopping people from being bitten by unfamiliar dogs.

I think that if dogs are being kept on chains as guard dogs, then improving community safety is also important, and these results made me think about the relationship between poverty and the risk of dog bites. The 2018 US census shows the median household income in Detroit is $29,481 (compared to the overall US median of $63,179).

It’s likely that only serious bites were reported to the police, and so the number of bites in this study is probably an underestimate of the actual number of dog bites during that time.

Note: If you think a dog might bite you, do not run. Remember that we teach children to be a tree. Stand absolutely still and don’t stare at the dog (but do keep an eye on it). Often the dog will get bored and go away or you can shout to someone nearby to help. And even if you don’t think the dog will bite, never try to pat or pick up a dog you don’t know.

The paper is open access (link below) if you would like to read it in full.

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."

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:

Reese, L. A., & Vertalka, J. J. (2020). Preventing dog bites: it is not only about the dog. Animals, 10(4), 666.

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