There have been 18 dog bite related fatalities in the UK since 2019.
There were 10 between 2015 and 2018 - so the number has nearly doubled over the last 4 years.
These statistics break my heart for all involved. And although those numbers don’t sound great - remember, there are around 10.2 million pet dogs in the UK. To put that into perspective, there are around 1,850 deaths in road traffic incidents per year - yet we don’t ban driving or cars that can reach high speeds; we do speed awareness courses and have licenses and tests.
Each death is a tragedy and nothing about this is to be taken lightly. I want to discuss with you what my views are as to the increase in dog attacks, as well as what we can do to prevent them.
For a dog to fatally attack someone, we must assume that something has gone terribly wrong. I am not speaking on specific incidents resulting in fatalities but giving my general opinion on dog attacks.
Why the rise?
Firstly, there’s more dogs! The pandemic has increased the number of dogs that are being bred and bought in the UK. With the price of dogs increasing throughout lock down, this has led to unscrupulous people breeding for profit over temperament.
The cost of lining the pockets of a terrible breeder can be far more than the price of a dog.
There is a myth that a puppy is a blank slate, or ‘it’s all how you raise them', and this is simply not true. There are many behaviour traits that can be passed down, and the critical periods for a dog’s socialisation and development begins when they are only 4 weeks old and ending at around 12 weeks old. This means that your puppy’s breeder has a huge part to play and has responsibility for your puppy’s psychological development as well as physical. Sometimes bad breeding can lead to physical issues also, which can express themselves as behaviour issues when there is any pain, discomfort or othe
r medical factors that can influence behaviour. This is of course not solely related to breeding, but health issues are also a risk factor within aggression cases.
That’s not to say that a well-bred dog with a nice breeder won’t exhibit aggressive behaviour, but a negative experiences or lack of socialisation during critical development periods may increase risk.
Breeding and genetics are potential factors, but there are also lifestyle issues which can have an effect on a dog’s behaviour. Breed does not determine whether a dog is or isn’t aggressive - however some breed traits may exhibit themselves in a way which is more likely to cause an issue or be a higher risk factor when a dog’s needs are not met effectively. This is nothing to do with placing blame on anyone, but looking at risk factors for aggressive behaviour - and a dog’s physical and emotional needs not being met is a factor within this.
There are a whole variety of mixed breeds, and breeds which are so far removed from their original purpose when selectively bred for function, that the individual dog is the only way to determine what outlets they may need to fulfill them, but there are inferences that breed can give us as to what a dog may prefer - a collie for example may have an innate need to control movement, not every collie as there can be great variation within a breed depending on lines, but if a collie is chasing cars or herding small children, then we may assume that this innate need is there and trying to find its own outlet. We refer to this sometimes as a dog being ‘self-employed’.
Understanding exactly what your dog was initially bred for and knowing how to facilitate your dog’s natural expression of drive can dramatically improve the lifestyle of your dog and reduce conflict and frustration which can lead to aggressive behaviour. Ethology (the study of animal behaviour, especially under natural conditions) gives us an insight into why dogs may be left feeling unfulfilled when we are fitting them in with our lifestyle, rather than fully understanding and meeting their needs in a balance of compromise. I would strongly recommend listening to my Bull Breed Podcast episode with Kim Brophey, or reading her book ‘Meet Your Dog’ to understand this perspective.
Having a deeper understanding of dog behaviour is key, as is truly being able to read and listen to dog body language. It is not enough to only teach them our language, but to be able to speak theirs’s too. Kendal Shepherd created ‘the ladder of aggression’ which shows us the different levels of communication a dog may use which would equate to the escalation from a whisper to shouting loudly and using physical aggression to gain the desired response from the recipient. When those whispers are ignored or dismissed, this leaves the dog with no other option than to shout louder. To be able to pick up on the subtle shifts in dog body language and what they mean is so vital and can potentially save you from being bitten. In my Bull Breed Club app, we are going to be doing a video series on dog body language so that we can learn to listen to what our dogs are saying.
The highest risk category of humans who are most likely to be bitten by a dog is young children. There are many reasons for this. From a dog’s perspective, young children can move unpredictably and erratically, they can make strange and unpredictable noises and generally act very differently from their adult counterparts. These factors, paired with the fact that children are often face height with dogs, can be more likely to grab, and misread a dog’s body language and warning signals, are all risk factors for a more dangerous situation.
There are now lots of amazing resources out there to help you with the relationship between your dogs and children - including another episode of my Bull Breed Podcast with Debby Lucken from Kids Around Dogs (KAD). If you imagine that having your dog around your child needs a similar level of supervision as a child in a swimming pool, then you understand how active it needs to be. Even dogs who have been part of your family for years can have bad days, for example, older dogs may be in pain and less tolerant of children’s behaviour than usual.
When a human commits murder, there are legal explorations of that person’s background to see if there are any mitigating circumstances which lead to that person becoming a murderer. There are documentaries on it. That doesn’t excuse their actions but may help to explain them to a certain degree. One of the arguments for trying to preserve the dogs who have fatally attacked a human is that it would be more helpful to be able to assess and understand the dog than to immediately kill them. We often do not have the dog as evidence to be able to assess them after fatal incidents occur. The history of the dog is therefore very important to be able to determine risk factors in order to help us prevent further dog attacks.
Unfortunately, most of the time the dogs are immediately destroyed without the opportunity to assess them - which would be helpful to be able to understand any links between dogs that do cause fatalities, and there is also a lack of recorded or available information on the dogs and dog bite related fatalities which could help developing research into dog bites, ultimately to understand how to prevent further escalation.
I’d love to know your thoughts!