Saturday, April 27, 2013

Preventing Dog Bites

I can't tell you how many times I've started this blog post, only to delete the entire thing and fight the urge to put my fist through a wall.

A four year old girl was killed by a dog in my town this week.

The owners of the dog had been babysitting the child, and when interviewed they called the dog an American Staffordshire Bull Terrier. In reality the dog was most likely mixed, or so backyard-bred that it bore little resemblance to any bully breed.  (I'd seen the dog several times before the incident, and it was not an American Staffordshire Bull Terrier.)

My first draft was angry.  I was angry at the public for instantly blaming the breed, and I was angry at the dog's owners for letting their dog become yet another statistic.  My second draft was fearful.  I was scared for my dogs, both in the immediate future and down the road, in the event the city added breed-specific legislation to its dog ordinances.

This is the final draft.  I hope I'm able to adequately explain my thoughts without offending anybody. The last thing I want to do is bring more pain to an already mourning community.

Let's look at the current facts:
- The owners of the dog had priors for drugs and child neglect.
- The owners of the dog had their own toddler taken from them last year, due to the child having access to pot and meth in the home.
- The dog had an established record with the city for noise complaints and running at-large.
- The dog was purportedly beaten in the past.
- The child was not old enough to be able to read canine body language.
- The child was left unsupervised with the dog prior to and during the attack.

How can anyone blame the dog's breed in that situation? Instead of focusing on the statement that the dog was of bully type, we should be focusing on the fact that a young child was left unattended with an under-socialized and abused dog, by people who had no business caring for children (or dogs) at all.  Breed isn't even part of this equation, folks.  A dog of any breed could have (and probably would have) responded the exact same way, considering the circumstances.

This is what you need to know.

Young children are not capable of reading canine body language, no matter how "good" they are with dogs or how much time they've spent around them.  The cognitive capacity just isn't there until the child gets older. Because of this, you are responsible for supervising a child's interactions with a dog - and that includes all dogs, not just unfamiliar ones.  I know it can be inconvenient, but you really need to supervise all interactions.  If you can't watch them, separate them - even if it's just because you have to go to the bathroom or answer the door. Leaving a dog and a child unsupervised because it's convenient is like putting a baby in the front seat of your car (without a carseat) because you're "just driving to the gas station."

Dogs are not robots, and children are not machines.  You cannot expect a dog to never bite a child, just like you cannot expect a child to never misbehave.  If you have children and are planning to own a dog, you need to do everything in your power to reduce the risk of dog bites.  This means acquiring your dog from a reputable source, socializing and training the dog, always supervising dog/kid interactions, teaching your children how to be safe around dogs, never punishing your dog for growling, learning canine body language with a focus on stress and arousal signals, and making sure your sitters and family know the rules when it comes to dog/kid interactions. If you aren't prepared to do this, then I'm sorry - get a fish, for Pete's sake.

Unless suffering from specific medical issues (rabies, brain tumors, etc.) dogs do not bite for no reason.  Luckily, dogs give us clear signals before they bite.  It's our job to know those signals, and to watch for them before the unthinkable happens.  If you're not willing to put in the research to learn "dog language" then you are unfit to own a dog.

The city hasn't yet decided if any changes will be made to the dog ordinances.  Rest assured, I will be doing everything I can to make sure breed-specific legislation does not show its ugly face in my town. I will be addressing the city council with alternatives to BSL, and I am willing to help in any capacity with dog safety education. We'll just have to see how this all plays out.

Some Resources:
Doggone Safe
AVMA: Dog Bite Risk and Prevention: The Role of Breed
AVMA: A Community Approach to Dog Bite Prevention


  1. Ugh, that really sucks. Those owners sound horrible. I feel bad for the kid.

    My Shiba will bite kids, I can tell by his bodylanguage and history with me. He's especially anxious around real little kids, toddlers and the like, and does not hesitate to growl and lift lips at them. I do not allow strange children to interact with him, and kids who he does tolerate are instructed on proper (supervised) behavior around him. If the kids do not follow my rules, they do not get to play with him, and I'll put him in my room while they are over. Simple as that.

    It really astounds me how people can leave a dog and a kid alone and think they'll be fine. Or not recognize obvious signs of predatory or anxious behavior. That should be common sense.
    Any dog can bite, breed had nothing to do with it.

  2. Thank you for this post! It is rare that anyone comes at this issue without a heated opinion on one side of the situation or the other. You've clearly laid out the facts without any inflammatory remarks though I know this is something that the owner of many dogs live in fear or anger of. Kudos <3


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