There's an old newspaper saw that goes, "When dog bites man it's not news, but when man bites dog, it is." It should be the other way around.
Dog bites are one of the most serious--and underrated--health problems in the United States today. Every year, about 1 million dog bites are reported to health officials. And, says animal bite expert Dr. Alan Beck, the number of bites that go unreported is probably five or 10 times that figure.
"It's so common that we have trouble thinking of it as news," says Beck, director of the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School's Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society and a consultant for the World Health Organization on rabies and animal bites. "But it's a very, very serious problem."
Most dog bites go unreported because they are minor, or because people don't know they should report cases of dog bite, or more commonly, because they are embarrassed or unwilling to admit that they've been bitten by their own dog. According to Beck, who has conducted several major studies on the problem in St. Louis and New York City (where he headed the office of animal affairs), about 70 percent of the dogs taken to animal behavior clinics are there because they have bitten a family member. "And those bites are almost never reported."
Of course, when a dog bites a person, it's always the dog that gets the blame--and usually the punishment. But animal experts say that the dog frequently gets a bum rap. "Dog bites are a man-made disorder," says Dr. Michael Fox, animal behaviorist and scientific director of The Humane Society of the United States. "Dogs in the wild have natural controls over their aggression, and there's very strong genetic selection against impulsive rage." Fox blames wishy-washy owners and irresponsible breeding of dogs for the current dog bite problem.
All dogs, says Fox, are born biters, but "they learn through interaction with each other to control their bites. When puppies are playing together they bite quite hard. Then one will turn and snap, and they'll stop playing. The person who puts on a leather glove to play with a puppy because it has sharp milk teeth that hurt is going to train that dog to bite harder. It should be disciplined when it bites too hard.
"I'm convinced that the primary problem is the owner who does not train the puppy and juvenile dog," says Fox. "The dog should respond to the owner as the pack leader as well as the parent figure. A lot of people don't want to dominate their dogs or go into obedience training because they feel that forcing their will on the animal is wrong. But if the owner overindulges and assumes a submissive, loving role only, there's going to be trouble."
Fox also blames breeders--particularly the so-called puppy mills that mass-produce puppies for the retail pet-store trade--for contributing to the growing numbers of dogs that bite. "Bad breeding, inbreeding and overbreeding with no regard to the temperament of the animals being bred" are all aggravating the problem. "What we're getting today are dogs with unstable temperaments, hyperaggressiveness, or fear biters. And these can be eliminated through careful breeding."
While the dog that bites can be of any size, age, or breed, the typical victim, says Beck, is a boy 5 to 9 years old, and 50 percent of them are under 15. Under 5, children are likely to be directly under an adult's supervision at all times. Likewise, and contrary to popular belief, the incidence of dog bites is higher in suburban than in highly urban areas, because in busy cities the dog is more likely to be supervised.
Half of all bites, says Beck, occur between noon and 7 p.m. and occur on the dog owner's property, or on the street, sidewalk or alley adjacent to the property. In 75 percent of the cases, the attack is initiated before the child sees the dog.
Most bites occur, adds Fox, because people, especially children, don't know how to behave around strange dogs. "Dogs bite because they're afraid, which can mean they're insecure, or because they're aggressively motivated, which means that they want to assert their dominance."
Avoiding being bitten is simply a matter of understanding what motivates the dog to bite. Most important is to realize that dogs are very territorial, so if you come on to a dog's territory you may be challenging it. You should also know that dogs don't respect property lines, and may define their territory as including the front yard, the sidewalk, and even into the street.
"A lot of dogs will approach a person simply because they want to sniff that person," Fox says. "Just stand still and allow that to happen, even if you're afraid of the dog. Sudden movements will make the dog apprehensive and more likely to bite."
Most dogs, even in their own territory, aren't going to bite you, but if you should come upon a dog that you think might like to find out how you taste (an aggressive dog usually holds his ears up and forward, looks you straight in the eye, holds his tail high and possibly snarls), the most important thing, says Fox, is "to play it cool. If you can, stop, turn slowly, and back away. If you run or turn your back on the animal, you're giving the dog the feeling that you're subordinate and he's going to chase you, either as prey or as something to prove that he's dominant over."
If you get cornered by an aggressive dog, "look around to see where you might be able to escape to. Get a tree between you and the dog, or a trash can lid, or your jacket on your weaker arm," says Fox. "With a big dog, it's best to say 'hi' to it, avoid eye contact, and move slowly. If it's coming toward you bristling, and you know you can't get away, stand still and keep your arms at your sides, so if it does jump up you can bring your arms and/or a knee up to knock it away. Let the dog circle you, sniff you, and if you don't move, it is likely just to go away."
If you own a dog that you think might be a potential biter, suggests Fox, obedience training, keeping it under supervision at all times, and neutering it if it's a male may be indicated. Do not, under any circumstances, have a dog attack-trained. It further breaks down the dog's inhibitions about biting.
Both Fox and Beck agree that dog bites are a problem people seem to refuse to face and one in which a little education can go a long way. "It's part of the ambivalence we have about dogs," Beck says. "Dogs have this kind of sacred place in our lives, and we refuse to see it as a problem. But it's one we need to solve, and one that would be inhumane not to."