Dog Bite Prevention: Is There Anything New?

National Dog Bite Prevention Week was held in May and organizations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and The United States Postal Service (USPS) put out news releases encouraging people to be safe around dogs.  Raising awareness of the dangers of dog bites and providing advice about how to avoid them is a laudable undertaking.  But has anything really changed in the last 20 years or so in terms of injuries and what we know about the risks and causes of dog bites?  The answer is yes, we DO know more about dog bites and the good news is that injuries seem to be declining in the U.S.

First the good news about frequency of dog bite injuries.  Drs. Gilchrist, Sachs, White and Kresnow of the CDC conducted a survey of  U.S. citizens in 2001-2004 to try and determine the frequency of dog bites.  These data were compared to similar data collected in 1994. The results:  The estimated number (extrapolated from numbers reported in the survey) of dog bites per year in the US declined from 4.7 million people in 1994 to a little over 4.5 million in 2003.

Interestingly, this decline was not across the board but was attributed to fewer dog bites to children and particularly young boys.  According to the authors, there was a 47% decline in dog bites to children during this time period but NO decline in bites to adults.  And, there was a slight increase in the estimated number of people seeking medical attention for their bites – from 800,000 in 1994 to 885,000 in 2003. 

These data are particularly meaningful because the estimated numbers of dogs in the US increased during this time from about 53 million to 72 million.  One way to look at this is that not only are the numbers of bites per thousands of people declining, but also the number of bites per thousands of dogs is as well.  

What accounts for this apparent decline in bites to children?  Certainly the publicity about dog bites and particularly bites to children has increased over the last 17 years. A number of organizations including the AVMA, the CDC, national humane organizations and state and local agencies have vigorously promoted dog bite safety education for children. 

At the same time, these same organizations have also promoted more responsible pet ownership and in some cases, state and local agencies have instituted more stringent laws against keeping dangerous dogs.  Perhaps all of these efforts are having an effect.

Also during this time our knowledge about dog aggression and dog bites has increased substantially.  A study by Sachs, et al. (2000) found that the breeds most responsible for deaths in the US has changed over time, and that there are serious difficulties in concluding that one breed is necessarily more dangerous than another. 

Books by Bradley (2005) and Delise (2007) have questioned the ways that dog bite statistics have been collected and analyzed, further calling into question the idea that dangerous dogs can be easily identified by breed.  Studies by Guy, et al. (2001) and Duffy et al. (2008) found that when wider populations of dog owners were surveyed, many breeds not considered dangerous in bite statistics reports, were at a higher probability of biting than previously thought.  These breeds included Chihuahuas, Beagles, mixed breed dogs and Golden Retrievers. 

A study by Herron, et al. (2009) found that people using physical confrontation (hitting, scruff shaking, rolling and pinning) were more likely to elict aggression from their dogs than those that did not use those techniques, and that dogs presented for aggressive behavior problems were more likely to respond to confrontational methods than dogs without aggression problems. 

The more we know about the characteristics of biting dogs, their victims, and the circumstances of bites, the more likely we’ll be able to find even more effective ways to prevent dog bites in the future.  Current findings make it clear that we probably should put more effort into educating adults about behaviors that can elicit aggression in dogs. 

The reference list and links to online articles are available to members of our Behavior Education Network.

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