Dog attacks on humans have become common news items in the late
20th and early 21st centuries. There is much debate over whether the
attacks can be blamed on the prevalence of certain breeds of dogs or
whether they are due primarily to the actions or inactions of the dogs
After thousands of years of domestication and selective breeding for dogs who
do not show aggression towards humans, most dogs are unlikely to attack people.
However, provocation can range from something as seemingly innocuous as a
toddler pulling a dog's tail, in which case the dog might nip to discourage the
behavior, to something completely transparent to humans, such as an odor or a
movement that sets a dog off, to blatant human aggression or violence towards a
dog, causing it to defend itself. There are hundreds of shades of provocation;
it is not always a black and white case as to why a dog might attack a human.
No matter the reason, dogs can inflict serious injury to humans. As evidenced
by their attacks on other creatures, both wild and domestic dogs are
superpredators. Their sharp teeth and powerful jaws can inflict serious
injuries; their sharp claws have powerful muscles behind them. Scratches from
dogs are easily infected. Even a boisterous dog of adequate size can knock down
a person and possibly cause serious injury although there was no intent on the
part of the animal. A single large dog, or a group of medium-sized dogs, are
capable of seriously injuring or killing an adult human.
Note that dogs can exhibit
aggression towards other dogs without ever exhibiting aggression towards
humans. These are generally accepted to be separate traits.
Education for adults and children, animal training, selective breeding for
temperament, and society's intolerance for dangerous animals combine to reduce
the incidence of attacks and accidents involving humans and dogs. However,
improperly managed confrontations can lead to severe injury from even the most
well-tempered dog, much like most humans can be incited to violence given
Ignoring a dog's warning bark can be very dangerous. A wagging tail indicates
an attempt to communicate excitement, but a territorial dog may wag its tail at
a chance to defend its home. A highly disturbed dog may sometimes emit confusing
or misleading signals, much as humans can be difficult to read or misleading.
Human behavior as provocation
Some human behavior (especially by people unfamiliar with dogs) can
potentially evoke a predatory or aggressive response from some dogs. Not every
dog responds to all or even any of these behaviors with aggression. However,
some do. These behaviors include:
- Attacking a dog or its companions, or acting in a manner that the dog
perceives as an attack (for example, a sudden enthusiastic hug or
inadvertently stepping on any portion of the dog's anatomy, such as a paw or
- Attempting to take food away from a dog, or moving towards a dog's food
or between a dog and its food, even inadvertently.
- Threatening a puppy in the presence of an adult dog, especially its
- Looking a dog directly in the eyes. In
dog communication, this is an act of dominance or aggression. This is
more dangerous when on the same visual level as the dog (such as small
children), or when the human is unfamiliar to the dog.
- Approaching a sick or injured dog. Note that older dogs, like people,
often become "cranky" and develop a tendency to become "snappish".
- Related to the previous point, failure to recognize a dog showing signs
of insecurity or fear and continuing whatever behavior is causing the dog's
anxiety to increase, until "fear biting" occurs. Again, an older or
chronically infirm dog is liable to develop feelings of vulnerability and
anxiety, and therefore become less tolerant and more aggressive.
- Running away from a dog: the
chase-and-catch instinct is not fully lost, and most dogs can outrun and
overtake the average human.
- Similarly, the natural instinct to jerk one's hands upwards away from an
inquisitive dog often elicits in the dog a strong impulse to grab and hold,
or at least to investigate, resulting in the dog jumping on the person and
thrusting its head towards the raised hands.
- Ignoring "Beware of Dog" signs: trained attack dogs, unlike most dogs,
may attack an intruder without warning.
- Startling a resting or sleeping dog.
- Entering a dog's "territory" and behaving in an unfamiliar pattern or
being unfamiliar to the dog. The dog's territorialism, powerful senses, and
latent ferocity makes almost any dog, irrespective of size, a powerful
The territory that a dog recognizes as its own may not coincide with the
property lines that its owner and the legal authorities recognize such as
the inside of a neighbor's home
- Attempting to disrupt a fight between dogs.
Many adoption agencies test for certain aggressive behaviours in dogs, and
destroy any animal that shows certain types of aggression.
In 1999, more child maulings by dogs were as a result of a child being left
alone with a
Golden Retriever than with any other breed of dog. A parent would rarely
leave a child alone with an unknown pitbull, but people forget that a even a
cute dog is still a dog. Just because a dog typically has a good temperament,
does not mean that it is safe to leave a child alone with it. Since children are
most easily harmed by dogs, there are a few steps that can be taken to ensure no
harm comes to a child, or the dog by extension.
- Teach your child never to approach a dog that they don't know.
- Always ask the owner if you can pet their dog. Owners know the
temperament of their dogs.
- Approach dogs from the front. They could be startled if approached from
behind and at the least may knock you over.
- Refrain from making sudden jerky movements. This could make the dog
think you are playing or being aggressive.
- Never let a child play unsupervised with an adult dog or puppy, yours or
a neighbours. An accident only takes a minute.
- Intervene and stop play if it looks too rambunctious or boisterous.
Children aren't as durable as puppies. Puppies regularly bite as a part of
regular play with other puppies.
Training and aggression
In a domestic situation, canine aggression is normally suppressed. Exceptions
are if the the dog is
feral, trained to attack intruders, threatened, or provoked. It is important
to remember that dogs are predators by nature and instinct is something that
never completely disappears. It is possible to acclimatize a dog to common human
situations in order to avoid adverse reactions by a pet. Dog experts advocate
removal of a dog's food, startling a dog, and performing sudden movements in a
controlled setting to train out aggressive impulses in common situations. This
also allows better animal care since owners may now remove an article directly
from a dog's mouth, or transport a wounded pet to seek medical attention.
Small children are especially prone to provoking dogs, in part this is
because their size and movements can be similar to prey. Also, young children
may unintentionally provoke a dog (pulling on ears or tails is common, as is
surprising a sleeping dog) because of their inexperience. Because of a dog's
pack instincts, more dominant dogs may view children or even adults as rivals
rather than as superiors, and attempt to establish dominance by physical means.
Any attempt at dominance behavior, no matter how tentative, should be extremely
firmly discouraged as early as possible, to affirm to the dog that all humans
are pack superiors. To avoid potential conflicts, even reliably well-behaved
children and dogs should not be allowed to interact in the absence of adult
supervision until both human and animal have demonstrated the ability to always
behave appropriately towards each other.
Dogs with strong chase instincts, especially shepherds, may fail to recognize
a human being in its entirety. They may fixate on specific aspect of the person,
such as a fast-moving, brightly colored shoe, as a prey object. This is probably
the cause for the majority of non-aggressive dogs chasing cyclists and runners.
In these cases, if the individual stops, it immediately loses interest since the
prey has stopped. This is not always the case, and aggressive dogs might take
the opportunity to attack.
Additionally, most dogs who bark aggressively at strangers, particularly when
not on "their" territory, will flee if the stranger challenges it. Conversely,
there is always the danger of the occasional dog who will stand its ground and
escalate the situation.
Dog attacks on humans that appear most often in the news are those that
require the hospitalization of the victim or those in which the victim is
killed. Although it is possible for small dogs to seriously maul or kill humans,
it is more difficult for them to do so than it is for large, muscular breeds.
Some large breeds have surged in popularity in recent years, such as
Rottweilers, and other similar muscular breeds. Not unexpectedly, attacks
involving such breeds have also become more common. This has occurred
historically; for example, when
German Shepherd Dogs were among the most common breeds chosen as pets,
attacks by German Shepherds also increased. As a result, many countries and
municipalities have enacted
breed-specific legislation in an attempt to prevent additional attacks from
the dogs perceived to be dangerous.
Considerable controvery reigns about such legislation. Proponents might argue
that pit pulls and certain other breeds are inherently aggressive towards humans
and shouldn't be allowed at all, or they might simply argue that since the breed
is so popular, they are often owned by irresponsible owners who provide
insufficient training or, worse, aggressiveness training, and that controlling
the breed is the best way to control the irresponsible owners.
Opponents might argue that no breed is inherently aggressive towards humans
or that regulating one breed simply moves the irresponsible owners to start
focusing on breeds that haven't yet been regulated, moving the problem to other
It is extremely difficult to establish the inherent human aggressiveness of a
breed in general. To establish meaningful results, research would have to
consider such factors as the following:
- What proportion of a breed's owners are knowledgable about dog training?
When a breed's popularity increases, it might be more likely to be the first
choice among owners with no previous experience with dogs because it's the
breed with which they're familiar. Novice owners might not know how to
socialize a dog of any breed.
- What proportion of owners deliberately encourage aggression in their
dogs? This would be a difficult number to discover, because it seems likely
that not many owners would readily admit to it.
- What proportion of dogs involved in acts of human aggression came from a
known mother or father who exhibited human aggression? This can happen in
any breed, and responsible breeders would generally not breed such a dog.
However, as a breed's popularity increases, people who know nothing about
breeding or genetics (or who don't care), might breed dogs who otherwise
shouldn't be bred.
- What proportion of that breed in the community exhibits human
aggression? For example, if there were 5,000 pit bulls in a given area, and
5 attacked humans during the previous year, but there were 100 of some other
breed in the same area and 5 also attacked humans, statistics would suggest
that the other breed is a far more aggressive breed than pit pulls, with
4,995 pit bulls behaving quite decently.
Most statistics published show only the number of dogs of various breeds
involved in attacks, not the percentage of dogs of that breed in the area
who were involved in attacks. Any popular breed is more likely to show up
with more attacks because there are simply more dogs.
One approach that acknowledges that it's hard to determine the dangerousness
of a specific breed takes the strategy of regulating all dogs over a certain
size or weight, which would greatly reduce the chance of a dog being large
enough to inflict serious harm. This, of course, would remove from circulation
most of the hundreds of breeds available in the world today, most of whom would
never deliberately harm a human.
Although research and analysis
suggests that breed-specific legislation is not effective in preventing dog
attacks, with each new attack, pressure mounts to enact such legislation,
dangerous dog legislation would be more effective—that is, focusing on
specific individual dogs having exhibited signs of human aggression. The
controversy is bound to continue.
For example, the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 1997
that fatal attacks by
rose fairly steadily from 0 in 1979 to 10 per year in 1995 and 1996. During the
same time, fatalities from pit bulls peaked in the mid-1980s and have been
declining since to only 3 in 1996; however, if one were to look only at the
total number of fatalities over those 18 years, it would appear that the pit
bull was the bigger threat, when in fact Rottweilers were currently a more
However, it is interesting to note that AKC registration of Rottweilers rose
from 27th most popular in 1982, with just over 9,000 dogs of that breed
to second most popular in 1996, with roughly 90,000 dogs registered.
That doesn't account for the possibly hundreds of thousands of Rottweilers not
registered with the AKC. With this many dogs of a single breed in the country,
it is possibly not surprising that there were some attacks on humans. However,
even if one were to ignore all the hundreds of thousands of non-AKC Rottweilers,
10 out of 90,000 dogs is one one-hundredths of one percent of Rottweilers
involved in fatal attacks on humans. One might question whether that proves that
this breed is inherently dangerous and should be regulated by legislation.
By the same token, "pit bull" is a term often used to lump several
similar-looking breeds. Many people have difficulty distinguishing one
broad-faced, muscular breed from another.
It is difficult to track the registration of the "pit bull" during the same time
Although a gun may seem possible to save your own life from a dog, the United
States law prohibits this on charges of
cruelty to animals, discharging a firearm in a city, and
reckless endangerment. There are monthly news reports of people being
incarcerated for this.
of dogs involved in fatal human attacks in the United States between 1979
and 1998, Jeffrey J. Sacks, MD, MPH; Leslie Sinclair, DVM; Julie
Gilchrist, MD; Gail C. Golab, PhD, DVM; Randall Lockwood, PhD. JAVMA, Vol
217, No. 6, September 15, 2000.
^ World Almanac and Book
of Facts 1985. Doubleday.
^ World Almanac and Book
of Facts 1988. World Almanac Books.
Legislation in the United States. Linda S. Weiss, Michigan State
University - Detroit College of Law (2001). Animal Legal and Historical Web
Dog Bite--Related Injuries Treated in Hospital Emergency Departments",
CDC MMWR, July 4, 2003.
| Alpha Roll
| Dog Attack
| Clicker Training
| Dog Collar
| Animal Communication
| Dog Communication
| Crate Training
| Dog Aggression
| Dog Trainer
| Dog Intelligence
| The Intelligence of Dogs
| Obedience School
| Obedience Training
| Operant Conditioning
| Prey Drive
| Dog Society
| Dog Whistle
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