"I am not a dog person, although I have owned dogs. I heard on the
news a couple of months ago about an elderly woman near Los Angeles
having both arms amputated by her great-grandson's pitbull. Shortly
before this I read of three large, powerful dogs killing a child in
New Brunswick. My neighbour's dog growled and barked at my husband
when he poked hs head over the fence this weekend. These incidents
seem to be on the rise. With all due respect, what are you dog
people doing about it?"
This is an explosive topic, but an interesting one. The interest
lies in how differently the reality is from the public perception of
how dangerous dogs are to people and whether this is worsening.
Meaningful discussion about dogs and public health is retarded by:
1) the lumping of routine dog threat behaviour and non-damaging
bites together with the extraordinarily rare events of fatalities
and serious maulings (this is like lumping human arguments and
office politics together with aggravated assault and murder); and 2)
the stupendously exaggerated estimation of one's own risk of serious
dog attack based on the prevalence of stories about them in the
Dogs are, compared to other 'hazards' we accept without question in
our society, fantastically safe. My friend and colleague, Janis
Bradley, has been researching this issue for an upcoming book on the
subject and has compared dogs to everything from kitchen utensils
and water buckets to strollers, Christmas trees, balloons and
marbles. To these items they compare favourably. They compare even
more favourably to things like swimming pools, bicycles and
playground equipment. And, when it comes to the heavy duty
statistic-makers in our society, she writes, "dogs can never compete
as hazards with fathers or mothers or sisters or brothers or aunts
or uncles or friends..."
Bradley underscored her point about how vanishingly rare fatal dog
attacks are by comparing them to the universal cliché of being
struck by lighting. We are each "five times as likely to be killed
by a bolt of lighting - not just struck by one, mind you - killed"
than to be killed by a dog or dogs. Considering that less than 20
per cent of lightning strikes are fatal, this makes being struck by
lightning 25 times more likely than being the victim of a fatal dog
mauling. If the risk by exposure is then considered - there is one
dog for every four or five people in the United States for instance,
and most of these dogs encounter several people every day of their
lives - dogs are almost incalculably safe.
And, contrary to the shrieking newspaper headlines, dog-related
deaths are not trending upwards. The rate has remained
astonishingly steady over all the decades that records have been
kept. Bradley surmises that this may indicate that the floor has
been reached - i.e., that the rate is as low as it could conceivably
get. In fact, she cautions that well-meant swells to "do more"
after every headline-grabbing incident might not only do nothing
(except rob resources from elsewhere), but rock a boat that is
currently at rock bottom: "Basic systems theory teaches us that it
is perilous to change the system to eradicate the exception, and dog
bite deaths are about as exceptional as it gets. It is perilous
because when you change large scale situations to prevent extremely
rare events, you cannot even begin to predict what other aberrant,
or even widespread, events may pop up."
When it comes to bites at the kitchen-injury level, however, dog
bites are relatively frequent. What do I mean by "kitchen-injury"
level? Injuries are classified on a scale from one to six, with
level one being defined as a quick recovery with no lasting
impairment and six defined as likely fatal. Ninety-nine per cent of
all treated dog bites fall into the "one" category. For comparison
purposes, Bradley discusses falls, the most common type of injury,
which average a four rating, defined as requiring weeks or months
for full healing or some lasting minor impairment.
So what about frequency? Based on inferences from the available
research, for instance, it is often quoted that half of all children
will be bitten by dogs at some point and that every human who lives
to the age of 60 will be bitten at least once. This qualifies low-
level dog bites as mundane events. Absurdly mundane, according to
Bradley, who points out that a huge proportion of adults will also
nick themselves with paring knives countless times during their
lives, and that "something close to 100% of kids will fall off of
their bikes multiple times with out injury." What's amazing about
dog bites is that we are grimly trying to count them: "There is no
other such phenomenon that anyone even attempts to study when it
doesn't produce physical harm." In other words, no one talks about
the paper-cut epidemic, the chef's-knife-injury epidemic or the
falling-in-bathtub epidemic. Why do dogs get to have "an epidemic"
when five-gallon buckets, which are more dangerous, don't?
Barry Glassner, a sociology professor at the University of Southern
California and author of The Culture of Fear, points to the
disproportional media coverage given to certain kinds of events
relative to the "near invisibility" of other kinds of injury that
seriously hurt and kill people. Dogs meet criteria for what
Glassner calls "cultural scapegoating." Bradley puts it well when
she notes that dogs (or perhaps their "irresponsible owners") might
qualify as "unambiguous villains that allow us to distance ourselves
from the responsibility for the real problems in our society."
Another reason for humans' exaggerated fear of dog bites is our
evolutionary heritage. Just as we inherited a craving for fat and
sugar that served us well in our distant past amidst dietary
scarcity and now is maladaptive, we inherited a preparedness for
fearing certain environmental elements, such as animals with big
teeth. These were genuine and prevalent concerns back then. Now
they are not, but we can't shake the feeling (nor replace it with
one that would be more adaptive, such as, say, motor vehicles at
Rational discussions about routine dog bites and especially about
serious dog attacks can get derailed when they raise the hackles of
dog-bite victims and their advocates who feel their suffering is
being minimized. I dread seeing Janis misunderstood and attacked on
Larry King Live or in print, which I fear is her destiny. But I
hope that cooler heads will ultimately prevail.