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Managing dog-human interactions

Barbara CARBY

Tuesday, February 11, 2014    

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The Huffington Post recently reported (February 7, 2014) that six US States are considering putting an end to laws restricting dog ownership by breed; joining 17 states which already have laws that prevent breed-based discrimination against dogs. Many jurisdictions are coming to the conclusion that not only are such laws expensive to enforce, they do not improve public safety. As stated by one attorney quoted in the HuffPost, "the scientific studies show it doesn't work". The data does show, however, that dog bites and dog bite-related fatalities are a serious problem in the United States, where the situation has been extensively researched. One of the most recent studies, published in 2013 by a multi-author group, identified 256 dog bite-related fatalities (DBRFs) in the US between 2000 and 2009. Another study identified 238 such cases between 1979 and 1998.

The 2013 study identified several factors involved in DBRFs and found that factors tended to co-occur. The factors identified were:

a) absence of an able-bodied person to intervene — 87.1 per cent;

b) incidental or no familiar relationship of victims with dogs — 85.2 per cent;

c) owners' failure to neuter dogs 84.4 per cent;

d) compromised ability of victims to interact appropriately with dogs 77.4 per cent;

e) dogs kept isolated from positive human interaction (versus family dogs) 76.2 per cent;

f) owners' prior mismanagement of dogs 37.5 per cent; and

g) owners' history of neglect or abuse of dogs 21.1 per cent

Four or more of these factors co-occurred in 80.5 per cent of the deaths.

Data from the 1979-1998 study showed that young children were the most frequent victims, followed by the elderly. Most attacks are carried out by in-tact male dogs, and more than half of the attacks were perpetrated by unrestrained dogs in a home, while 17 per cent were by restrained dogs in a home and 24 per cent were by unrestrained dogs away from a home.

The statistics suggest that the number of attacks can be reduced, some attacks can be prevented, and that action by owners is important in the prevention and reduction of these attacks. These actions include: choice of an appropriate dog for the family, neutering of dogs, prevention or close supervision of interactions of children with dogs, proper socialisation of puppies and dogs, proper humane confinement of dogs, appropriate care, and regular interaction with the dog by family members.

Understanding how dogs communicate especially in stressful situations is also important. Brenda Aloff, who specialises in managing aggression in dogs through behaviour modification, states that dogs rarely bite without warning. Most bites happen because humans have missed or misinterpreted the warning signs. It is the owners' responsibility to recognise the signs of stress and to ensure that the dog is not placed in a position where it is stressed to the point where it feels it must defend itself. In one study, analysis of the situations in which bites occurred revealed that, in one-third of cases, bites were triggered by teasing of the dog. Given a choice, most dogs will choose flight over fight. However dogs perceiving a threat without a means of escape, because of being cornered or chained for example, will feel forced to defend themselves, and may attack in such circumstances. Note that aggression can also be caused by medical problems, so dogs should be regularly examined by a qualified veterinarian.

The role of the authorities includes protecting the public and the dogs by ensuring responsible behaviour by owners and protection of the animals from cruelty and abuse. In Jamaica, abuse of animals seems to be taken for granted. I recently contacted the Office of the Police Commissioner about a report of animal abuse but never received an acknowledgement. Some persons will no doubt argue that the police are busy dealing with far more serious issues. However, studies show that abuse of animals can be a precursor to antisocial behaviour. So, if for no other reason, enlightened self-interest would suggest that cases of animal abuse and cruelty be investigated and perpetrators given psychological help or appropriate sanctions as required.

The matter of dog-human aggression comes to attention in Jamaica because of attacks which sometimes result in death. Statistics from other countries indicate that, for each fatality or serious attack, thousands of bites have occurred. Since security concerns as well as other social factors in Jamaica will continue to encourage ownership of dogs, including large, powerful breeds, a strategy for safe management of dog-human interactions is required, including detailed data collection and analysis of biting incidents, public education and appropriate legislation.

Dr Barbara Carby serves the Disaster Risk Reduction Centre at University of the West Indies, Mona, and is an animal lover and a certified dog trainer in the US. Comments to: barbara.carby@uwimona.edu.jm

One of the most recent studies, published in 2013 by a multi-author group, identified 256 dog bite-related fatalities in the US between 2000 and 2009. Another study identified 238 such cases between 1979 and 1998.

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