Dog attacks made headline news on a number of occasions in recent months.
As part of its awareness campaign, ER24 spoke to veterinarians at the South African Veterinary Association – Community Veterinary Clinics (SAVA-CVC), in order to bring about better understanding among the public on why dogs attack, what can be done to reduce the chances of being bitten and what to do if bitten.
The following questions were answered by Dr Quixi Sonntag, a veterinarian and animal behaviourist, and Dr Dave Kenyon. Both veterinarians are members of the SAVA.
Is dog aggression common?
The majority of dogs are not aggressive. Veterinarians treating dogs with behaviour problems, commonly treat dogs with various types of aggression, as this condition usually causes much concern for the owners of the dogs. Fighting amongst dogs is more common than bites directed at humans.
Are dog attacks common in South Africa?
In a 2007 study*, it was found that dog bites account for 1,5% of all patients presented to a trauma unit in Cape Town. Most of the cases were male children and no fatalities were reported over a 13,5 year-period (1871 cases). Far more people are injured in car accidents and crime-related incidents.
Why do dogs attack?
Most dog bites occur in situations where dogs feel threatened by the actions of humans. People do not always know how to read a dog’s body language and often inadvertently contribute to the dog biting them. Dogs can feel threatened if their personal space is being intruded upon (for example when a person reaches out towards a dog’s head with their hand or with an implement or looms over the dog) or if something that they perceive as valuable, such as a bone or food, is taken from them. Pain is a common cause of defensive aggressive behaviour, especially if the dog thinks that it cannot escape from the situation. Dogs on chains tend to be more aggressive as they are unable to flee. Some dogs are aggressive because they are protecting their territory, but even this type of aggression is based in fear as they are fearful of losing control of their territory. Frustration can cause fear when a dog cannot get to the target of its aggression – for example, a dog is barking at the fence when somebody walks in the street with their dog on the other side of the fence and because it cannot get to that dog, it bites whoever or whatever happens to be next to it at that moment (redirected aggression).
Less commonly, dogs may exhibit predatory behaviour towards something or someone, they perceive as a prey – this type of aggression is very quiet as they first stalk the “prey” and is typically directed towards a human that shows signs of weakness such as a person who moves in an uncoordinated way, for example, people with disabilities or people who are drunk. When dogs are in groups, they tend to be more dangerous as dogs will follow another’s example even if, on their own, they would not have been aggressive.
What can contribute to a dog being aggressive?
Many factors can result in a dog being aggressive. The environment may play a role in that maybe the resources are limited or there is a lack of space. A dog can thus see another person or dog entering its already limited space with limited resources as a threat. Physical factors such as age and gender as well as an intact male with more testosterone (which tends to be more aggressive than a castrated male) can also play a role. A dog also tends to be more aggressive if it is raised in an un-socialised manner with no interaction with people or other dogs.
The most relevant factors are lack of appropriate socialisation, incorrect training methods utilising punishment and irresponsible owners who do not keep their dogs under proper control at all times.
Can aggression be prevented?
Puppies should be exposed to different types of people and physical handling in a pleasant manner during their most sensitive developmental period, which is between two and four months of age. There are many excellent puppy schools offering assistance to dog owners in this regard. Puppy school is also where owners learn how to control their dogs so that they do not become a nuisance or danger to other people. Reward-based training methods help dogs to know how to behave appropriately in circumstances which could otherwise have resulted in aggressive behaviour. Many veterinary practices offer this service to puppy owners. Recognising dogs’ body language and knowing how to interpret it can play a significant role in reducing canine aggression. Sterilisation of dogs (spaying and castration) can indirectly reduce aggressive behaviour. Dog owners who are concerned about aggressive behaviour in their dogs should consult an appropriately qualified behaviour consultant sooner rather than later as most cases of aggression in dogs can be successfully managed.
Are dog attacks common among children?
Studies have shown that children are common victims of dog bites. This is probably because children are more likely to be closer to the size of dogs, they are less likely to accurately read the dog’s body language and interpret it correctly and are more likely to be in close proximity of dogs when playing. Research* has shown that children under the age of six are more likely to be bitten by a familiar dog and children over the age of six by unfamiliar dogs.
How to avoid being bitten?
Do not interact physically with dogs you do not know. Do not hug or kiss a dog – even if you feel comfortable with it. Hugging and kissing (handling the most vulnerable body parts of a dog – the head and the neck) are perceived as a threat by most dogs. Do not punish a dog by hitting it or shouting at it. Learn how to use reward-based training methods to get your dog to behave appropriately. Respect the personal space of a dog. Learn to recognise the subtle signs of a dog that feels threatened for example lip licking, yawning, turning the head away, moving away and growling. Growling is a sign of a dog with good manners, warning you that it is feeling threatened and needs to be left alone. Be thankful if a dog growls when it feels threatened, as it is a sign of excellent communication skills. Examine why the dog growled and get professional help to address it if it happens often.
What to do if you are attacked?
A dog that wants to attack you will usually show distance-increasing body language signals (it is telling you that you must back off otherwise you will be attacked) such as a direct stare, body planted squarely on the ground, slightly leaning forward, hair raised, tail raised and even wagging very quickly at the tip, ears forward, snarling (showing its teeth) and growling. If you come across a dog doing this, keep quiet, turn your head away to break eye contact, keep your arms still next to your body, slowly step backwards to safety and keep breathing. Do not threaten the dog in any way or make any sudden movements. Should you find yourself in the very unfortunate position of already having been bitten, remain as quiet as possible and if you have been pulled to the ground, crawl up and pretend to be dead until help arrives – any movement will entice the dog(s) to start biting again.
So you have been bitten… what now?
Dog bites can take so many different forms and what one does when bitten depends on a variety of factors, for example, whether it was a household dog or an unfamiliar dog, and whether there was any owner negligence involved. A dog bite incident is always traumatic to all involved (including the dog) and can be very emotional. If it is your dog that has bitten someone, always try and get an objective view from an expert in dog behaviour before making a decision on the dog’s future. If necessary, put the dog in kennels for a few days so that everyone gets an opportunity to catch their breath before any big decisions are made. People often regret a hurriedly made decision to euthanise a dog after a bite incident. Make sure you have taken all the factors into account before making such a decision. Dog owners are legally responsible for their dog’s behaviour. Dog bite cases can be dealt with in the courts via a civil case (where the dog bite victim may be entitled to compensation by the dog owner) or criminally (if the dog is considered to be a danger to people). If you find yourself in such a position, get advice from your attorney.
Sources: 2007 study* – Dog bite injuries in children – a review of data from a South African paediatric trauma unit by Jeremy P Dwyer, Arjan B van As (Department of Paediatric Surgery and Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Southern Africa, Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital, Institute of Child Health, University of Cape Town) and Tania S Douglas (Department of Human Biology, University of Cape Town).
2010 research* – Dog bites to the head, neck and face in children by Arjan B van As, Jeremy P Dwyer and Sudeshni Naidoo (Department of Community Dentistry, Faculty of Dentistry, University of the Western Cape, Tygerberg).