Dog bites up by over 20% in Ireland in 15 years
A scientific paper, published last week, analysed dog bites requiring hospitalisation in Ireland over the fifteen year period from 1998 to 2013. The incidence has increased from 4.65 to 5.64 per 100000 people, a jump of over 20%. And this does not include the many dog bites that are not severe enough to need hospitalisation. What has caused this increase, and what can be done about it?
Last week's research paper suggests that the increase could be linked to the implementation of the Control of Dogs Act 1998, which imposed strict controls on eleven breeds of dog (such as Rottweilers, German Shepherds and others). These breeds - and their crosses - are meant to muzzled and kept on a short leash in public areas. There is a theory that this legislation may make people too relaxed around breeds that are not on the restricted list, making them more likely to be bitten by "ordinary dogs" than if the restrictions were not in place.
I am not convinced by this theory, but it is true that this type of breed-specific legislation is internationally recognised as being unfair, unnecessary and ineffective. Even before the restrictions were brought in, Irish law insisted that all dog owners had to have their dogs under "effectual control" in public. It is difficult to see why extra controls are needed: the fact that they rarely seem to be enforced supports my own belief that they were a political over-reaction to highly publicised rare cases of serious dog attacks in public places that had been in the media in the months prior to the introduction of the new laws. While I can't see that the restrictions could actually be a factor causing the increase in dog bites, I do agree that they should be repealed. Other countries - like Scotland - have dog control laws based on "deed not breed" i.e. dogs with a track record of causing problems are placed under tighter controls. This is a more logical and effective approach than the current Irish breed-linked regulations.
So why are more people are being bitten by dogs? To find the answer, it's worth looking back to another scientific paper, published in 2008, which analysed the background to 234 dog bite incidents in Ireland. Interviews were conducted with people bitten by dogs, and with the owners of the dogs, trying to pinpoint the precise details of each episode. A biting incident was defined as when "a visible mark was left on the victim's skin": this included many minor bites that did not require professional medical treatment. The paper reported some highly significant findings about dog bites.
First, children are three to five times more likely than adults to be bitten by a dog, for several reasons. Children are smaller, so dogs may see them as weaker adversaries. Children are less informed and less responsible than adults, and they are more likely to interact in inappropriate ways with dogs. Adults know there are some things that you just don't do (e.g. putting your face close to a dog that is eating its dinner). Adults also recognise the warning signs that a dog may be about to bite (e.g. growling or snarling). The main messages are that adults have a responsibility to ensure that children are taught about dog behaviour from an early age, and young children should never be left unsupervised with dogs. There are some excellent online lessons designed to teach children how to interact with dogs (e.g. the UK Kennel Clubs "Safe and Sound" programme). All parents should ensure that their children visit these educational websites. The decision, last year, by Educate Together national schools to include animal welfare and behaviour on their curriculum is another helpful step forwards.
Second, the study showed that the two dog types that were most commonly involved in bite incidents (Collies and terriers) also happened to be the two most popular breed types. While some breeds of dogs were more commonly reported in biting incidents, these did not fit with commonly held beliefs(e.g. Papillons and Pekingese were in the top ten breeds, while the Staffordshire Bull Terrier was one of the least likely breeds to bite). This aspect of the study confirmed that it's wrong to focus on dog breed when considering how to prevent dog bites.
Third, the study found a strong relationship between encroaching on a dog's territory and bite incidents. In nearly every case, the person bitten was doing something active, such as entering the dog's property, playing with the dog or trying to catch the dog. In only 2.2% of cases, the victim was not doing anything connected with the dog. This stresses the point that human actions are almost always significant in dog bite incidents: if humans can be taught to behave differently, many dog bites can be prevented. Indeed, the main conclusion of the scientific paper was that education of the public, especially children, could prevent a significant proportion of dog bites.
What do I think has caused the increase in dog bites in Ireland? I suspect that more dogs are being kept in closer proximity to humans, with owners seeing them as part of their "family". And most people don't really understand dog behaviour, causing them to accidentally provoke dogs to bite.
The answer to the dog bite problem is education. If we all learned more about dogs, we'd be far less likely to be bitten.