Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dog Bite Research - Unsupervised Children At Highest Risk of Bite

You can read the press release from the University of Colorado, Denver here.

First, it should be duly noted that the research occurred at the Children's Hospital on the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora, Colorado. It also services Denver. The college is one of the best medical and teaching hospitals in the nation, so I imagine they get in cases from across the state and country.

Aurora and Denver both have Pit Bull bans. Denver has the highest rate of dog bite hospitalizations in the state. This could be a reason you do not see Pit Bull bites in the study, but I do not believe this to be the case. Denver still kills 800-1,000 Pit Bulls a year so they certainly still exist and are still being owned by people.

The study covered 537 facial bites to children between 2003-2008. This is not an all-inclusive dog-bite study, to be sure. Nearly 70% of the victims were under the age of 5. The dogs were mostly known entities, that is they were not victims of stray or loose dog attacks. I'm not sure I agree with the assertion that 50% of all people will get bitten and 80% will be in the facial region - I'd like to see the reasoning for this statistic.

Second, I disagree strongly with two of the study author's claims.

The first is that once a dog bites, s/he will always bite harder the second time and that the dog should always be removed from the home after the first bite. The second is that parents should recognize "aggressive breeds".

Vikram Durairaj, the study's author, is not a dog expert. He is not an animal behaviorist. He is an associate professor of Opthalmology and Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.Working in his field means he is exposed to victims of dog bites to the face. His expertise is in dealing with the aftermath of a dog bite and the intricate dancework needed to repair that damage.

I point this out not because I think Durairaj is inept or ignorant, only that his knowledge base is of a different scope than someone who specializes in the agonistic behavior of the domestic canine.

While I certainly am no expert on aggressive dog behavior, other experts have shown aggression in dogs is not a simple one-variable trait. A dog may bite because he is sick or in physical pain. She may bite because you are denying her access to a highly desirable resource, she has low bite threshold, and she is easily aroused to using teeth. He may bite because he has not been taught bite inhibition. She may bite because she is afraid or protecting puppies.

A dog bite is not a simple "If x, then y". It is dangerous to state that a) a dog will always bite harder the second time and b) a dog must always be removed after the first bite. I am not suggesting a biting dog always be kept or that a biting dog will NEVER bite harder the second time. I am suggesting we think of dogs as complex, sentient beings capable of interacting in different ways with their environment AND with the ability to modify and learn alternative or new behaviors. Obviously if a person is unable to manage the situation that leads to an aggressive encounter, or the initial encounter is unusually severe (i.e. multiple bites when a "nip" would have been appropriate, in dog-speak), or the individual cannot modify the behavior...then yes, the dog is better off in a different situation.

On the second point, and I think you Labrador Retriever owners will appreciate this, I believe Durairaj is wrong in asserting that parents need to know "aggressive breeds" before welcoming a dog into their home. In his study, mixed breed dogs and Labrador Retrievers were the most likely to bite a child's face. He is essentially stating that mixed breeds and Labrador Retrievers are aggressive breeds.

Giving due consideration to a dog's individual personality, behavioral traits, and if they are purebred, an understanding of the breed's history and traditional "use" in our culture and society is absolutely fair. But breeds cannot be aggressive, individuals can.

The take-home point from this study, I suppose, is to be aware that your dog is not an automaton. He is not a bombproof creature. He is a domestic biological carnivore with sharp teeth. He sometimes eat shit and decomposing animals. She licks her crotch and snarls over bones. She barks to talk and sometimes flags her tail when she's excited, not just when she is happy. Even though we share so much of our lives with dogs, we seem bent on misunderstanding them, treating them as if they comprehend the social morays of our world. We are lucky they do not bite us more.

KC Dog Blog has a posting too

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