Dogs chomp on more than four million people a year.
Megan Boger of La Belle, Pa., returned from shopping with her mother and ran into the yard to greet the family pet, a part-cocker mutt named Blaze. Seconds later, her mom, Elena Boger, heard a snap and then shrieks from three-year-old Megan. There was blood all over her face from tooth punctures under an eye and around her mouth, she recalls. Elena and her husband rushed their sobbing child to a local hospital. But the injuries were severe enough that the Bogers were sent to Childrens Hospital of Pittsburgh, where a plastic surgeon stitched the gashes.
Little Megan is far from alone in having been the victim of a dog bite. According to a 1994 survey (the most recent) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, some 4.7 million people were bitten by dogs. About 800,000 required medical treatment. Many bites are to children, and most are from family pets or familiar dogs, not strays.
Many bites are treated at home or in a doctors office, and as a consequence are often not reported to authorities. Meanwhile, there is no ongoing national system for counting dog bites, says the CDCs Dr. Jeffrey Sacks. In some locales bites are reported to the police, in others to the animal-control folks or the health department. Some counties dont collect data at all.
Whatever the exact numbers, medical, veterinary and insurance experts agree: dog bites are on the rise. One reason may be that more people are getting larger, more powerful dogs than in the past. The CDC considers dog bites a serious public-health problem for children. A Pennsylvania study found that 45 percent of children had been bitten. And not only children are at risk. Dog bites are no joke for letter carriers and delivery people.
Dog attacks account for a whopping one-third of all liability claims under renter or homeowners insurance policies. The Insurance Information Institute says that dog-bite-related medical treatment costs $1 billion a year. Homeowner-liability claims paid about $250 million of that in 1996.
One provider of liability coverage, MetLife Auto & Home, refuses coverage to many homeowners who have dogs with a history of biting or to those who own a breed they believe most prone to bite, including German shepherds, pit bulls, Doberman pinschers, Rottweilers, chows, huskies and Alaskan malamutes. Although any breed can bite, these breeds tend to be responsible for the most bites, the worst bites, and many of the dozen or so dog-bite fatalities every year.
How can you protect yourself and your children, and prevent your pet from becoming part of the problem? Some common sense will help:
Bad matches between a dogs temperament and a familys personality are sure to cause trouble. People can fall in love with a cute puppy, then find out six months later that they got more dog than they bargained for or one whose personality is different from what they imagined.
“Have you ever seen an Akita puppy?” asks Diane Allevato, executive director of the Marin County, California, Humane Society. “Theyre gorgeous! But chances are that puppy will grow up to be an aloof, one-person or one-family dog. Its the way the dog is supposed to be. So if you wanted a dog the whole soccer team could love, dont choose a loyal-to-one-person dog; he could become a biter.”
The solution? Find out about the breeds youre interested in before you even glance at a puppy. And consider getting a mixed breed. “We promote adopting mixed breeds because you often get the best of both parents,” says Allevato.
In the excitement of picking out a new pet, many people underestimate how much time it takes to train it. Yet experts say any dog requires a continuing commitment to training if theyre going to be under control around people.
Thats especially true for more aggressive and bigger dogs. “Take Rottweilers,” says Pat Hubbard, director of operations at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona. “They can make very sweet, loyal family dogs. But you have to be very serious about training them from the start.” This means finding time for walks, play and obedience classes, and keeping faithfully to the regimen.
Hubbard says many people make the mistake of putting up with puppy rambunctiousness because they think its charming. “Then one day when the dog is half-grown, you start teaching “sit” the way some obedience schools do by pushing down on the dogs rump as you say it. But theres a good chance an untrained dog will take your face off.” Over time, the dog has learned to be dominant.
Shelters are full of dogs turned in because their owners cant control them. Often these pets were never taught how to behave.
Thats why local laws banning specific breeds wont solve biting problems, say dog experts. “Our biggest concern with banned-breed lists is that people may feel a certain dog is not a danger because his breed isnt on the list,” says Dr. Leslie Sinclair, director of veterinary issues for companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States. “I cant say it too often: any dog can bite.”
Studies show an unneutered male dog is three times more likely to bite. Neutering reduces a dogs aggression. Its also humane. Too many males are let loose because owners cant control them. Too many puppies from unplanned breeding are abandoned.
Dogs crave our company. They are sociable pack animals. But many people get a dog then leave it alone most of the day in an apartment or a back yard. Some even tie dogs outside, which increases the chance of aggressive behavior. This makes for what dog experts call “inadequate socialization.” When such dogs encounter new people, they may bite from fear or from an instinct to protect their territory. “Make sure your dog meets as many new people each day as possible, especially when young,” says Robin Kovary, a dog trainer in New York.
People who boast of being “good with dogs” often end up getting bitten, notes Dr. Sinclair. Thats because they forget to take the proper precautions with dogs they dont know.
A mother in Charlotte, NC, had a plumber walk into her house unannounced. Hearing a ruckus, she found the plumber in the family room, trying to “make friends” with her coldly furious Labrador retriever. All the dog knew was that she had an intruder on one side, and “her” child and household on the other. “Dogs always like me,” the plumber protested before making a hasty exit. He was seconds away from a serious bite.
Children especially must be taught how to be smart with dogs. “Many kids normal behaviors – like running and squealing – look to a dog like the actions of prey,” says the CDCs Dr. Sacks. “That just naturally incites a dogs basic predatory instincts.”
Make sure your children do not try stunts like riding a dog or blowing into the face of a sleeping dog. And remember that even if your own children know how to treat your pets, their buddies may not.
Carolyn Boatner of Signal Mountain, Tenn., a mother of four, had a child bitten as a toddler. “It taught me that you cant predict what kids will try or how any dog will react.” Her dog, she says, is gentle and has never exhibited any tendency to bite. “But when my kids have friends over, I put her away because shes a hundred pounds. Why take a chance?”
“I see it all the time in parks and on the street,” says Allevato. “A dog snarls or snaps at a stranger, and the owner says, Its okay, hes just scared. Well, maybe so. But it is not appropriate for a dog to snarl, growl, snap or bite in these common situations.”
Dont make excuses for your dog. Its not all right to let a dog get away with growling over food or possessions, biting out of fear, refusing to be controlled around other dogs, snapping or nipping, says trainer Carol Lea Benjamin in her book Dog Problems. “These behaviors are unacceptable for dogs who are family pets,” she says. “And when left uncorrected they give dogs the clear message that aggression is acceptable.”
Beyond puppyhood, retraining an aggressive dog often is a tough job, and it doesnt always work. You may need professional advice. Contact your veterinarian, who might refer you to a trainer or behaviorist. If after retraining, your dog continues to scare people, consider whether the kindest and safest action is to put the dog to sleep.
Every pet owner, and every family with children, needs to take seriously the risk of dog bites. Ask the Bogers. Its been more than a year since Megan was bitten. The scars around her eye and the crease on one side of her mouth have faded almost to nothing, but the memory of the attack by her pet lingers. “Shes very hesitant around all dogs,” reports her mom. “Im more so.” They have taught Megan and their other children to approach dogs slowly, and to hold out a hand to be sniffed before getting closer.
The family was required by law to keep Blaze contained for ten days; to be sure the dog didnt carry rabies. Then the Bogers gave him to a family friend – one with no children. Now they have Blaze back, but hes carefully supervised.
h Dont disturb a dog who is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies.
h Always ask the owner if you can pet a dog. If the owner says yes, first close your hand into a fist and let the dog sniff the back of your hand. Then pet the dog gently.
h Never leave an infant or toddler alone with a dog.
h To avoid a stray dog, walk away from it slowly and quietly. Never run away. Do not stare into the dogs eyes.
h Know the posture signs that indicate the dog is about to attack. Common ones include: head lowered, staring, hackles up.
h If you are confronting an aggressive dog, place your hands at your sides and keep them still. Never wave them in the air.
h Dont run or scream if attacked by a dog. Stand still with your arms at your side. Dont make eye contact or talk to the dog. If you are knocked over, curl into a ball and put your hands over your ears.