Aggressive Dogs Threaten Public Safety

This archived article is from July 2005. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

The phrase "dog bite epidemic" appears on several US-based Web sites. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4.7 million Americans - almost two per cent of the population - were bitten by dogs in 1994. One out of six required medical treatment. The American Humane Association calls dog bites a greater health problem for children in the US, than measles, mumps, and whooping cough combined, and points to data showing almost 70 percent of dog-bite victims are children under 15 years of age.

The Insurance Information Institute reported that claims related to dog bites accounted for about one quarter of all homeowner’s liability claims in the US, with an average claim of $16,600. The fact that over half of the bites occur on the dog owner’s property has prompted some American insurers to take steps to limit their losses.

Canadian Data Lacking

Canada has no national data on canine population, dog-related deaths and injuries, or which breeds cause the most harm. In Canada, much of the insurance-related liability is borne by our health care system. Dog bites are a common reason for emergency room visits. Yet there is no mandatory reporting of these bites - not to mention the dogs' ownership, breed, spay/neuter status or history of aggression.

The coroner's report on a six-year old girl killed by dogs in 1999 found that 117,000 Quebeckers claimed to have been bitten by a dog between 1997 and 1998. Of these, 75 per cent were under the age of 10 and half were bitten by their own dogs. Extrapolating these numbers, the Canada Safety Council estimates that dogs bite 460,000 Canadians annually. Our problem is likely as serious as that of our southern neighbor.

Responsible Ownership

The right dog, well cared for, is a safe, reliable companion. However, dogs must be properly socialized and trained. They become a threat if they are abused, or deliberately bred or trained to attack people or animals. Any dog may bite if it is threatened, angry, afraid or in pain. Dogs have an instinct to defend their territory, whether that is space, food or a toy.

Most dog bite victims are children. In many cases, teasing or unintentionally provoking an aggressive reaction from a dog leads to a bite, but occasionally an attack is unprovoked. That is why small children should never be left alone with a dog. Whether or not there is a dog in the family, parents need to teach their children how to behave around dogs.

Dogs trained or bred to be vicious are often owned by drug dealers, criminal groups, and violent or irresponsible individuals who wish to intimidate others. These dogs - and their owners - present a serious threat to community safety.

In the past few years, fear of crime has led more people to acquire a dog for protection. But if they cannot control the animal, they endanger themselves and the community. For those who feel vulnerable, security devices available today offer much safer options.

Lifestyle is another factor. Owning a dog demands a major time commitment, as they need a lot of attention. Any owner who must keep a dog locked up (or chained outside) for 12 hours a day should probably not own one.

Municipal Animal Control

In Canada, animal control is largely a municipal responsibility. Breeders fall under provincial jurisdiction as a business. Import of animals, medical costs of treating bite injuries and collection of national injury data are federal matters.

Good animal control by-laws, well enforced, are part of the solution. In some areas, less than 20 per cent of dogs are licensed as required. Unlicensed animals are less likely to be spayed or neutered, a critical factor in preventing aggression. Ensuring the resources are in place to enforce animal control regulations will help a community protect its residents from aggressive dogs.

The National Companion Animal Coalition has prepared a position paper on effective and efficient animal control by-laws, including a sample by-law. The Coalition urges municipalities to adopt legislation to prevent harmful situations, bearing in mind that dangerous dogs are generally the result of irresponsible ownership and that owners should be held responsible for their dog's behaviour .The position paper is posted on the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies Web site.

Dangerous Breeds

Statistics show that some breeds are more likely to be involved in vicious attacks. European countries have banned or outlawed the import and breeding of breeds deemed dangerous. Also many districts across the United States have developed breed specific legislation. A few Canadian municipalities have taken this approach, often in the wake of a serious incident.

Authorities should beware that breed bans may provoke people who want aggressive dogs to seek out other breeds to breed or train them to become vicious. After France passed legislation against certain breeds, Barbary apes were smuggled into the country to act as watchdogs. The apes have strong limbs, sharp teeth and short tempers; they attack humans on the head.

Breed bans should not be used as a quick fix. The solution lies in a combination of effective animal control measures, reputable breeders, responsible owners, public education, backed up with enforcement and based on reliable data.

Visit www.dogsandkids.ca for safety tips to help young children, their parents and educators prevent dog bites.