Fanning the Flames, Fear of Dogs Becoming Epidemic

By Naomi Kane


Run for your lives there is a dog bite epidemic!  Or at least some people would like you to think so.  Fear of dogs is on the rise that is the real epidemic.  The world has become sanitized and safety crazed, people buy helmets for toddlers learning to walk so it shouldn't be surprising that dogs are perceived as dangerous too.  Fuelled by unconfirmed statistics and irresponsible not to say hysterical media attention people are feeling quite justified in their fear.  So let's take it down a notch and look at the reality.

Dogs hold a unique position in our lives as companions, workers and heroes and at the same time as threats and dangers to be avoided.  For some people dogs are family members, kept in our homes and involved in our activities at the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that dogs are unclean and should never be touched much less kept as pets.  And then there are those that keep dogs as possessions to be chained to a dog house or left in a basement unsocialized and untrained or worse trained to attack other dogs or people.  Irresponsible, abusive and ignorant dog owners, create most of the situations where dogs have harmed people. 

We all know that early and positive training and socialization with children is the best way to teach dogs that kids are not so scary or dangerous.  The same goes for kids, early and positive interaction with dogs, learning how to pat them and play with them, learning the "Do's", not just the "Don'ts" will teach kids that dogs are not so scary or dangerous.  Familiarity breeds not contempt but confidence and ability.  People with the proper skill set won't torment, tease or unwittingly provoke a dog.  Parents who are terrified of dogs need to look carefully into the facts before instilling an unreasoning fear into their kids. 

In doing research for this article I came across an astonishing amount of contradictory information, inflammatory language, misinformation and inflated numbers.  The oft quoted number of four point five million Americans, or two percent of the population bitten per year, and that one in five dog bites require medical attention has been used to prove how big a problem dog bites are in North America.  But wait, the National Canine Research Council points out that number was obtained by phone surveys of just over five thousand people conducted in 1994, by J.J. Sacks, M. Kresnow and B.Houston and the data was "weighted to provide national estimates".  The estimated numbers are not corroborated by actual public health agencies.  Even if the huge numbers estimated were correct how can a problem that affects not quite two percent of the population and in most cases requires no medical attention be called an "epidemic"?   The facts are that dog bites have decreased steadily even though the dog population has increased and yet the perception remains that dog bites are a major problem especially for children. 

The Canadian Hospitals Injury Reporting and Prevention Program (CHIRPP) database has compiled injury reports from the program which takes data from the emergency rooms of ten pediatric hospitals and four general hospitals across Canada.  To put things in perspective using actual data from real hospitals bicycles or hockey are far more dangerous than dogs but dogs are a bit more dangerous than wheeled shoes or hot beverages.  Check the reports yourself on the CHIRPP website 

Many people are under the impression that dogs just bite for no reason. Pretty scary stuff!  In the world of twenty four hour news, blogs, tweets, YouTube etc., getting attention is hard so headlines are slanted towards the horrifying and dramatic.  The news media does this on a regular basis, it is their job.  They find a "hot button" issue and pick the stories that will illicit the strongest response, sell the most newspapers, generate the most hits on the website.  Headlines in Toronto screamed "Year of the Gun" across front page after front page leaving people to suppose that the streets of that city were war zones when nothing could be further from the truth, in reality crime rates had dropped.  Reports of dog "interactions" are often just as irresponsible.  When some idiot leaves a puppy alone with a baby and takes a sleeping pill, the headline is "Dog Eats Baby's Toes" instead of "Careless Parent Charged in Infant and Dog Negligence Case".  If a parent left a three year old alone with an infant there would be no question of where to lay blame if something happened, but put a dog in the picture and somehow the dog has to take responsibility.  Reporters regularly keep key points until the very end as a kind of postscript, oh by the way the dog was tied to a scrap heap it's entire life, rarely fed and the unsupervised kid, wandered over to the dog's food.  Well DUH!  Suddenly the terrifying becomes tragic, predictable and preventable a story of abuse and negligence but the only thing people take away from the story is the scary headline "Dog Kills Two Year Old" and their fear is reinforced.  The number of people who are shocked when I tell them they can pat my dogs is on the rise.  "Won't it bite me?" they ask, apparently expecting every dog to be a rampaging maniac like the ones in the headlines. 

Speaking of bites, what exactly is a dog bite?  If you get into a drunken brawl, punch somebody in the face and scratch your knuckles on a tooth that is considered a human bite wound.  If you hit a dog in the mouth and get a scratch it is considered a dog bite.  If the skin is broken by a tooth it is a "bite" and it is reported as such in many of the statistics used to promote the "dog bite epidemic!".   No distinction is made between actual attacks, accidental scratches, protective bites or defensive bites.  Did the dog turn around and graze the skin of a kid that tried to poke a stick in it's rear end; justifiable and restrained defence from abuse or did the dog snap because the kid walked by it's food bowl; unreasonable overreaction?  In the statistics both of these situations are just bites.  Animal control agencies are interested in whether the dogs are up to date on Rabies vaccinations so even a minor scratch is noted and described as a bite.  So statistical bites aren't always, or even mostly, really, uhm bite bites.  Statistics are slippery things at the best of times but this is ridiculous.

I do not mean to trivialize the tragedy of real attacks, rare though they are, they are horrifying and should never, ever happen, but to lump all dog bites in one category is like equating a skinned knee to loosing a leg in a bomb blast.  By magnifying scratches into medical emergencies it terrifies everybody making attacks or deaths seem more common and demonizing dogs for no good reason.

It is important to put things in perspective.  If every dog required the amount of careful handling that is recommended these days, dogs should be in zoos instead of living rooms.  It makes sense to fear a Grizzly Bear walking down a street but not so logical to cringe and cross the street if you see a dog being walked. More often than not a person scared of dogs will do something to make the dog pay attention to them.  Picking up a stick and waving it threateningly, screaming and flapping their arms or simply scurrying around the dog in a furtive and highly interesting way.  Any dog that is alive is going to at least look at this abnormal behaviour. 

Dogs make people's lives a little richer, bring things into perspective, dry a tear or make us laugh.  The miracle of the human canine bond is a partnership and communication with another species that is unique.  It is a shame that through misinformation and hysteria many people don't or can't participate in the conversation.  When a dog is fearful of something we often use incremental exposure to build up the dog's confidence.  Starting at a distance we expose the dog to the disturbing thing coupled with a positive thing like a treat, or play, we make sure that the scary thing does not actually do anything startling as we move closer and slowly the dog makes the positive association with the scary thing as well.  In this way we get dogs used to things that bother them.  The same thing works for people although liver treats aren't nearly as effective as candies or a reassuring hug and proper information. 

I know I should finish off with the usual disclaimers, be careful, be a tree, but I think we've beaten that one nearly to death, so go out and meet a friendly dog.


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