Why dogs bite, the medical, legal, and other consequences of humans being bitten by dogs, and how to manage them, are "hot" topics globally.1 I'm very interested in the general topic of dog biting, but when I go to the web to learn about specific studies there are numerous hits and it's often difficult to make sense of the data and to separate fact from fiction. So, I was thrilled to learn of a new book edited by Daniel Mills and Carri Westgarth called Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. To say this volume is encyclopedic is a major understatement, and each time I go back to it I Iearn a lot of new information. Its description reads:

The issue of dog bites and dog aggression directed at humans is frequently in the media. However, scientific research and evidence on the subject is scattered and sparse. Public and political opinions are often misinformed and out of proportion to the extent of the problem. Dog Bites brings together expert knowledge of the current situation, from a wide variety of disciplines, to provide information to the many people and professions affected by this issue. Subjects range from the practical, medical, behavioural, sociological, and theoretical, but the overall approach of the book is objective and integrative. Topics addressed include: the genetic basis of aggression; the public image of aggressive dogs; bite statistics; risk factors; the forensics and surgical aspects of dog bites; international legal perspectives; court evidence; first aid treatment; zoonotic disease potential; behavioural rehabilitation options; the risk to children; and a consideration of why some dogs kill. All contributors are academic or long-standing professional experts in their field, and they represent a wide spread of international expertise. This issue is an important one for pet owners, vets, animal shelters, and anyone who works with dogs, such as the police. This book will be a valuable resource for them, as well as for animal behaviourists, academic researchers, health professionals, dog breeders, and handlers.

Dog Bites is organized into nine sections titled Fundamental Principles, Perceptions of Dogs that Bite, Dog Bites and Risk, Investigative and Legal Issues, Health Issues, Handling the Aggressive Dog, Managing Future Risk, Prevention, and Concluding Comments. Thirty-nine contributors wrote its 32 chapters. 

I reached out to Dr. Mills, Europe's first professor of veterinary behavioural medicine, and Dr. Westgarth, a Research Fellow at the University of Liverpool where she completed her Ph.D. in Veterinary Epidemiology and Masters degree in Public Health, and they agreed to answer a few questions about their landmark book. Dr. Mills' answers are in italics and Dr. Westgarth's are in plain text. Our interview went as follows.

Courtesy of the publishers
Source: Courtesy of the publishers

Why did you decide to compile the essays for Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Perspective?

Dr. Mills: It has been clear that so many people are stakeholders in this and its implications and many people see to use the data for their own agenda by being both selective and over simplifying things. There was however no single authoritative point of reference and so this what we decided to set about addressing.

Dr. Westgarth: I have always been a very multidisciplinary person, perhaps a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ type so to speak, and this extends to my research. But this enabled me to see that different disciplines I was viewing the subject of dog bites from were seeing the problem and the solutions quite differently. For example, dog behaviour counselling (people do stupid things to dogs and simply need to stop) compared to human public health (people do what they do because their environment sets them up to do that and it’s very difficult to do any different). A broad reference point was needed in order to challenge our personal thinking.

Why is it essential to take a broad and multidisciplinary perspective on the problems at hand?

It’s a bit about the three blind men and the elephant -- one has the trunk, one the ear and one the leg, they all perceive the animal very differently and so it is with aggressive behaviour we need people to at least appreciate that its complex and that we need to be critical of simple solutions- if they existed it would be solved by now. Only with us coming together can we make real difference.

Even experts in one particular area of dog bites make a lot of assumptions. This was really apparent in reading the manuscript drafts, where authors of one chapter were stating background assumptions to introduce their specialist area whereas another author (who was the specialist in that area) was busting that myth in their chapter. We have to think more broadly and put the pieces of the puzzle together if we are going to effectively prevent and treat dog bites.

Can you briefly summarize some of your findings, noting general trends and surprises?

Oh that’s a hard one -- to me, the main thing to appreciate is that we know very little with much confidence -- generally the data is very poor, but that does not mean that all solutions are equally valid. I think if we can be more critical we can perhaps at least have better pragmatic solutions until the research catches up.

I think people will be surprised at how little we actually know, especially when it comes to risk factors for aggression. It’s very easy to read one research paper and think their results are great and must hold true but it is only when you look at a whole body of work and really critically engage with it, which we gave our authors liberty to do (and we did of them), that you start to really see the contrasting findings and gaps. We actually don’t know for sure how many dog bites there are, who is at most risk, or how to effectively prevent them. I am also excited by the new data that this book contributes, including breed variations in jaw structure and bite strength, media and societal perceptions of aggressive dogs, and my own data on deep reaching impacts of even minor dog bites on victims.

Who is your intended audience?

Anyone with a serious interest in this, but especially the professions covered by the authorship as well as academics

I hope that there is something for everyone who is interested in dog bites, even if someone is already at the top of the game in their own discipline. For example, dog trainers can learn about statistics, epidemiological risk factors and bacterial infections caused by dog bites. Surgeons can learn about best practice aggressive dog rehabilitation methods and educational initiatives for prevention of bites to children. Vets can learn about societal constructions of aggressive breeds and forensic investigation of human fatalities. It will hopefully open up new worlds for everyone.

Do you have hope that there are solutions to reduce the incredible number reported dog bites and how might this be done? What role can veterinarians play?

It think we can -- but we also need to abandon the idea that all bites are preventable- living with dogs caries an inevitable risk – the first question is to educate people about what these risks are and what as a society we think is acceptable- bearing in mind the enormous benefits dog ownership brings. Vets have a role to play (I am a vet) but its relatively small, as they are not well trained in behaviour – it needs cross-disciplinary collaboration.  

In my mind we definitely have to abandon the ‘blame the victim or owner’ approach and we cannot rely on education. Education alone does not work in any other health promotion topic, why would it work for dog bites? People often know that they are at risk of being bitten but carry on anyway! We also need to challenge the perceptions that dog bites are ‘just one of those things’ that can’t be prevented. I think many of them can, but there is no one solution, prevention has to happen at a number of levels. The swiss cheese model is one way to think about it: Think of slices of swiss cheese lined up against each other. Each hole is a potential point in the barrier through which failure to prevent the risk could occur. When all these holes align a dog bite occurs. For example, a puppy from a sire with a nervous disposition, the pup went to socialisation classes, but was attacked by another dog a few years later and developed back pain that made him suspicious of being handled, one day a parcel delivery man comes and the dog is usually shut away during these situations but he managed to push on the door and it sprang open and the dog ran to the front of the house, the delivery man reached to stroke him on his back, and was bitten. Hypothetical but you can see where there are a number of events and contexts which contributed to this one dog bite event. Each one alone may not have.

Is there anything else you'd like to share with readers?

Not that springs to mind, other than its not a self help book it is a point of reference – I actually like your conceptualisation of it as a series of essays in a more encyclopedic way -- hadn’t thought about it like that.

We hope readers find it useful, and to expect some myth-busting and conflicting points of view!

What are some of your current and future projects?

In relation to dog aggression – I have on-going work on cultural factors altering perception and how we communicate better interventions, work I’m writing up on when the aggressive behaviour becomes seen to be a problem and what that means, and then on-going work on medical issues affecting dogs that show aggressive behaviour.

I have a Ph.D. student investigating in detail perceptions and beliefs regarding risk and safety around dogs, using detailed interviews and field observations, in particular of work places at risk of dog bites. I’ve been working closely with Royal Mail on their dog bite prevention initiatives – over 7000 postal workers in the UK are bitten each year. We need to better understand how high risk people such as this can be protected from bites. My other research is regarding people’s motivations for walking their dogs, and beneficial effects on human wellbeing. We need to balance the risks and benefits of dogs to society.

Thank you Drs. Mills and Westgarth for compiling this much-needed and timely volume, and thanks to your 39 contributors as well. I find myself picking it up and randomly going to chapters and to the tables and graphs to absorb what you and your authors have written.

All in all, Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Perspective is extremely comprehensive and a most valuable addition to a scattered and difficult to interpret literature. I hope it receives a broad global audience, because dog bites know no geographical boundaries. As we learn more and more about why dogs bite, it'll be a win-win for them and for us. And, our companions need all the help they can get (for more on this topic please see "Companion Animals Need Much More Than We Give Them," "Dogs Want and Need Much More Than They Usually Get From Us," and links therein). 

Please stay tuned for more information on dogs and other nonhuman companions with whom share our lives. There's no shortage of new studies coming our way. 

1The World health Organization (WHO) reports "There are no global estimates of dog bite incidence, however studies suggest that dog bites account for tens of millions of injuries annually. In the United States of America for example, approximately 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year. Of these, nearly 885 000 seek medical care; 30 000 have reconstructive procedures; 3–18% develop infections and between 10 and 20 fatalities occur. Other high-income countries such as Australia, Canada and France have comparable incidence and fatality rates." According to DogsBite.org, "Each day about 1,000 U.S. citizens require emergency care treatment for serious dog bite injuries. Annually, about 9,500 citizens are hospitalized due to dog bite injuries.1 The below statistics and studies examine injury occurrence and the breeds of dogs most likely to inflict severe and fatal injuries. For those new to this area, Quick Statistics and recent Dog Bite Studies are good starting points. Also see our October report that reviews level 1 trauma center studies from 2009 to 2016. More graphics can be seen here

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson); and The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce). Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do will be published in early 2018. Learn more at marcbekoff.com.

You are reading

Animal Emotions

The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved

Dumping the dumpster belief and other ideas about how wolves became dogs.

How to Give Dogs the Best Lives Possible in a Human World

Researchers and trainers weigh in on how we can make the world better for dogs

Living With a Dog Is Good, If It's Good for You and the Dog

A study shows a dog has some health benefits especially for people living alone.