Why Some People Are More Likely to Be Bitten by a Dog
Dogs are more aggressive around people with one particular personality trait.
Posted April 18, 2018
"I don't know what the problem is, but dogs are always trying to bite me." The man talking to me appeared to be in his mid-20s, and he continued, "For example, just last Tuesday, I was hurrying down the street, because I was running behind for a luncheon appointment. I was just passing by a woman who was walking a German Shepherd, and the dog, without any warning, charged over and bit my leg. Fortunately, it wasn't all that bad, and only one of his teeth had broken the skin, causing a little bit of bleeding. The woman apologized, saying that she had this dog for two-and-a-half years, and it never shown any aggression to anybody else — it just singled me out, it seems. Can you explain what's going on?"
During the time that he was speaking, a little of my clinical psychology training kicked in, and I found myself observing his body language. As he spoke, he rubbed his cheek and then ran his hand through his hair. All the while, he was blinking more frequently than you would expect an average person to do. He stood with his lips tightly compressed and was squeezing and rubbing one hand with the other. He was also shifting his weight back and forth between his legs, which gave the impression that he was pacing in place. I recognized that these are some of the various nonverbal signs of anxiety and distress. What struck me was that having so many of them present at the same time is unusual. Many clinical psychologists believe that if you see an individual displaying a number of emotionally tagged behaviors, and they persist over time, you may be dealing with a personality characteristic rather than a response to an immediate situation. So what flashed across my mind at that moment was not just the idea that perhaps simply thinking about dogs biting him was making this man nervous, but also the possibility of "neuroticism."
It is highly likely that the reason I reached this conclusion was that I had just finished reading a recent article published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The article was written by a team of researchers from the University of Liverpool, headed by epidemiologist Carri Westgarth. This study was trying to get information about how common dog bites were, and whether there were specific characteristics which made it more or less likely that a person would be attacked. This is not an easy task, because many dog bites, such as the one just described to me, do not require medical attention and so are not reported. So what these researchers did was to target a single community of 1,280 households in Cheshire in the UK. They set out to try to interview as many residents as possible. Obviously no study is going to be able to measure everyone in a large community; however, the rate of cooperation was quite good, and they gathered data from 694 residents.
The general findings of the study were that dog bites, although occurring more frequently than one would measure if you depended only on hospital records, were still not all that common. They estimated only approximately 19 dog bites per 1,000 people in the population per year, and only a very small proportion of those required medical treatment or hospital admission. They also found that bites were more likely to occur from unfamiliar dogs (55 percent).
The investigators did find that some personal characteristics were important. Confirming the results of previous studies, they found that children younger than 15 were at the highest risk and accounted for 44 percent of all the dog bites. They also report that men were nearly twice as likely to have been bitten as women. All the measures that they used followed the general methodology of previous studies looking at how common dog bites are, except for one thing: These researchers also gave all of their respondents a short personality test, which measured the five most commonly indexed aspects of personality.
To the best of my knowledge this is the first study which has tried to link dog attacks to the personalities of the bite victims. What is most interesting is that they did find one dimension in which personality mattered. This was the dimension that is sometimes referred to as "stable versus unstable," but is more commonly referred to as the personality characteristic of neuroticism.
Inventories that try to measure neuroticism usually ask questions which focus on irritability, anger, fearfulness, sadness, anxiety, worry, hostility, self-consciousness, and vulnerability. For those individuals who score high on the personality dimension of neuroticism, such negative emotional responses to common stressors in their life and environment are often frequent and out of proportion to the circumstances.
Researchers often refer to neuroticism as a tendency toward negative emotionality or negative feelings in general. It is almost as though the person who is high on neuroticism moves through the world surrounded by a faint cloud of insecurity, fear, self-consciousness, and anxiety. Recent research also seems to show that individuals who are high on neuroticism also suffer from a variety of mental and physical problems to a greater degree than more stable counterparts. These problems include drug and alcohol dependency and various forms of anxiety and panic disorders. On the physical side, we find an increased incidence of asthma, cardiovascular disease, and irritable bowel syndrome.
This new study seems to add to the burden of the neurotic person, since it shows that individuals higher on neuroticism were 22 percent more likely to have been bitten by a dog than were individuals who were more emotionally stable. This is an important finding, because it is the first to link a person's personality to the probability that they will be bitten by a dog.
The team was at a loss to explain why people high in neuroticism were more prone to being singled out for attack by dogs. It is possible that an individual's anxiety and insecurity cause them to emit various pheromones (biologically significant odor molecules). Some research suggests that certain pheromones can calm dogs. Thus it does not seem beyond the realm of possibility that other pheromones might arouse dogs to act aggressively, and that the constant state of unease associated with high degrees of neuroticism might facilitate the creation of these. However, the investigators also suggest that some unknown patterns of behavior in neurotic people might cause dogs to pay attention to them and to target them.
I looked at the man uneasily standing in front of me, fidgeting, folding his arms in front as if he were hugging himself to provide security, rubbing his hands, and so forth — all signs of anxiety, and all signs common in people high in neuroticism. It is easy to see such signs of stress and anxiety if you look for them, and since dogs are masters of reading body language, perhaps they notice them as well. When most people see a person showing behaviors that indicate insecurity and fearfulness, it tends to make them slightly uncomfortable — the phenomenon known as emotional contagion. Perhaps dogs feel the same way, only without our clinical insight, their discomfort urges them to action. In their less sophisticated minds, they might reason that the most effective way to keep this slightly disturbing individual away from themselves is with a warning snap or a bite. Thus, the person high on the personality dimension of neuroticism may become a target of canine aggression simply because they make the dogs near them uncomfortable.
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Westgarth C, Brooke M, & Christley RM (2018) How many people have been bitten by dogs? A crosssectional survey of prevalence, incidence and factors associated with dog bites in a UK community Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. doi: 10.1136/jech-2017-209330.