When I was young, a little girl I knew was attacked by a dog. She was rushed to hospital, her face forever changed. The dog was dispatched to the vet and euthanised. Everyone expressed their shock at this horrible accident, especially when the dog was known to be gentle and calm. The child and the dog had been playing nicely together when one of the grownups asked the little girl to hug the dog for a photograph.
We have all seen those kinds of photographs, the child with her face pressed against the dog, the dog’s head turned away, whites of its eyes showing, with a sort of ‘hang dog’ expression. What we didn’t know, back when I was a kid, was that these are signs of a stressed dog. It is saying ‘leave me alone, please’. The next request might be a growl or snarl, but these manners may have been suppressed by humans who reprimand dogs for growling. And unfortunately, the next available request to be left alone involves teeth. And that is how the little girl was bitten, all those years ago.
Dog bites in children have been widely studied. They are classified as ‘avoidable injuries’. They peak at holiday times, when children are home more, in the early evening, when food is being eaten, and in the summer time, when dogs seek quiet shade and minimal interaction.
Responsibility for dog bite prevention lies solely with grownups. Not with children. Not with dogs. The path to a dog biting begins as young as puppyhood, with poorly socialised puppies being sold by breeders. It is compounded by grownups not supervising children around dogs, not teaching children to give dogs space, putting children into risky situations with dogs for a cute photo or video.
70% of children who are bitten are bitten by their own dog. In the remaining 30% the responsibility is with the owner to ensure the dog is not in a position where it may bite a child or adult. Dogs with a history of biting or agression should, at a minimum, be on leash in public spaces. Parents should also teach their children never to approach strange dogs, and not to enter gardens where a dog is loose outside.
Dog bites are avoidable injuries. Education, supervision and knowledge are the keys to avoiding them.