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Editorial
When man's best friend attacks: how to progress on dog bites
  1. Tiny De Keuster, DVM, DipECAWBM
  1. Specialist Behavioural Medicine Companion Animals, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, Salisburylaan, Merelbeke 9820, Belgium, e-mail: tiny.dekeuster{at}ugent.be

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THE UK dog population is estimated to be 8.5 million, making dogs the most popular pet, sharing the lives of 24 per cent of families in the UK (PFMA 2015). However, decades of dog bite research indicate an important downside to this friendship; dogs are responsible for the majority of animal bites to people, leading to physical and psychological trauma or even fatalities.

The incidence of dog bites is estimated to be around 1.5 per cent of the population with children being twice as much at risk compared to other age groups (Gilchrist and others 2008). According to hospital data, most dog bites happen in familiar surroundings involving a familiar dog and a child victim. The known number of dog bites probably reflects only the tip of the iceberg since accurate reporting is lacking (Bernardo and others 2002).

However, dogs can bite more than people. Research by Brooks and others (2010) and recently by Moxon and others (2016) address a topic rarely mentioned in dog bite research, namely attacks on working guide dogs for the blind and the visually impaired. In a paper summarised on p 367 in this issue of Veterinary Record, Moxon and others (2016) report 629 dog bite attacks over a 56 month period in the current UK population of 4900 working guide dogs, averaging around 11 attacks a month. Most of the guide dogs were working in harness when the attack occurred, resulting in a traumatic event both for the dog and the handler. When comparing the data of the recent research by Moxon and others to the 2010 investigation by Brooks and others, attacks on guide dogs appear to have tripled over the past five years.

Over the past years in the UK the Guide Dogs Association has kept accurate records of dog attacks on working guide dogs. This resulted in a campaign to change the law and led to the passing of the Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing Act in March 2014. Since then dog attacks on a trained assistance dog have been treated as an aggravated offence with a sentence of up to three years for the attacking dog's owner (Guide Dogs 2014).

This was unusual, as previous changes in legislation regarding bites directed at people were not supported by accurate reporting of dog bite data, but merely based on isolated incidents of dog bites in public places, picked up by the media because of sensational breed involvement (eg, pit bull attacks) or extensive trauma (eg, injured children). In fact, repressive dangerous dogs legislation, targeting breeds or specific types of ‘vicious’ dogs and aimed at tackling the problem of bites directed at people, has not resulted in a reduction in dog bite numbers or severity of injuries and have been scientifically discredited (Cornelissen and Hopster 2010). Instead, hospital data appear to indicate an increase in doge bite victims (Kasbekar and others 2013, Mannion and Mills 2013, Súilleabháin 2015).

Dog bites do still represent a serious health and safety issue for both families and the pet dogs involved, as injury and trauma to humans risks destroying the human-dog bond, exposing dogs to relinquishment or euthanasia (Salman and others 1998).

Dogs have a range of signalling to avert threat; humans tend to easily pick up the extremes, such as growling and teeth-showing (a) but are less likely to notice the subtle signalling, such as lip-licking (b) that precede an attack towards a dog/human (c). In addition people are not necessarily aware of the impact of static and frontal dog-dog interactions that can be common when dogs are leashed (d). Photographs: Joke Monteney (a) and (d), Tiny De Keuster (b) and (c)

So what have we learnt from the past and how can we address the issue of dog bites in the future?

The research by Moxon and others shows that attacks on working dogs not only put guide dogs and their handlers at risk of physical and emotional suffering, but may also have economic consequences for the guide dog organisations. Dog bites should be considered as a burden to the victim, whether human or conspecific.

The past tells us that repressive legislation does not help reduce dog bites, so the question is how can we improve prevention in the future.

Creating awareness regarding dog specific signalling may have a key role in improving dog bite prevention. Dogs are social animals and they have a broad range of signalling to communicate social threat. Dogs only use aggression (ie, launching, growling, snapping or biting) as a last resort to solve a conflict. Therefore aggression should never be classified as a characteristic of an individual dog, but merely as a context dependent strategy to deal with conflict situations (Casey and others 2012).

Humans have been shown to be good observers in detecting the extremes in canine warning signs, but they have also been shown to be poor observers when it comes to detecting the subtle signs of stress signalling (Mariti and others 2012).

Therefore the veterinary profession has an important role in educating clients and dog owners about dog language and the range of signalling dogs use to communicate a threatening situation. A better awareness and early recognition of these signals will undoubtedly help owners to reduce the number of dog bites and attacks.

However, two papers have identified some communication problems between veterinarians and dog owners regarding dog behaviour.

Research by Roshier and McBride (2013 a, b) has highlighted that most clients do have questions about their dog's behaviour and want to be informed but they do not use the veterinary clinic as a source of information about this. Instead they use the Internet, television, books and other sources, which clearly is a missed opportunity for the veterinary profession. A second problem identified by Roshier and McBride was that the majority of interviewed UK veterinarians perceived a lack of education in terms of behavioural medicine within the veterinary curriculum.

In conclusion, if the veterinary profession really wants to have an positive impact on the problem of dog bites, communication with dog owners on dog behaviour needs to be strengthened and improved. At the same time educational training tools regarding dog language, stress signalling and how to provide anticipatory guidance should be available at the practice level.

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