A dog bites child incident a Southwest flight in Arizona raises new questions about dog bite safety on airplanes. Below, I provide expert opinion about this incident that happened on a Southwest flight departing from Phoenix, Arizona in February, 2018.
News stories posted on the Internet indicate that the circumstances were as follows. A six-year-old girl was boarding a plane in Phoenix, and she noticed a dog on the first row against the bulkhead. The owner allegedly asked the child to stand back, but apparently, she did not listen: the dog inflicted a bite on her forehead. What probably happened is that after the child noticed the dog, she quickly bent downwards towards the dog.
My expert opinion is that the child placed herself within “striking distance” of the dog. Published studies in the dog bite literature indicate that when a dog inflicts a bite on a child’s face, it is usually the result of the child bending down towards the dog. And in this instance, like others, it is likely that the dog became aggressive because of fear arising from the sudden movement towards its face by an unfamiliar person. Fortunately, the child only sustained a minor injury to her forehead. A Southwest spokesman said the dog’s teeth scraped the forehead of the child. No mention was made of the dog’s breed.
Dog bite safety on airplanes
This is not the first time airlines have been forced to deal with the issue of safety caused by the presence of dogs. For example, several years ago United Airlines and others blacklisted certain breeds from traveling in the cargo area, such as Dobermans and Rottweilers, following an incident where a pit bull broke out of its cage and chewed through electrical wires. This policy was eventually rescinded after public outcry, however.
An airline should not blacklist dogs from flying with their owners in the cabin section of the plane because of the strong emotional ties owners have with their dogs. Mental health experts unanimously agree that the emotional support provided by a dog likely lessens a person’s anxiety of flying.
The current policies of airlines only state that an emotional support dog can be denied boarding if it behaves poorly, and this, in fact, this is what happened in the incident in Arizona. No documentation about the animals past training is required, but flight attendants may question the owner about the emotional support the dog provides owner. And most airlines require documentation from a mental health professional to substantiate the claim of emotional support.
Dog bites child – expert opinion: What are the prevention steps?
So how can the airlines now act to increased dog bite safety on airplanes concerning emotional support dogs? At this time the issue warrants further consideration given that there has been a market increase in passengers traveling with “emotional support dogs” in the cabin section of an airplane. Besides dogs, it has gotten to the point of almost being ridiculous in that passengers are traveling with all sorts of animals, such as snakes, birds, cats and even pigs – all supposedly providing emotional support to the passenger. And I am not sure that airlines have a solution because of federal law which dictates “reasonable accommodation” for emotional support animals under the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (FHA or FHAct).
One solution is that all dogs must remain in the carriers until the seat belt safety warning light turns off. Another solution is better supervision of a child by the parent. Lack of adequate supervision over child near an unfamiliar dog is a common reason why children get bitten by dogs. As an aside, I have seen the defense argument of lack of supervision over child on many occasions in dog bite lawsuits. However, the best solution to deal with this issue, but one which is probably impractical, is that all emotional support dogs be certified as a “good citizens” through the program sponsored by the AKC.
Expert opinion is given about dog bite safety in a variety of contexts in a different section of this website. And expert opinion pertaining to strict liability for dog bites in California and Arizona can be found here.
Richard Polsky, PhD has successfully served Arizona attorneys in several dog bites child lawsuits as a dog bite expert on many occasions. He available for assignment on cases that involve these kinds of cases, and common issues found the dog bite litigation such as provocation, negligence, and breed tendencies.