Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”

Dr. Richard Polsky - The Dog Expert

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Dog bite safety and prevention – How effective is an educational approach?

The techniques underlying dog bite safety and prevention programs are largely based on the beliefs that:

  • Dog bite frequently can be reduced provided people are educated about canine body language and canine Beware dogemotions indicating that a dog might bite;
  • Educate people about the circumstances in which dog bites happen. 

This educational approach has been the cornerstone of most dog bite prevention programs, including the popular Blue Dog video tutorials and the information presented on the website doggonesafe.com.  However, the effectiveness of an educational approach to dog bite safety and prevention have recently been called into question in a study reported in the Journal of Veterinary Behavioral Medicine (A qualitative investigation of the perception of female dog bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites. C. Westgarth and F. Watkins. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 2015 10, 479-488).

In the study, the authors interviewed 11 dog bite victims, all adult females, for the purposes of obtaining their subjective impressions of why and how they were attacked and what they could have done to prevent it.  In the majority of cases victims do not feel any action on their part contributed to the incident. Most victims felt they had the knowledge to recognize canine body language. Despite this knowledge, the incident still happened. Moreover, many of the dog bite instances happened “instantaneously”, thereby preventing any meaningful evasive action on the part of the victim. And most victims did not feel that they were at risk of being bitten. Instead, they had the attitude that they could not possibly be the victim of a dog bite (the “it cannot happen to me” syndrome).

Limitations of an educational approach to dog bite safety and prevention

Given these findings, the authors question the effectiveness of an “educational” approach to lessen the dog bite public health problem. However, it is important to note that this limitation may only apply a certain population of potential victims; namely, adults. No children took part in the study. On the other hand, educational strategies still probably remain the most effective prevention strategies for children. And in fact these strategies have resulted in an overall reduction in dog bite instances to children in the United States, as reported by Gilcrest, et. al.

The authors also knew another limitation of an educational approach, which was a play for the victims in this study. Namely, victims must be cognizance of an imminent threat from a dog, when in fact often this is not possible. In many situations dog bite attacks happen very fast. Hence, the authors are correct in assuming that an educational approach works best only if potential victims are able to become immediately cognizant that they could become a dog bite victim and that once they recognize this danger they have the wherewithal to act quickly to modify their behavior to avoid being bitten.

The authors are also are correct in their belief that a multitude of interacting factors, operating at any given moment in time, affect dog bite risk. Hence, as the findings from this study suggest, it is unrealistic to expect a dog bite prevention strategy, like educational intervention, to minimize dog bite risk in all situations.  And, in fact, there may be no strategy whatsoever for a potential victim if a dangerous dog is in the hands of an irresponsible owner.

What are viable strategies for dog bite prevention?

A viable strategy is one is one which minimizes the belief “it cannot happen to me”. This strategy entails that a person accept that they can be bitten by a dog and that they take certain precautions. For example, this kind of strategy has been effective in other injury prevention programs, such as no drinking when driving or placing smoke detectors in the home. The authors also recommend a shift away from preventive strategies to strategies which incorporate more about educating people about how to reduce the severity of dog bite injury once an attack starts (i.e. rolling up in a ball to protect the neck).

In sum, no matter what strategy is employed, dog bites will always remain a serious problem. There are simply too many variables that contribute to dog bite risk. Focusing on what a potential victim can do to reduce the risk is only part of the solution. Important solutions also include parental supervision, owner responsibility and the breeding of dogs with good temperaments. Owners have to act in ways to minimize the likelihood that their dog will bite a person (training, socialization etc.) and breeders have to act in ways to ensure that the lines of dogs they produce are void of genetically-based medical or behavioral disorders.  More about techniques for dog bite prevention and safety can be found elsewhere on this website. Black dog