Fatal Dog Attacks And BSL

A boy and his dog.

There has been a fatal dog attack on a young girl in the UK this week. My heart goes out to the friends and family of Jade Anderson. My heart breaks for their loss. There are no words of comfort I can offer to make things better in this time of tragedy. However, there is much to say regarding the incident. This incident was not unavoidable. Let’s hope that as the media swarms on the sensationalistic aspect of this sort of sad news and as the horror of such an attack leads people to become reactionary and call for blanket bans and breed specific legislation, that common sense and education prevail so we can do our best to make sure these types of attacks happen even more infrequently than they already do.

I would firstly like to point out that fatal dog attacks are indeed infrequent, especially considering the number of dogs that live in close proximity to humans. Dog-bite related human deaths are extremely rare when you look at mortality statistics

In fact, the total number of dog-bite related deaths in England and Wales in 2010 was three. To put that in perspective, there were 655 stair-related fatalities and 1,970 transport-related (autos, motorbikes, bicycles, etc.) fatalities that same year. Dogs really just aren’t people-killers for the most part. As the book title says, "Dogs Bite: But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous".

People are reactionary about dog-related deaths because they truly are anomalies. (Imagine if there were a public outcry everytime someone perished in a car accident, we’d get nothing else done. We’ve become truly desensitized to such regular occurrences.) We are surprised and outraged when these attacks happen not only because they are terrible, but also because we uphold dogs up to an impossible, altruistic moral standard rather than respect them as the grand, yet different species that they are, and then we're shocked and feel betrayed when something tragic like this happens.

The base problem is that we both undervalue and underestimate dogs. We do not respect, nor understand their behavior well enough, to live with them the way that we do, in the numbers that we do in modern times.

It used to be that most of the people who had dogs had them for a purpose. Just a hundred years ago most dogs were working dogs in some capacity. Now everyone has dogs. Often people have too many of them or the wrong breed-type to match their lifestyle and expectations.

Additionally, most people don't seem to understand how multiple dogs are more likely to compete/feed off of each other's energy and become highly aroused, grabby around, or protective of, resources such as food or toys. Then once that energy and intensity level is achieved you've got a higher likelihood of social facilitation happening and lots of dogs joining in on the fray.

In poor Jade’s case, she and her friend were left alone with at least four very powerful dogs (two Bullmastiffs and two Staffordshire Bull Terriers). As friendly as they may have been, this is a wholly inappropriate scenario, as kids and dogs should never be left unsupervised. (Four adult dogs left with young teens qualifies as unsupervised, in my opinion.) Any group of dogs left to their own devices is potentially dangerous. Ian Dunbar has a story of a man being attacked and disappeared by his pack of Beagles when he fell in their enclosure. However, bully-types in particular should not be left unsupervised in groups, primarily due to their high arousal and conspecific competitive tendencies.

My guess is that the dogs were crowding Jade, aroused and competing for the meat pie she was eating, when one of them went for it, probably trying to get to it before the other dogs did. This would start a resource-based competition among the group. Once pounced upon, I bet Jade squealed or cried out in some way. Such vocalizations would likely arouse the dogs further. It would (and truly did) go down hill from there. All it takes is one dog to get over-aroused by food or a squeaky squeal and things can digress and deteriorate very quickly. 

Tragedies such as this can be avoided if we humans bothered to learn more about dog behavior and respect them as a different species rather than as honorary humans, fur-babies, or altruistic Disney-fied heroes.

I want to stress that these dogs did not have to be monsters for such an incident to occur. My point is that there are not only good, "in control" dogs or dangerous dogs. Very well trained dogs with excellent control and good relationships with their handlers are still dogs; and in a group situation in particular, instinct and social facilitation can cause a flare-up in a flash.

It may be an unpopular position, but I'm guessing that most, if not all of the dogs in the attack actually presented as sweet family pets most, if not all, of the time. That is probably why the girls were left alone with them in the first place.

I love bully breeds and I stand fully opposed to breed bans and BSL for many reasons several of which are stated here and here. However, I do believe that breed type/characteristics should indeed be taken into account when selecting a companion dog and raising/training/handling or even playing with any dog. All dogs are not created equally. They are not “just dogs”. We humans have spent hundreds of years purposefully specializing them for certain tasks and confirmation. They are one of the most diversified mammals on the planet! How can we turn a blind eye to breed-specific tendencies, conformation, and strength?

I am not an alarmist, but I do think we have to be aware of what dogs are, what they are capable of doing, and respect as a species that is different than us with different needs and impulses. When we don't is when these things happen. When we don't is when we humans get them into trouble and tragedy strikes.