Fall 2011 Magazine

Responsibility and Humane Care Important
to Prevent Dog Bites

By Leslie King, Community Programs Manager,
Animal Protection of New Mexico

New Mexico's communities have experienced several dog bite cases in the last few months - one each in Rio Rancho, Moriarty, Truth or Consequences and Vado, and three in Albuquerque. One woman was killed and four children, two men and a small dog were seriously injured. Each of these cases is horrifying and the effects of these attacks on the victims and their families can be far-reaching.

It's understandable that some people might feel helpless and frightened, and that others want to "just do something" to put a stop to it. It's natural to think, "It could be my child. It could be me."

But, rather than reacting to waves of dog bite incidents with rash and ineffective actions like scapegoating certain dog breeds, these tragic occurrences underscore the need to understand why these attacks likely happen and what are the most effective ways to prevent them.

Finding useful statistics about dog attacks can be difficult because studies use different variables, such as dissimilar populations, time periods, victim ages and levels of injury. Also, the exact circumstances of an incident may not always be reported. Yet, those circumstances can point to the cause of an attack and, in turn, shed light on how to prevent future attacks.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) agree that dogs may show aggression for many reasons: being provoked or fearful, protective of an owner or of territory, being chained, isolated, abused, a stray, injured, untrained, and not spayed or neutered. Other considerations include inherited and learned behaviors, genetics, breeding, socialization, physical condition and size, and individual temperament.

Karen Delise, author of the book, "Fatal Dog Attacks," boils it all down to three critical factors:
   1) Function of the dog (the dog was acquired for fighting, guarding or a
   tough image);
   2) Owner irresponsibility (the dog was allowed to run loose, permitted or
   encouraged to behave aggressively, chained, neglected, abused; dogs
   and/or children around the dog were unsupervised);
   3) Reproductive status of the dog (unaltered male dog, female dog with
   puppies, children coming between a male dog and female dog in estrus).

Recognizing that specific circumstances are the most important factors in any dog bite case, in 2005 the New Mexico Legislature enacted the Dangerous Dog Act, which correctly focuses on behaviors of individual dogs and their owners. The law holds dog owners criminally and civilly accountable if their dogs cause harm and prescribes ways to identify, register, handle and house dangerous or potentially dangerous dogs.

What does it mean that all the dogs involved in our recent cases were reported to have been pit bull-type dogs? It is vital to understand that any dog has the potential to bite. Popular large breeds appear more often in dog bite statistics precisely because of their prevalence, and because big dogs physically can do more damage if they do bite, according to a 2001 report by the AVMA's Task Force on Canine Aggression and Human-Canine Interactions. The report concludes that singling out any one breed for control (as in a ban) can result in a false sense of security and will not result in a responsible approach to protecting people.

Information on methods to prevent dog bites is available for dog owners, parents and children. Animal Protection of New Mexico (APNM) offers free dog safety and humane education presentations for individual classrooms, pre-school through mid-school, and to community groups in the Albuquerque and Santa Fe areas (call 505-265-2322). Excellent online resources include our Train. Don't Chain. program, Victoria Stilwell's "Safety Guide for Children and Dogs", the Doggone Safe program, and the Blue Dog Parent Guide and CD for young children.

To prevent more tragedies, it's up to every one of us to learn how to interact safely with dogs and to teach others - especially children. We must also care for our dogs responsibly and humanely.

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