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Safer interactions with dogs: education is key

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01 November 2016, at 12:00am

Francesca Riccomini wonders why, among a seemingly regular stream of high-profile cases involving dangerous dogs, there is not more emphasis placed on education

GENERALLY IT IS MAJOR INCIDENTS that hit the headlines: the horrifying train derailment or motorway pile-up capture the public’s attention, reminding us of our own mortality and how random fate can be.

Yet dramatic events of this sort, we are told, merely distract us from the grim reality of the everyday RTA statistics and our greater likelihood of falling victim to a mundane “accident”.

Apparently the figures indicate that we all put both our safety and our lives on the line whenever we step outside on our bikes, in our cars or on foot. Still more depressingly, most of these incidents, whether fatal, life-changing or minor and simply inconvenient, could it seems be avoided.

All that is needed is for everyone – drivers, bikers, cyclists and pedestrians – to behave sensibly and well by adopting accepted “best practice” and with due regard for the safety of all.

And every time another fatal dog attack is announced on the news, we are surely reminded that here are marked and disturbing parallels. Naturally, whatever the actual circumstances of each incident, everyone is appalled and saddened. Invariably acres of newsprint and masses of TV and radio time are devoted to the topic: unless, or until, some even greater outrage pushes the canine-related event into the realms of history.

Sadly though, while emotions are running high and the spotlight is trained upon the subject, much if not all of the discussion is generally centred on the Dangerous Dogs Act, its limitations, application and effectiveness; entrenched positions are taken, opposing views passionately argued. 

Cynics, however, might feel this allows for little more than reiteration of now rather tired arguments and much letting off of steam. Given the frequency with which such awful incidents occur, we do not appear to be making much headway when it comes to protecting people, especially children, from dogs.

Seeing the full picture

Unfortunately this is where striking similarities can be seen between the two situations. The real horror stories are readily brought to society’s notice, though in both cases they represent only the tip of a substantial iceberg, which rarely merits much if any publicity.

For sure, when it comes to dog bite injuries, those with a professional interest are likely to be aware of the magnitude of the problem. Indeed, our dedicated journals ensure that medics, veterinary personnel, behaviourists and animal welfare professionals are left in no doubt about the scale of the problem in terms of numbers, severity of wounds inflicted and how disproportionately children under five are represented in the statistics that emerge from A&E departments across the country.

Fortunately too, some of the more serious news programmes and print media do sometimes draw attention to the complexity of this worrisome issue. Such coverage, however, usually appears remarkably discreet and low- key when compared to the reaction engendered by the occasional tragedies, dreadful as they are.

In a similar way, the laudable and heroic efforts of those of our colleagues involved in a wide variety of initiatives aimed at spreading the “responsible ownership” message and educating people about dogs and how to behave around them all too frequently seem to slip by with relatively little notice taken. This is regrettable because, if we are to improve the situation in any meaningful way, better education that leads to increased understanding simply has to be the key.

"Accidents don't happen; they are caused"

Circumstances inevitably differ to some degree, but in my experience a number of factors tend to characterise cases referred for aggression towards humans.

These include, with distressing regularity, an inappropriate choice of breed or type given the owner(s)’ location, pet owning experience, social group composition and so on; a mistake often exacerbated by failure to select a dog from a suitable source.

This not uncommonly results in inadequate preparation for life as a family pet, especially when the animal is destined to reside in a densely populated, multi-cultural area.

Unrealistic expectations combined with poor control and less than competent management at household level are also common features, while failure of supervision when dogs and children live together, or coincide in other peoples’ homes and public spaces is frequently seen; simply put, too often “people expect too much”, sometimes of dogs in general and frequently of the individual that ends up inflicting injury.

Another significant aspect of particular importance here, however, is the limited understanding many people, even some experienced owners, have of canine communication. This can and often does lead to inappropriate advances plus failure to “read” signs that a dog has been placed in a situation with which it is not coping well, and where even the least likely candidate may resort to aggression. So this surely is an area where our concentrated collective efforts could well pay dividends.

"Every little helps" but...

Many colleagues are of course already doing a great deal to improve the chances of dogs and people living happily, and above all safely, together.

Pre-pet counselling, well-organised puppy groups and prompt detection and appropriate referral of behaviour problems are all valuable, but the statistics clearly indicate we have a long way to go.

Here perhaps, as a profession “on the front line”, we are uniquely well-placed to make an additional and important contribution by helping to publicise and raise the profile of a number of remarkably worthwhile projects.

These are designed to teach adults and children how to behave sensibly and well in all their interactions with dogs, familiar or unknown, and in a range of different circumstances in which they may encounter canines.

After all, our job is not only about taking care of our patients’ health, physical and mental. An important part of it involves keeping people safe as well as “protecting dogs from people” and the problems that can result from human ignorance, inattention and thoughtlessness.

As healthcare professionals, we understand the importance of education in improving any troubling aspect of pet keeping. Therefore, it stands to reason that if we are to see fewer ghastly high-profile dog attacks plus a reduction in the less dramatic incidents that can nevertheless be distressing, disfiguring and even sometimes life-changing, “louder” support for good-quality educational initiatives is one of the most valuable and effective contributions we can make.