Monday, 29 June 2015

Dog 'attacks' and the media

So today, just a day after starting  my blog, I find myself with something to say!

It's about this news story:

"Girl aged 7 hospitalised following dog attack in Montrose Avenue, Welling

The youngster was taken to hospital with bite injuries after an Alaskan Malamute attacked her yesterday afternoon (June 25).
Police were called to a residential address in Montrose Avenue at around 4.50pm to reports of a young girl attacked by a dog.
The seven-year-old, who is expected to make a full recovery from her non-life threatening injuries, was taken to a south London hospital for treatment.
The dog- an Alaskan Malamute - has been seized by officers.
Officials from the Met's Status Dog Unit are investigating and no arrests have been made."

All sounds like a nasty, vicious attack from an aggressive dog, right?

Not necessarily!

Every time a bite incident is reported, it is reported as an 'attack', and indeed it may well be recorded as such by the police. There are, however, many reasons that a dog may bite, and they may be nothing to do with 'aggression'. A dog cannot tell a child 'I'm to hot and tired to play', for example, or say 'What on earth was that' if a child lands heavily on them while they are asleep. A 'snap' can be nothing more than a 'get off me' reaction - a single bite, used as part of their normal language and communication (and I've seen that happen from the most gentle and loving of dogs when put momentarily in the wrong circumstances), quite possibly not even intended to actually 'connect'. Now obviously dog owners have a responsibility to train and socialise their dogs to try to avoid such issues, but also a responsibility to ensure that they aren't put in a position where such incidents might occur. That also means training their children, understanding the reactions and body language of their dog to know when it is stressed or uncomfortable with a situation (or when it is too hot, for example, and just wants to be left alone - a possible issue with an Alaskan Malamute on a hot day), and so on.

Even then, it can only take a moment for something to go wrong, and a single snap or bite from a powerful animal (as any reasonable sized dog is) can easily require some 'hospital treatment', especially for a child, even if it's just a stitch or two, or just a precautionary injection. That still doesn't make it an 'attack', though - that's an entirely different behavioural phenomenon.

It's a very common issue in reporting and recording of incidents, and also a very dangerous one. We will never begin to deal with the issues of genuine aggressive attacks while we fail to fully consider the evidence of incidents - the full context, the previous behaviour of the dog and relationship with the 'victim', and so on. It makes a nonsense of the whole issue if we just assume that every incident of any kind is an 'attack' due to 'aggression', or if we report it as such in a way that makes people think 'it was just a nasty dog' or 'it just 'turned'' (dogs don't just 'turn', unless there is a serious health issue such as a brain tumour that changes their behaviour - that's just rubbish peddled when someone has failed to understand their behaviour and the signs leading up to an incident).

It is impossible to address an issue that isn't actually being understood!

Scroll down to the comments on the above article and you find this:
"I am the older sister of the girl who got "attacked", and I was there when it all happened. My dog did not attack her. If you knew the dog personally, you'd understand that she was a loyal dog. If anything, she was tired and stressed from the weather. Of course, Alaskan Malamute's may look intimidating, but you do not know the whole story. If you are going to publish things about my family, I would like you to ask us permission first as well as knowing the whole story. I had no clue it was on the news. Not because I'm not old enough, but because nobody had asked for our permission. The information is absolutely incorrect; especially about her age. It's disgraceful. Do not exaggerate anything that will make things look more shocking for your news story; it's our personal business. If it was a vicious attack, she would be in life-threatening conditions.
Me and my family expect an apology. This is NOT acceptable."

There are genuine issues of public safety related to irresponsible or ignorant dog ownership, but we need to do much better at considering incidents according to their own individual circumstances if we are ever going to begin to try to solve them. Simplistic 'black and white' thinking just leads to knee-jerk reactions, continuing ignorance and, ultimately, bad law-making and bad law as we have in the Dangerous Dogs Act (I'll say more about that specifically elsewhere at some point).

Now I'm not going to attempt to judge exactly what happened in this case - I have no knowledge of the dog or the family involved, and I wasn't there (and I also, of course, have no idea whether the above comment on the story is genuine or not). That's the point, though - we don't have any kind of contextual evidence on which to base a judgement of what happened. We need, as a society, to do do much better at considering evidence before we leap to conclusions about 'attacks', 'aggression' and 'dangerous dogs'.

(Note - the dog pictured here is not related to the incident - he's mine!)

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