Time and time again when we read in the press that their has been another dog attack we aren't surprised to see it illustrated with another stock photo of a snarling pit bull or staffie with a headline screaming about killers dogs and status pets. That dog attacks are breed specific seems to be shared by those in power with the Dangerous Dogs Act naming and shaming 5 breeds. However recent research carried out by the University of Bristol supports the view that dog breed is really of little important when considering the important factors influencing dog behaviour. Led by Dr Rachel Casey, a senior lecturer in companion animal behaviour and welfare at the University of Bristol, a survey was carried out regarding aggressive behaviour in dogs. They looked at behaviour such as growling, lunging, barking and biting and asked about the occurrence of aggressive behaviour in three situations; towards family members, towards unfamiliar people entering the house and towards unfamiliar people outside the house. They received 4000 replies and considered whether or not dogs were reported to show agressive behaviour in more than one situation and whether the characteristics of owners (such as age) and their dogs (including breed) influenced the risk of aggression. In an article written for 'The Conversation" Rachel explained the findings:
What we found was that dogs tend not to be agressive in more than one of the surveyed situations. That is, those that are agressive towards family members rarely do so towards unfamiliar people, and vice versa. This is important, because it challenges the idea that dogs are either innately vicious or "ma's best friend".
In summary the report found that any dog has the potential to have a tendency towards aggression given the right circumstances and that understanding this is key to reducing dog attacks. Expose a dog to a situation where they feel anxious or threatened and they will react accordingly. No owner should take for granted that their dog won't attack and no one should ever just approach a dog without checking with the owner first. Rachel is keen to stress that the findings don't mean all dogs should be muzzled or locked away. She states that to do so would be in may cases counter productive as less people contact can lead a dog to feeling increasingly worried when exposed to them. Much better would be focusing on ensuring that dog owners understand why aggression develops and recognising the signs so it can be prevented. These steps should be taken at the earliest opportunity because early life has a massive impact on the dog and puppy will grow to be. As far as breed is concerned the study compared breed groups in each situation with a reference cater hour of cross breeds. They found no difference in dogs that were agressive towards family members between those of a specific breed and cross breeds. Towards unfamiliar people they found gun dogs (hounds, retrievers and pointers) had a reduced risk compared to cross breeds and pastoral or herding dogs (e.g. German SHepherd dogs) had an increased risk specifically when outside the house. However importantly the contribution these effects made was small. No more than 10% of the difference between agressive and non agressive dogs were accounted for by the statistical models. And while different breeds may vary in aspects of behaviour when it came to aggression the influence of breed was small. What the study also raised was the potential question of whether the effects were caused by the characteristics of the dogs or by the type of people who chose to own particular breeds. Breed is a factor in dog attacks when looking at the severity of the injury caused. Obviously the bigger and more powerful a breed the more potential for harm. This could therefore be an argument for banning specific breeds. However despite such legislation being in place the number attacks has not fallen but risen and there is one avenue of thought that banning dogs only makes them appeal more to certain members of society and such owners are going to treat them in such a way that they in turn are more likely to be agressive. Dr Casey conclusion was that policy needs to focus on factors that influence the risk of aggression in the first place and while this may lead to calls of a "nanny state" ultimately it would make sense to approach dog ownership in the same way as we do car ownership with tests and controls in place to seek to reduce aggression towards humans in dogs. Dr Rachel Casey has a regular blog on animal behaviour www.behaviourvet.wordpress.com and can be followed on Twitter @DrRachelCasey. If you have suffered as a result of a dog bite and would likely information of recovering compensation dogbitesolicitors expert James McNally can be contacted on [email protected] or phone 0808 1391601.