dinah croppedThere is a solid and growing body of research pointing to the risk factors that lead to serious dog attacks. Breed is not one.

If you pay attention to the debate about “dangerous breeds” you’ll hear soundbites of studies claiming to show that specific breeds are responsible for unbelievable percentages of dog attacks. They are unbelievable for a reason. In considering their veracity, use your critical thinking skills. Find the study and read it for yourself. In this day in age of social media and easy website hosting, it’s very easy to create your own “studies” using media reports and internet search results as data sources. In the case of breed analysis will also lump breeds like mastiffs, boxers, and bulldogs together with “pit bulls” for statistical purposes (but not for legislation purposes). It’s not about true research but about creating soundbites to further one’s cause.

We won’t tell you what studies to trust and which ones to be skeptical of. You can figure this out for yourself!

First, go to the source material and read it for yourself – at least the abstract, which should be available online. Evaluate the credibility of the data collection methodology. For example, in the case of bite data, first person accounts, animal control records, hospital records are all solid sources of data. Media clippings, internet reports, surveys, or second-hand reports are not as credible.

Look at how it was published. Was it simply published online or in a peer-reviewed journal for a professional audience? If it is in a journal, is it a manufactured one – a publication that is simply circulated for a special interest group? Or is it an academic one with submission criteria and peer review? Does the journal explore a number of issues in a field with a variety of academic contributors? What are the credentials of the contributors? Ideally they should be researchers affiliated with a credible, non-partisan institution. They should have advanced degrees, but keep in mind that a PhD next to a name doesn’t tell you the whole story (i.e, a PhD in Philosophy does not mean you could credibly publish in microbiology).

Does the analysis of the study seem objective and reasonable? Or does it come with a strong call to action, underlining a clear or implicit agenda? Real science is done to discover truth, not to prove what the researched already believes to be true. Findings will be carefully considered and recommendations will be tentative, with further study and replication recommended.

Those questions apply when evaluating any research. But there reasons to be even more skeptical of  soundbite statistics when it comes to dog bites. We can’t say with certainty that X% of bites are by Y breed. We can’t even say with confidence how many bites occur in total, or what breeds make up the percentage of the dog population.

It’s hard, often impossible, to conclusively identify a breed. The majority of dogs in our community are not pedigreed dogs, so breed ID is a murky prospect. With the popularity of rescue and shelter dogs, many people have only a guess at their dog’s parentage. DNA tests are still in their infancy and are generally not accepted for research or court purposes. This means that breed ID is usually going to come down to visual identification, which even trained professionals get wrong most of the time.

Most bites are not reported. If a bite occurs in a private home, to an owner, or a close friend/neighbour, this is usually dealt with privately and not reported to animal control. Even if a victim is admitted to hospital, animal control or police aren’t necessarily notified. Hospitals would likely track dog bite cases, but their records are protected by privacy legislation – some researchers have been able to access it but only under strict research protocols and ethics approvals. In those cases, breed would likely not be recorded.

Recorded bites are not systematically collected. Municipalities will record calls for dog bites, and this information can be requested through a Freedom of Information inquiry. However, record-keeping varies from city to city. Most of the time breed is not identified or may be a best guess on the part of an animal control officer or witness. When we requested bite stats from Metro Vancouver municipalities we saw dogs recorded as “Canary Corso” and “Bluenose pitbull”.

A bite report will typically not record the level of injury – so a nip by a neighbour’s puppy would be recorded in the same column as a serious bite requiring multiple stitches.

The best source we’ve come across is a review by the American Veterinary Medical Association that looked at 36 studies of bite and breed over 35 years. No one study gives a definitive answer to this question, and the range of breeds identified as “top biters” shows how much this varies across geography and context.

In creating policies around dog bites and breeds, the first order of business should be to collect verifiable data. At this time, there’s very little credible, peer-reviewed research that exists. What does exist points us towards two conclusions (1) there are certain risk factors for dog bites but breed is not one of them, and (2) the best way to reduce dog bites is through education, robust animal control laws, and enforcement of those laws.

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