Assessing the risk of injury of aggressive dogs (Proceedings)


Assessing the risk of injury of aggressive dogs (Proceedings)

Nov 01, 2009

One of the most crucial steps in working up a dog aggression case is assessing the danger inherent in the situation. A very complete history should be taken from all family members and others involved with the pet. But even when meticulous care is taken to collect information, it may not always be possible to obtain all pertinent details. For example, no adults may have been present to see what triggered the bite of a very young child. Or, the family may know how the pet interacts with adults, but since the pet has never been around children, the danger the pet might pose to them is unknown. The less that is known about the pet's social behavior around different types of people in various situations, the more questions remain about the amount of danger it poses. In cases where significant danger is obvious or in those where the data is insufficient, exceptionally safe and conservative management will be required.

Variables correlated with danger

• Predictability
• Potential to cause damage
• Characteristics of the family
• Overall complexity of the situation


The ability to safely manage an aggressive pet depends a great deal on knowing when it will bite. In order to determine predictability, behavior patterns and triggers for aggression must be identified. It must also be determined whether the pet's behavior in these situations is consistent. If it is known that touching the pet's head causes it to bite, but not all of the time, danger may increase because people tend to let their guard down when the pet is not consistently aggressive.

The type of stimulus that causes the pet to be aggressive is also important. Most people realize that a strong stimulus, such as kicking a dog, will likely cause aggression. On the other hand, many would not expect to be bitten if they calmly bend down, eye-to-eye to a dog and pat it on the head. So, danger increases when "benign" stimuli trigger aggression.

The absence of warning signals also increases the risk of injury. A person is less likely to avoid being bitten when there are no signs predicting aggressive behavior. Another issue is the latency period between the beginning of the warning and the attack. It doesn't help the victim if the pet gives a warning, but attacks a millisecond after the warning begins.

In situations where the triggers for uninhibited, injurious bite behavior are completely unknown, it must be assumed that the pet could be aggressive at any time. No contact with people can be permitted, and the pet may need to be muzzled at all times or locked in a safe confinement area.

Potential to cause damage

The physical aspects of the dog are certainly important factors in assessing the potential for damage. It's obvious that large, strong dogs can cause the most damage, but the degree of bite inhibition the animal exhibits is also important. In assessing risk of injury, the amount of bite inhibition the dog displays is typically more important than the frequency with which bites occur. If a large pet has bitten a variety of people in a variety of situations many times and has caused nothing more than light contusions, it is in all probability a safer pet than a smaller one that is unable to inhibit the force of its bite and, even though it has only bitten a few times, has caused serious injuries such as deep tears or broken bones. The number of bites per incident is another important variable. Dogs that bite multiple times during aggressive incidents are likely to be more dangerous than those that bite once and retreat.

The intensity of focus and level of arousal the dog exhibits toward the target during aggressive situations is also important. When these are mild, the owner is more likely to be able to intervene and control the pet. Interrupting a dog that is very aroused and orienting strongly can be exceptionally difficult and an injury will be more likely. The amount of training and dependability of command responses also has an effect on safety.

The target of the aggression is another consideration. Young children and babies are more easily injured with less force than are adults. The type of aggression being displayed can determine the amount of damage done and influence the amount of danger that exists. Predatory-related aggression is the most dangerous type, since killing is part of the behavioral sequence. Territorial aggression is usually more dangerous than fear-related aggression because a dog exhibiting territorial aggression often will pursue the victim. A fear aggressive dog is more likely to avoid interaction and only be aggressive when its personal space in penetrated and there is no opportunity of avoidance.