Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: August 14, 2023

A public safety campaign to address dog attacks on people and other animals includes the message that “even good, well-behaved dogs can have bad days and bite”.

South Australia’s Dog and Cat Management Board (DCMB), the campaign creator, said more than 500 people in the last year were admitted to hospitals for dog bites in the state.

Pet trainer and behaviourist James Bennett has seen a rise in dog behavioural issues in towns across SA’s south-east.

“While it hasn’t so much been an issue with socialisation — as many people think — I think it falls into the area of anxiety around separation.”

The first eight months of a dog’s life are foundational to its learned behaviour, says Mr Bennett, who works with dogs and their owners throughout the Riverland, Mount Gambier and Robe.

“Dogs are a product of their environment,” he said.

“I’ve had clients say, ‘My dog is fine off the lead’, but you don’t always know what happens with other dogs.”

Watch for warning signs

Associate professor at the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences Susan Hazel is overseeing the campaign and knows better than most how our understanding of dog behaviour can be lacking.

“Sometimes people think some dogs can just be aggressive and are by nature ‘nasty dogs’ who are out to bite people,” she said.

Dr Hazel says while certain breeds have different temperaments associated with them, individual circumstances always strongly influence a dog.

“If they are nervous about people coming up into their personal space, they will give you signs, with growling as an example,” she said.

“If those signs aren’t respected, they will eventually snap.

A double trauma

Dog attacks are extremely traumatising experiences that result in complicated emotions for the victim and the animal’s owner to deal with and process.

“If you have a dog which you love, and they injure somebody — that’s a double whammy,” Dr Hazel said.

“There’s the trauma of the injury but also the trauma of ‘This dog, who I love, did this.'”

Dr Hazel has two dogs of her own, a labrador and a rescued Maltese terrier, and ultimately hopes people use the campaign as an opportunity to learn more about dog behaviour.

“The last thing we want to do with this campaign is to demonise dogs and have people scared of them — that isn’t going to fix anything.”

Aggression a dog’s defence

The three-month campaign hopes to mitigate the risk of dog attacks on humans and other animals while urging people not to be complacent around any dog.

According to research cited by the state government statutory body, biting incidents can often be caused by a lack of understanding of a dog’s behaviour, accidental situations, and owners not recognising potential warning signs.

The campaign suggests teaching children the “warning signs” that a dog is tired, frightened or annoyed by learning to read their body language.

Training is also a key campaign message, with owners advised not to use punishment methods to teach dogs as this creates fear or aggression.

How to reduce the risk of a dog bite:

  • Always supervise children around dogs at home or in public
  • Do not enter a dog’s territory like their bed, yard or toy box
  • Never startle a dog
  • Never touch a dog while it’s eating
  • Never disturb a sleeping dog
  • Never put your face near a dog’s face
  • Teach children to always ask the owner for permission before approaching their dog
  • Remember that dogs can bite when they’re tired, frightened or annoyed
  • Understand dog body language and that most dogs show specific warning signs – such as growling – before they bite