It seems like every few weeks, a fresh news story about a family pet seriously injuring or killing a baby hits the airwaves. And every time, we all say and hear the same well-meaning and accurate but tired talking points about how devastating it is, how it could have and should have been avoided, who to blame, who not to blame and what to do about the problem. The general theme is that the ultimate responsibility lies with the parents and/or dog owners, not the children. That any breed of dog can bite, and any breed of dog can be a good family pet. That parents should never leave their kids alone with any animals unsupervised. That government should focus on penalizing irresponsible dog owners, not certain breeds of dogs.
And I agree with all of that. I've said much of it myself in interviews on national press many times. And yet still, these tragic incidents keep happening. And that's even not to mention the millions of dog bites that go unreported and don't require professional medical attention. In the US alone, there are over 4.5 million reported dog bites each year, 800,000 of which require a trip to the doctor.
What we're doing is not working.
That's why I've dedicated myself and my company's resources to try and make a difference and reduce the number of dog bites that happen each year. I'm in the process of setting up the first ever Dog Bite Prevention Task Force, which is charged with determining what the root causes of the problem are and how to effectively address them once and for all. Comprised of trainers, behaviorists, legal professionals, legislators, animal control specialists, pediatric surgeons and reconstructive surgeons around the country, we will be bringing together the best and brightest minds to figure out how and why dog bites happen, what precedes them, how they are investigated, who should be held responsible, and most importantly, how to stop them from occurring.
For example, by digging into the data from some of the most high profile cases involving canine homicides (the term used when a dog kills a human), we've found one fascinating common thread in almost all scenarios: one component of the scenario is unnatural. That means that in every case, either the child is being looked after by grandparents, the dog is being house-sat by an uncle, the whole family (including the dog) are visiting relatives in a different house, etc. There's almost always one part of the equation that is not the everyday norm for either the dog, child, caregivers, or environment. This important revelation can help us determine how to most effectively educate dog owners and parents of children about what to look out for in an otherwise seemingly normal situation. If we can stop just one beautiful little child from losing his or her life, it will be worth it.
But my goal is even larger than that.
Last year, I had the opportunity to meet with the lovely Anderson family. Just over a year ago, they lost their beautiful daughter, Ashlynn, in a fatal dog attack. I met the family when I was in Oregon, and I was struck by their determination to do everything they can to help other families avoid a similar tragedy. They have set up a non-profit organization called Dads Against Dangerous Dogs, and though they lost their little treasure to dogs, one of the most remarkable things about them is that they have not jumped to the most obvious target. They do not blame any specific breed for Ashlynn's death, rather they are focused on increasing awareness about the fact that any dog - any breed, any size, etc - can be a danger to little ones if not properly managed.
Obviously, education is the key to stopping this from happening. We all know that. But we've known it for a long time, and yet the message isn't effective enough to make a significant difference. As a society, we must figure out a more successful way to get the message across.
That's why I've decided to support the American Humane Association's safe handling initiative - Pet Meets Baby. This is an easy-to-read, comprehensive free booklet that can help dog owners and parents of children without pets by making them aware of how to safely and effectively introduce pets to new babies and vice versa. By widely distributing this information in maternity wards, pediatricians' offices and beyond, we hope that this will make a difference. It's important to note that even parents of children without pets should read Pet Meets Baby, since all kids end up interacting with animals at some point, whether at grandma's house, on playdates or walking in the park.
I've donated some great prizes (Positively t-shirts, signed books, It's Me or the Dog DVDs, etc) to a free contest anyone can enter by providing some brief feedback about Pet Meets Baby. Plus, one lucky winner will win the grand prize - a 30 minute phone consultation with me where we can talk about your dog and anything else you can think of!
Read my Safety Guide for Children and Dogs.