Study Looks Beyond Breed to Assess Dog Bite Risk to Children

Size and head shape should be taken into account to measure risk, prevent injuries

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(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – Nearly five million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, and children are at a much higher risk than adults. Dog bites can cause significant psychological and physical damage, and bites to the face often require reconstructive surgery to repair injuries ranging from nerve damage to tissue loss. While certain breeds are known to bite more frequently or cause more severe injuries, a new study finds the breed was unknown in about 60 percent of dog bite cases. Therefore, researchers looked beyond breed to examine physical characteristics of dogs that pose a higher threat.

    “Because we often didn’t know what type of dog was involved in these incidents, we looked at things like weight and head shape,” said Dr. Garth Essig, an otolaryngologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and lead author of the study. “We wanted to provide families with data to help them determine the risk to their children and inform them on which types of dogs do well in households with kids.”

   Researchers examined 15 years of emergency room visits for facial dog bites at two emergency departments and more than 45 years of data from different dog bite studies. They found that injuries from pitbulls were both the most frequent and most severe, followed by mixed-breed dogs and German shepherds. When the study examined physical characteristics, experts found that dogs over 66 pounds and those with more of a square head shape that is wider than it is long, like that of a chow chow or pug, were more likely to bite and cause serious damage.

     To lower children’s risk of being bitten, it’s important to teach them how to safely interact with dogs. “People often think that leaning forward and reaching out their hand for the dog to smell is the right thing to do, but in reality that can actually be threatening to the dog,” said Meghan Herron, associate professor of veterinary clinical services at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Instead, ask the dog owner for permission to pet their dog, then turn to the side, crouch down on your knees, pat your leg and let the dog come to you.”

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Teaching children how to safely interact with dogs can help prevent serious injuries from dog bites. This includes asking a dog owner’s permission and observing that the dog is comfortable and eager to be pet by the child.

Meghan Herron (left), a veterinarian at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, demonstrates the correct way to safely approach a dog, which includes crouching down and calling the dog to you.

Ailee Hayes, 8, walks her dog, Charlie, near their home in Powell, Ohio. Ailee was attacked by three large dogs at the age of four and worked with a therapy dog to help her feel comfortable around animals again.

Dr. Garth Essig led a study at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center that looked beyond breed to assess which dogs are most likely to bite and cause serious injuries. The study also looked at physical characteristics like weight and head shape.

Owners can help prevent their dogs from biting someone by exposing them to different people, environments and other animals when they’re young. Dogs usually bite because they are scared, and familiarizing them with a variety of places and situations can ease fear and anxiety.