Why dogs attack: From TikTok trends to lockdown habits, what could be behind the rise in fatal dog bites
As January drew to a close, there had already been two fatal dog attacks in 2023.
Dog walker Natasha Johnston was mauled to death in Caterham and a four-year-old girl was killed in a back garden in Milton Keynes.
Before 2022, that would have been more than halfway to the average number of dog-related deaths, which sat at 3.3 from 2001 to 2021.
Then in 2022, the number shot up: 10 people were killed by dogs.
It’s too early to say whether the death rate is an anomaly or the start of a shocking trend - but experts say something has changed in the way humans and dogs interact.
What the numbers say
In the last 20 years, the number of adults needing hospital treatment after a dog bite has tripled.
The dog population has increased, but not enough to account for that huge jump - which means dogs are biting humans more than they used to. It's adults in particular where the change is seen.
Dr John Tulloch, a vet and epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool who researches dog-related injuries and deaths, said dog bite rates also vary widely by location.
Merseyside had the highest incidence of dog bites, along with Wakefield, Middlesbrough and the north east generally, while Greater London had the lowest.
"On the whole, the shared common feature is that they are areas with high levels of social deprivation," Dr Tulloch told Sky News.
Hospital data also shows most attacks happen at home: 80% when it comes to adults and 90% for children.
What the numbers don’t say
When people are bitten at home, it’s likely by their pet or another dog known to them. This can make people reluctant to report it for fear of the dog being put down or criminal charges being laid for owning a dangerously out-of-control dog, Dr Tulloch said.
Rosie Bescoby, a clinical animal behaviourist, told Sky News it could be difficult to pinpoint what spurred fatal attacks when dogs are often quickly euthanised afterwards.
“What that means is we then have nothing to assess, so we can't assess the dog to determine what might have caused it.
“And we can't ever learn, really, from these fatal attacks because the biggest clue in the whole scenario is dead.”
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Dangerous TikTok trends
Advice from unqualified dog trainers on TikTok could be fueling aggression, Ms Bescoby said, “because they give a kind of DIY approach to potentially quite dangerous problems”.
Take videos recommending choke chains, for example. People might use them to control a dog’s defensive behaviour when actually the animal is anxious or stressed, without addressing the root cause.
Instead, the tactic creates a “ticking time bomb” where the animal can only suppress its reaction for so long before “we get the explosion”, she said.
Social media has changed our relationship with dogs, Dr Tulloch said. It’s hard to define exactly how that is linked to an increase in dog bites, but he frequently sees videos of dogs on TikTok where they look stressed.
“There was a recent trend, for example, of people staring into their dog's eyes for as long as they possibly could.
“And in all of those videos, the dogs were looking really, really uncomfortable. And it would not have surprised me if any of those videos had ended in someone being bitten.”
Photos of babies placed in dogs’ beds may look cute, Dr Tulloch warned, but parents risk upsetting the dog and putting their child in harm’s way if the dog is stressed by having its space invaded.
It’s difficult to quantify the effect of the pandemic, but lockdown could have changed the relationship between dogs and their owners, Dr Tulloch said.
With people at home more - even after lockdown ended - a dog might have lost the safe space it retreated to when stressed, potentially leading to more frustration and anxiety. Opportunities for socialising dogs were also lost.
The demand for puppies in lockdown led to poor breeding, Ms Bescoby said.
Puppies who were not from “behaviorally solid dogs” may show behavioural problems, while unhealthy dogs “are much more likely to suffer and feel stressed and frustrated”.
Attack warning signs
When a dog bites, it’s the “last resort”, Dr Tulloch said. It’s likely the dog will have shown warning signs it’s anxious or uncomfortable.
“It could be smacking its lips or showing the whites of its eyes, or sort of further down the line would be showing its teeth.”
He stressed how important it is not to leave children alone with dogs as a child will not be able to read the warning signs a dog is uncomfortable as well as an adult.
Deed not breed
There’s a compulsion to fixate on the breed of dogs when attacks happen, Ms Bescoby said, but it is better to focus on “deed not breed”.
“The Dangerous Dogs Act and the prohibited breeds on it haven't reduced dog attacks. It's not the answer,” she said.
Dr Tulloch agreed: “One thing that I would say is that any breed is capable of biting.”
It’s difficult to draw conclusions about how and if breeds correlate to attack rates because dog population statistics are “very poor” overall and in the vast majority of attacks are not noted on medical or death records.
While larger, strong dogs may have the power to do more damage, Dr Tulloch noted that people have had “very significant injuries from very small dogs”.
How to reverse the trend
Dr Tulloch wants dog attacks to be seen as a public health crisis, but said because they don’t clearly fall under anyone’s remit nobody in government has taken it on.
“It can't just be just education or just legislation is going to have to be a combination of things and ensuring … consistent messaging and everyone's on the same page with it.”
There are some simple fixes, he said, such as banning letter boxes from ground height to prevent some of the 32 attacks on postal workers that happen each week.
Ms Bescoby said breeding and importing dogs needed attention, as well as how the dog training industry is regulated because at the moment anyone can call themselves a behaviourist and potentially give out harmful advice.