What a tragedy: A boy died recently in Union City after being bitten by his family's dog. This horrible event has implications for families far beyond the circle of one child's grieving family.
Sadly, most such incidents need never happen. I know: I am a retired dog trainer who specialized in dog-bite prevention and safety training.
A fatal dog attack is extremely rare: 12 to 20 deaths per year since 1965. A minuscule percentage of dogs kills someone: 0.0000004 percent. Dog bites, on the other hand, are common -- 4.7 million people per year, three-fourth's of them children. Half of all U.S. kids experience a dog bite by age 12.
Let's look at some of the key facts in this incident, as reported:
The dog was a 2-year-old male pit bull mix. The least important fact is the dog's breed. No breed is inherently vicious. All dogs are capable of biting. There is enormous variation in the level of provocation individual dogs will tolerate without biting.
Was the dog neutered? Intact males are three times more likely to bite. Unaltered, adolescent male dogs are more excitable and have less impulse control -- not unlike adolescent humans.
The victim was a 6-year-old boy. Boys ages 5 to 9 have the highest bite incident rate. It is most often during play that excites the dog that bites occur. This was likely a case in which the combination of a rambunctious boy and an excitable dog proved lethal.
The incident happened in the backyard of his grandparents' home, where he lived with his extended family. Most children are bitten by their own family dog or by another known dog.
The boy may have been attempting to "climb onto the dog's back." At least seven other children lived in the household and regularly "roughhoused" with the dog, without previous incident.
This kind of behavior is dangerous and should not be tolerated. Parents must teach kids how to play appropriately with dogs. Young children (under age 5) should never be unsupervised when with dogs.
The bite occurred without warning. In most cases, the dog does warn before biting, but the child (or adult) does not get the message because he doesn't understand dog body language This is why dog bite prevention training is necessary and effective.
There had never been any signs of aggression. Even dogs who have always been trustworthy playing with kids have a limit to their tolerance. One day, the dog feels "No more! I've had enough of this!" The shock and emotional trauma of families whose beloved pet has now bitten their child can be devastating. The tragedy is compounded because usually their dog is put down after the attack.
The dog "was never allowed in the house, stayed right at the door. Was the dog loose in the yard, or chained? An important distinction must be made between pets who live in the house as family members, and resident dogs who are kept outside. It's inherently stressful for a natural pack animal to be an outside dog. It's the resident dog that bites. Chained or tied dogs are responsible for the vast majority of attacks.
As we extend our condolences to Nephi Selu's family, let us become better educated so that we can protect other children from his tragic fate.
Ruth Smiler, an Alameda resident, has conducted workshops for children and families on dog bite safety and prevention. For more safety tips, go to www.doggonesafe.com.