Dr Carri Westgarth is MRC Population Health Scientist Research Fellow in the University of Liverpool’s Department of Epidemiology and Population Health
“If I was describing my job the technical term would be ‘anthrozoologist’. But as nobody knows what that means I instead explain that in essence I am interested in the effects of animals on human health, in my case primarily dogs.
Trampled by cows
However, exactly one year ago I was personally influenced by another well-known species when my father was trampled by cows. This led me to research how much of a public health problem this is. Statistics are difficult to find but estimate that around 6-7 people are killed by cows in the UK each year (including members of the public and farm workers). Compare that to an average of 3 deaths due to dogs, and around 150 women killed by their husbands/partners. He broke a few ribs and was hospitalised for five days, including an air ambulance ride to get him there whilst being filmed for ‘Helicopter Heroes’.
If he had been bitten by a dog he probably would not have caused such excitement, nor would he have suffered such extensive injuries. Yet nobody is campaigning for the introduction of a Dangerous Cows Act. Recently I heard a story about a girl who was killed by the horse she was bought for her birthday, and it made the local news. If that had been her dog, it would have sparked national outrage and new parliamentary campaigns to do something about the unacceptable threat in our homes.
There is something incredibly special about the emotive subject of our dogs, compared even to other animals. A problem for scientists studying everyday social experiences that are familiar to many people is that everyone already thinks they know the answer already; it is just common sense right? This is a well-known issue in the subject of sociology but it also applies to our beliefs and perceptions regarding animals, arguably an extension of our social world.
A common perception seen concerning dog bite prevention is that it is the victim’s fault for doing something stupid or not ‘reading the signs’, or the owner’s fault for ‘being irresponsible’. But delve further into the academic literature, and you will find that this is simply a common perception that society has about risk, not exclusive to dogs at all. It may even be unhelpful when it comes to actually preventing people from getting injured.
Take for example car accidents. It is very easy to blame the ‘others’ for driving dangerously, but the major reduction in injury comes with the mandatory use of seatbelts; at least then when accidents happen people do not get as hurt. Can you imagine a society that accepted that dog bites happen but instead taught dogs to bite gently when they felt the need to tell us to back off? No, neither can I.
However a pet behaving ‘badly’ can cause enough distress to break apart a family. Ironically, the very reason my dad was ‘attacked’ by the cows was also because he was walking his dogs, which the cows may see as a threat. Owners often make the mistake of instinctively trying to protect their beloved companions instead of letting them off the lead so that everyone can make a fast exit from the situation.
As the implications of dog ownership for human wellbeing are incredibly complex, so are our views about them. When a police dog bites a criminal it is heroic but if the exact same dog bites a child it is horrific. The dog that stays by his dying owner is portrayed as ‘loyal and brave’ even when it might have been more useful to alert help. A trained assistance dog can immeasurably improve the quality of life of a disabled person but it is devastating for them when it is eventually retired from duty.
Many of us willingly invite these creatures to live in our homes, whilst we clean up their poop, spend ridiculous amounts of money on them and fit our entire lives around their needs, before eventually having to make the agonising decision over when they should die.
Our views about dogs also extend far deeper into the fabric of society than we often admit. The term ‘status dogs’ used to refer to to an emerging popularity of small dogs carried around in handbags, which some people found distasteful. Since, it has evolved into a different derogatory way to distance ‘us’ from ‘them’ – the deviant societal groups that like to own dogs that look more muscular and ‘mean’ than the middle and upper-class socially acceptable norms of goofy retrievers or doe-eyed spaniels. But is there a single dog owner who can genuinely say that the type of dog that they own does not reflect something about their ‘self’?
Sometimes I wish I had chosen to study something much simpler, like bacteria in a petri dish. But luckily for me, I find it all so fascinating, and our dogs are not going anywhere.”