15 Apr 2020

Spike in dog attacks blamed on owners' pandemic fears

11:15 am on 15 April 2020

Dog attacks have increased during lockdown with more people out walking their pets and exercising during the day.

Experts say more education is needed to reduce the number of dog attacks.

Owners need to keep dogs on a leash or under control in off-lead areas so they don't pose a risk to other people. Stock photo Photo: AFP

However, animal behaviour experts suggest dogs could be picking up on their owners' heightened anxiety.

Lower Hutt resident Dion Howard was out for a walk one morning last week when he met a man and his dog.

The owner got his dog to heel, but as Howard passed by, it lunged forward and bit him.

"It was on a lead, but it was one of those retractable leads that people with pugs use, but this dog was no pug - it was like an angry-looking, muscular dog.

"It bit me on my upper thigh ... my lower backside - it sunk its teeth in.

"I was pretty annoyed, I was in pain actually."

The dog's teeth ripped a three-centimetre gash in his skin, and left grazes and bruising.

Its owner did not volunteer his name, and Howard said he was not in the right frame of mind to ask at that point.

"Well, I probably wasn't very diplomatic and I didn't give him a lot of opportunity to hang around because he had an attacking dog on the end of his leash.

"So he said 'sorry' and kept walking."

Howard had to get a tetanus shot and antibiotics - but noted it might have been worse.

"It could have been one of my children, or someone else's child."

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Howard reported the incident to Hutt City Council and gave animal control officers a description of the dog and its owner.

In the first three weeks of lockdown, there were 18 dog attacks reported to Hutt City Council, of which 13 were attacks on people, compared with 11 the previous month, five of them on people.

The number of reports of threatening dogs also increased from four to seven.

Wellington City Council's public health manager Helen Jones said there had been a month's worth of dog attacks in the last week alone - which she attributed to the fact more dogs were getting walked.

"People have been letting dogs off leads and they've been having fights and people have been intervening, and that's where the attacks are coming from."

She said owners needed to keep dogs on a leash or under control in off-lead areas, especially now, because it was not just aggressive dogs that posed a potential danger at the moment, with a virus on the loose.

"If your dog wanders from its bubble and is touched by someone with the virus, then your dog could take the Covid-19 virus home with it."

In Christchurch, there were 11 reported attacks in the first week of lockdown, more than double the total the week before - but the council said the number was "consistent for the same period last year".

In Auckland, the number of attacks on people has remained steady, but the number of attacks on other animals nearly doubled in the first week of the lockdown. They increased from 17 to 32.

Hamilton, Hauraki District and Thames-Coromandel have also seen rises in the number of attacks.

Animal psychologist Mark Vette said he was not surprised to see more dog attacks during lockdown, because canines were so attuned to their owners' feelings.

"They are highly sophisticated social animals, having evolved with humans for over 40,000 years."

Dogs had picked up on the fact their owners were avoiding other people and were confused by this unnatural behaviour, he said.

"Closing down into a bubble, that in itself for dogs heightens their protectiveness.

"And of course from their point of view, they don't understand why we're isolating and they see it potentially as a threat, which in turn heightens aggression and/or fear."

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Mark Vette says dogs are confused by people's current unnatural behaviour. Photo: supplied

It was up to dog owners to reassure their pets that strangers were not a threat, Vette said.

He uses a "clicker" and dog treats to reinforce calm, "pro-social" behaviour.

"Basically we're trying to rewire the brain in this situation if we see they're starting to get a bit suspicious.

"So we get them to sit and look and when they look toward the stranger and look back up at me, I click and reward them for a positive response."

Vette said the best way to rear a well-adjusted, emotionally-resilient dog was to ensure it was well socialised, and used to different people and animals.

If you find yourself threatened by an aggressive dog, do not try to stare it down or yell at it, or turn your back and run, which are likely to trigger an attack, he said.

The safest approach is to turn three-quarters ("to make yourself look less threatening") and move away quietly.

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