The UK's dog attack epidemic is being fuelled by pandemic pets as terrifying data shows the full extent of year-on-year increases since lockdown.
A 'ticking timebomb' of impulse dog buying, the return to work, and the often traumatic way puppies have been brought into the world are combining to forge an increase in attacks – with some experts surprised there are so few of them.
This week Farrah-Leigh Nichol,five, was rushed to hospital and left needing a skin graft following a dog attack outside a Teeside supermarket.
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But what makes Farrah-Leigh’s harrowing incident so concerning is that she's just the latest in a long line of victims as Brits own more dogs than ever before.
UK Pet Food, the preferred data source for major charities like Dogs Trust, claim there are roughly 12 million dogs thought to be in the country and in around 31% of our homes.
The number of dog households has been consistently above 30% since 2021 – tying in neatly with the Covid pandemic. Before that the number was in the mid-to-low 20s.
Robert Bays, canine behaviourist and training manager at Battersea Dogs Home said: “Since Covid we are confident that we have seen a rise in first-time dog ownership in the UK.
"We know from research that 77% of dogs that were purchased in Covid were puppies which suggests that there's a huge rise in breeding.
“Dog breeding was such a lucrative market in the pandemic but that did lead to huge amounts of unlicensed or unregulated breeding with puppies being born in not necessarily the most suitable environments.
“That obviously then affects their early socialisation and their early experiences which can have an impact on them later in life,” Mr Bays added.
“Like with people if you were to experience a traumatic event when you're a child or humans experience something stressful in life, it might affect how you perceive the situation in the future."
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Never mind the breed, put simply dog attacks are on the rise. TheBritish Medical Journalreported in April 2023 that the number of incidents has been growing at an alarming rate since lockdown.
The clearest data relating to dog attacks is found in hospital attendance, which the BMJ says have increased from 4,699 in 2007 to 8,819 in 2021-2022. That's a rise of 88%.
The other clear indicator is fatal attacks, with three people dying on average per year in the UK from dog attacks. In 2022 that number was 10, four of which were children.
And without a change in how we educate and interact with our pets, it's only going to get worse.
Mr Bays added: “Lots of people got dogs for maybe for the first time during the pandemic. But their lifestyles are going to look really different now.
“People were thrust into working from home with their dogs and able to spend every waking moment with them.
“That's obviously changed quite substantially now with the world getting back to normal.”
He added: “Dogs lived isolated lives having already missed out on important socialisation during their puppy and adolescent periods that would have played a huge role in development and behaviour.”
Much of the debate and theorising centres around specific breeds being culpable for disproportionality high numbers of attacks.
But animal charities are desperately campaigning to have the approach to dangerous dogs overhauled. They demand a greater focus on education for owners rather than isolating dangerous breeds.
Hospital data, which is the most reliable source of information for dog attacks, doesn’t record the type of canine involved in the incident.
“While we've seen a rise in dog attacks, we don't actually know that that is related to a specific breed,” Mr Bays explained.
“Unfortunately, the bully-type breeds are in the media eye a bit more, which obviously then alters the perception that the increase is down to them."
He added: “We do believe that the Dangerous Dogs Act should be doing more to prevent all attacks, focusing more on educating the public, and actually trying to highlight these reasons as to why there may be an increase.”
This desire was echoed by Dr Ed Hayes of The Kennel Club who are part of the Dog Control Coalition looking into and researching policies and methods to “track and trace” dangerous dogs in a bid to cut off violence before they get to the stage of an actual attack.
“Unfortunately, the numbers attending hospital have been rising year on year,” explained Dr Hayes.
“What tends to be an underlying cause for a lot of dog aggression is poorly trained and not properly socialized dogs”.
Ira Moss, general manager at All Dogs Matter, is on the frontline – and sees her charity being swamped by now unwanted bully-type dogs.
She said: “We’re getting about 10 calls a day of people saying I need to rehome my XL bully. I’m scared of the dog”.
She told of how much of the dog-buying market now exists online, with no regulation. This is leading to unregistered breeders running amok.
She added: “You might as well just advertise guns and drugs online for sale – these are 45 to 50kg dogs that have often been bought by people during lockdown and most that people are trying to offload.
"They are between one and two years old after being bought in lockdown.
“A lot of them were bought by people who – if they were trying to get them through us – we would probably only recommend a hamster to.”
She continued: “These are really powerful dogs and they’re often moved about from post to post. They’re confused, they’re stressed, people aren't walking them, they’re putting them in gardens and in some places they’re being left in flats and used for breeding.”
Shockingly, she added: “To be honest I’m surprised there are as few dog attacks as there are”.
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