Dogs bite: but balloons and slippers are more dangerous

Bradley - Dogs bitePUBLISHING YEAR: 2005

SUMMARY: A scathing look at scare-mongering and ill-researched statistical claims about dog bites.

AUDIENCE: The book, with its informal and entertaining style, was written to help the layman assess bite risk rationally. Every dog professional should read it too, though.

01 Owner


The author: Janis Bradley’s academic background (Philosophy and English) didn’t predispose her to write about epidemiology, but she pulled it off. Janis Bradley is the Associate Director of Communications and Publications at the National Canine Research Council. Previous to this, she was one of the all-star trainers at the famous San Francisco PCA.

Style and contents: The book critically examines oft-repeated but ill-researched statistics on dog bites. Each claim gets taken to town for its erroneous assumptions or sloppy research methods. The famous numbers warning us of an unprecedented in increase of in dog bites appears to fly in the face of fact, reason and common sense, and Janis Bradley takes us through why.

Janis Bradley often offers us hilarious comparisons between dog bite incidence and the frequency of incidents involving furniture or, yes, slippers: “Tables are responsible for roughly the same number of emergency room treated injuries … as dog bites, as are chairs.” (p. 44.)

The opening sentence captures the book’s conclusion well: “… dogs almost never kill people, they bite much less often than one would expect, and when they bite, they seldom injure.” (p. 19)

Janis Bradley managed to condense a huge body of complex knowledge into this clear and witty book. Her multi-disciplinary grasp shows impressive erudition. She appears equally comfortable writing about systems theory, statistics, or basic neuroscience.

The gems

A particularly intelligent analysis of the bite predisposing factors, and the impossibility of assessing a dog’s future likelihood to bite with any sort of accuracy. She tackles the topic with sufficient detail as to not fall into the trap of oversimplification. Her coverage of Breed Specific Legislation was also spot on: clear and concise without sacrificing the critical details (p. 134).

The chapter on human risk perception was well thought out and researched. In it, Janis Bradley examines our tendency to exaggerate dog-related risks through economic, evolutionary and psychological influences. Her passages on developmentally sensitive periods in dogs (p. 76) and breed specific legislation (p. 68) were written in a similar vein: easily some of the best science popularization passages I had ever read on these topics . For the professionals, I also recommend the chapter on bite severity assessment (Injury Severity Score, p. 52).

But one of the most special things about this book of course its pithy language: hilarious, sharp and arresting. Here are a few snippets:

  • The book opens with: “Dogs are dangerous. And they are more dangerous to children than to adults. Not as dangerous, of course, as front-porch steps or kitchen utensils or five-gallon water buckets or bathtubs or strollers or stoves or lamp cords or coffee table corners or Christmas trees or balloons or bedroom slippers.” (p. 17)
  • On breed-specific aggression: “People sometimes compromise this doggie friendliness by breeding for more hostility, but they’re bucking the tide of millennia of canine evolution.” (p. 18)
  • About our fear bias when tackling dog-related risks “… no one stops driving, taking medicine when they get sick, or bathing, because of these hazards. If they do, we consider them to be suffering from clinical phobias…” (p. 29)
  • And some of her chapter’s names were pure genius: “Nutty numbers. How 2 becomes a trend” (p. 67) or “Asking the wrong questions and answering them badly” (p. 110)
  • About the Pit Bull journalistic witch hunt “… in feckless defiance of the laws of geometry, not to mention canine anatomical engineering, that the dog had the boy’s head clamped in his jaws” (p. 68)
  • “We choose our dogs, like we choose our lovers, mostly by how they look: conformation, cuteness, and coat color.” (p. 82)

Possible points for optimization  

  • The book didn’t cite the research it covered in the text, so tracking claims back to the original research took quite some gymnastics. Starting a sentence with “recent research indicates that…” and not quoting the research immediately is a crime in non fiction writing if you ask me.
  • The American tendency of failing to systematically state which statistics concern the US only, and which are global.
  • The book seemed to end without closure. I would have loved a chapter, or even a paragraph, to nicely wrap up the ideas discussed, but instead it felt like it ended on an after-thought.
  • The book occasionally fell into excesses of ‘all dogs are good’ advocacy, and its message appears one-sided at times, poo-poo’ing legitimate concerns.

The following points are so minor they are risible, but once a pedant…

  • Janis Bradley implies there is a consensus among ethicists that dogs cannot be moral agents. This is a gross oversimplification. Dogs, being social species, are hardwired to abide to certain rules of social conduct, they are biologically primed to do so. The degree to which we can call this a rudimentary moral compass is the subject of animal morals research. But stripping dogs of the ability to be moral agents oversimplifies the state of research on this topic, and their complex abilities.
  • The book contained a couple of zoological gaffes: e.g. essentially limiting the number of possible inter-species interactions to eat or be eaten (p. 73) and flirting with some grand teleological group-level natural selection (p. 72).
  • This is likely a byproduct of the pressure to be concise, but the chapter on psychopharmacology alluded that the only interventions consisted of serotonin levels modulation. Canine psychopharmacology is a complex field; it is a lot broader than that. (p. 78)

The verdict: A brilliant book mastering a wide array of technical fields and coming out with a consistent, condensed, clear, witty picture. “Dogs bite…” is quoted all by even the most academic-minded of dog professionals, so it was a matter of time before I finally put my hands on it. I am glad I finally checked it out, and I confirm the respect it enjoys among professionals is thoroughly deserved.

Written in 2005, it is starting to show its age, but it is so rigorously researched and so well-written it has acquired the status of a classic in its genre. A must-read.

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Author: Bradley Janis
Genre: pop science
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