by Donna K. Wren, M.D., FAAP
Arlington Town Meeting Member (Pct 10)
During the debate at Town Meeting over Article 28, which addressed off-leash times at parks in Arlington, many issues were discussed. However, one of the issues which did not get discussed at length was safety. Many people stated emphatically that they didn’t want dogs off leash because it would be a safety hazard to other park users. But no one mentioned appropriate ways to make everyone safer. As a pediatric emergency medicine physician, I have seen my share of children with animal bites, mostly from dogs. In the 12 1/2 years of my experience I do not recall ever treating a child who had sustained a bite from a dog while out in a park or other outdoor recreational setting. My experience has been that children are primarily bitten by their own dog and usually there is some provocation: touching the dog’s food, teasing the dog, or otherwise startling the dog.
I decided to see if medical research supported my observations so I reviewed as many studies as I could find evaluating dog bites with regard to statistics of location, familiarity with the dog, and prevention. By and large, my observations were supported by the literature. Children make up 60% of all dog bite victims. The peak age to be bitten is between 5 and 9 years of age and boys are more likely than girls to be bitten. In every article, it was found that most bites occur on the dog’s property ranging from 58% to 70% of all bites. Between 77% to 91% of all bite victims (of all ages) knew the dog; most often it was the victim’s dog.
The most striking finding in all these studies was that dog safety education was instrumental in reducing the risk of bites. Education was the single most effective way to prevent injury. The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports educational programs teaching dog safety to children in the schools, in the community, in the doctor’s office, and in the home. Teaching children makes sense as they are statistically most likely to be bitten, but teaching adults, parents, dog owners, and the entire community is best. Even a single short session has been shown to improve safety and decrease risk.
I applaud the efforts of the Green Dog Committee to find a solution to the needs of everyone in the community regarding dogs. It must be stressed that any community program requires education of all members of the community. It would be ideal to have this message available in many different places in our lives: in all the schools, including preschools; in the parks when the Friends of the various parks hold community events; at Town Day; public service announcements on the local access channel; perhaps even a safety video that could be checked out of the library. Parents should consider it something their children need to know, on the same level of importance as traffic, water, fire, stranger, and bike safety. Our family does not have a dog but we encounter dogs in the parks frequently. We use every encounter as a chance to teach our 2 children how to behave and be safe.
As with so many other parts of our lives, education is the key to prevention and reduction of risk. I hope that a community safety education component can be included in the Green Dog Committee’s future plans.