The UK has a dog bite problem -- and British legislation aimed at "dangerous dogs" (chiefly, the 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act, which bans dogs with characteristics of pit bull terriers and certain other dogs) isn't reducing the incidence of dog bites. The flaw, unsurprisingly, doesn't lie with the dogs. According to Rachel Orritt, a psychology graduate student at the University of Lincoln, U.K. law comes up short due to a misunderstanding of the risks and benefits of dog ownership.
It's unclear just how much of a threat dogs pose, a major issue when trying to stop dog bites through legislation. A widely-cited estimate of 250,000 bites per year, Orritt writes in the British Journal of Medicine, is "inaccurate and 24 years out of date." There's no national reporting system for dog bites in the U.K. -- nor is there one in the U.S. -- so assessing just how much of a risk dog bites pose is a difficult task.
For the U.S., 1.5 percent of Americans (totaling about 4.5 million people) are bitten by dogs annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control. That number comes from a 2008 CDC study, based on survey data from 2001 to 2003. But the CDC study also points out that the incidence of dog bites isn't static: Comparing the 2001 to 2003 rates with 1994 data, dog bites had fallen by as much as 47 percent, particularly among young children (who are the most frequently bitten). That's a promising trend, but one that needs to be reassessed with more current data.
Taken to the extreme, the only way to completely eliminate dog bites would be to remove dogs from human society. Banning all pooches, however, is far from an ideal solution. As Orritt writes in the BMJ, a lack of dogs could, in fact, have an overall negative impact on human health:
There are consistent data, for example, to indicate that owning a dog is associated with increased physical activity, better self esteem, and fewer annual visits to the doctor. Evidently, eradicating dogs would have negative consequences for human health.
Just as we shouldn't aim to remove all dogs, targeting specific breeds isn't the answer, either. The key factor that determines whether or not a dog will be aggressive? Human behavior, not dog breed. In the end, the leash is in our hands -- where punishment and negative reinforcement leads to aggressive dogs, we also can greatly lower the risk of dogs biting someone: by spaying and neutering; socializing our dogs; and making sure our pups are well-trained.