The Big Question: How frequent are maulings by dogs, and how can you tell if one is vicious?

Why are we asking this now?

A three-month-old baby was mauled to death by his grandmother's Jack Russell and Staffordshire bull terrier at her home in South Wales on Friday night. A post-mortem examination indicated that Jaden Joseph Mack died from wounds inflicted by the two pets, which were subsequently put down. Jaden's grandmother Denise Wilson, 53, who was treated for shock, ran out of her house in Ystrad Mynach, Caerphilly, and desperately sought help, but nothing could be done for the baby. Police attended the address after midnight and the injured infant was taken to the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr Tydfil, where he was pronounced dead.

Jaden's family said yesterday: "We would like to stress to all families with young children and pet dogs that, no matter how much trust you have in your dog, something like this is always possible. We never thought it could happen to us."



Are dogs made dangerous by nature or nurture?

Experts insist it is most definitely the latter. We have all heard of anecdotal cases of Dobermann Pinschers that make gentle pets, or Labradors that have turned on their owners. Vets say all dogs should be "socialised" between the ages of three and eight weeks to teach them how to interact with humans. They should also receive professional training to teach them to obey and be subordinate. Any animal that is mistreated or trained to attack can be dangerous, although castrating a male dog will make it less aggressive.



Are certain breeds of dog particularly dangerous?

Four types of dogs are prohibited in the UK: the pit bull terrier, the Japanese tosa, the Argentine dogo or mastiff, and the Brazilian mastiff. However, experts insist that one should steer away from demonising breeds. The Staffordshire bull terrier, which has unfairly gained a reputation for violence, is known by fans of the breed to be particularly gentle and friendly. However, any dog can snap if placed in the wrong situation. An animal that has never heard a baby scream may bite it in fear.

Bigger breeds such as the Rottweiler are no more likely to attack but have gained a fearsome image because of their power. A playful nip from an animal with such a strong jaw will have a far more devastating effect than the same bite from a smaller pet. However, any dog can become more dangerous if it joins a pack of aggressive animals.



How frequent are dog attacks?

Jaden is the fourth British child to die in such an attack in 30 months. Figures are hard to collate because many people will not report violence by their own pets. However, NHS figures obtained by the Liberal Democrats last year showed that the number of people attending casualty units following dog attacks had risen by more than 40 per cent since 2004, to nearly 3,800 a year.



Where did most of the incidents happen?

The problem was particularly acute in London, where the number of patients under 18 treated for dog bites doubled over the four years, and in the West Midlands, where the figure rose by 80 per cent. An estimated 78,000 people – 1,000 of them children – were treated for dog bites in 2006-7. The media frequently gives the impression that there has been a sudden increase in attacks, whereas it is merely one terrible case, such as the death of Jaden, that fuels a flurry of news coverage.



So why do we appear to have such a problem with dangerous dogs?

David Grant, director of the RSPCA's Harmsworth Memorial Animal Hospital in north London (home of the BBC series Animal Hospital), believes hat the true answer lies with a greater social malaise. An increasing number of people, particularly young men, are obtaining dogs as fashion accessories or weapons. They fail to train or care properly for them, and even coach them to become violent for criminal or image reasons. Because of the demand for certain types of dog, there has been a huge increase in breeding for undeclared profit. Mr Grant said his hospital had seen a growing number of dog cruelty cases and animal abuse, many involving Staffordshires or pit bull terriers. In the most extreme cases, dogs have been beaten, stabbed and shot.



Should any dog be left with young children?

While a loyal hound can make a gentle and devoted addition to a family, vets and police say a baby or small child should never be left with any dog without proper supervision, irrespective of the breed or temperament of the animal.

So how can you tell if a dog will turn aggressive?

If your dog, particularly a male pet, becomes dominant – for example, if it refuses to obey orders and bares its teeth – this is a sign that it could turn aggressive. Vets recommend training. On a more immediate level, look out for an animal that stiffens up, holds its tail high, snarls and stares.



What should you do if you are about to be attacked?

Never run – because a dog can overtake you. Stand still and put your hands in your pockets, because a moving arm is an obvious target. Avoid eye contact but do not turn your back – stand sideways and look away, then move away slowly. If a dog does bite, do not pull away because that will tear the flesh. Try to get a stick strong enough to slide between the dog's teeth and lever open its jaws.



What does the legislation on dangerous dogs say?

The 1991 Dangerous Dogs Act was introduced following a series of high-profile attacks on children. Apart from stipulating the four prohibited breeds, it is designed to target the owner of any animal that becomes dangerously out of control. Any dog is defined as dangerous if it injures a person or behaves in a way that makes a person believe they will be harmed. There are three distinct offences. The maximum penalty for allowing your dog to be dangerously out of control is two years in jail, or a fine, or both. If someone uses a dog to injure another person they can be charged with malicious wounding, which carries a maximum jail term of five years. The maximum penalty for possessing a banned dog is a £5,000 fine, or six months in prison, or both.



Do we now need tougher legislation?

The Dogs Trust charity has described the 1991 Act as a hastily-produced and poorly thought-out piece of legislation, produced as a knee-jerk reaction to public outrage and media coverage. Jaden's death has, once again, led to calls for reform of the law and renewed the debate about which breeds need to be banned. However, Mr Grant believes that the solution is not to demonise breeds but to target the cruel owners who fail to care for their dogs and, by negligence or design, turn them into violent creatures. "I personally think there are more tragedies like this waiting to happen," he said last night.

Is keeping a dog simply too risky for families with young children?

Yes

*Any dog can attack if it is afraid. It is impossible to tell if an animal will suddenly turn on someone.



*An estimated 78,000 people – 1,000 of them children – were treated for dog bites in 2006-7.



*Many animals are used as "violent accessories" or are bred to attack. These should not be kept as pets.

No

*Most breeds can be loyal additions to a family and are happy to play with, or even protect, children.



*The vast majority of dogs that are properly trained and treated with care are unlikely to turn violent.



*There is no point in demonising dogs. We should blame owners who deliberately train them to attack.

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