A new report finds there are 11 dog attacks on guide dogs every month in the United Kingdom alone.
By Zazie Todd
A student guide dog pulls his handler down the aisle of a plane during their training program. (Photo: Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)
Guide dogs provide essential assistance to people who are blind or partially sighted. When other dogs attack guide dogs, the consequences can be severe. The charity Guide Dogs has been keeping records of these attacks, and a new paper by Rachel Moxon of the charitable group details the problems faced over a 56-month period from 2010 to 2015.
During this time, there were 629 attacks. Sixty-eight percent of the victims were qualified Guide Dogs (almost three-quarters of which were in a harness at the time of the attack). Twenty percent were dogs in puppy walk (up to 1.5 years old ), 8 percent were dogs in training, and the remainder were retired, breeding dogs, or buddy dogs.
“Within the current study, 20 dogs were withdrawn from the Guide Dogs programme as a direct result of a dog attack,” the authors write, “20% of qualified guide dogs required time off from working and 13 dogs were withdrawn from working as a guide. The implications for the guide dog owners of these dogs are likely to be long-term and complex affecting not only their mobility and physical health, but also their social and emotional well-being.”
Because 50 incidents involved two or more attacking dogs, there were a total of 689 aggressing dogs responsible for the reported attacks. The person with the guide dog described the attack as being due to lack of control of the aggressing dog (29 percent), caused by the aggressing dog (22 percent) or unprovoked (19 percent). The attacking dogs were usually with their owner (46 percent off-leash and 31 percent on-leash), but in 22 percent of cases the dog was off-leash with no owner present.
It costs £39,700 to breed and train a guide dog and the charity typically spends a further £13,000 to support the ongoing relationship with the handler until the dog retires.
Ninety-seven percent of the attacks occurred in public areas, just over one-quarter of them in places where you expect to see off-leash dogs. At the time of the attack, 56 percent of the victim dogs were in a harness and working, 26 percent were on leash, and 18 percent were loose.
Most of the Guide Dogs are yellow or black. More dark-colored dogs and fewer light-colored dogs were attacked compared to the average numbers of those dogs, but it’s not known why.
Forty-three percent of the dogs had injuries, and three-quarters of these needed to see a veterinarian; some dogs with no injuries also visited the vet to be checked over. Dogs were more likely to be injured if they were off-leash at the time of the attack, rather than in harness or on-leash. Only six owners of attacking dogs paid for vet bills. In five cases, vets kindly treated the dogs for free.
There was an impact on working ability for 42 percent of the dogs, with 22 percent having to take some time off work. Twenty dogs had to be withdrawn from the Guide Dogs program, which included 13 qualified dogs, six that were in training and one puppy. The authors write: “Dogs were withdrawn because the dog attack impacted their behaviour and their ability to safely guide a person that is blind or partially sighted.”
The charity estimates the cost of withdrawing these dogs to be over £600,000. (It costs £39,700 to breed and train a guide dog and the charity typically spends a further £13,000 to support the ongoing relationship with the handler until the dog retires.)
The attacks also had significant effects on the handlers. Fifty-nine handlers and 28 other people were injured in the attacks. In 71 percent of cases, the handler said it affected their emotional well-being; feelings of anxiety, and being shaken and upset were the most common reactions.
“The guide dog harness is designed to be visible and should have been apparent to the owners of aggressors who were present in 76.8 per cent of attacks,” the authors write. “It is feasible that a proportion of these attacks could have been avoided if the aggressor was put on a lead when the owner saw a guide dog in harness.”
You should never distract a guide dog in a harness because they are working. Even if your dog is friendly, it would be helpful to put him or her on leash if you see a guide dog so they can work without distractions. Or, as Julie Hecht puts it, “only you can prevent sniffing of guide dogs’ butts.”
Under United Kingdom law, the owner of a dog that attacks an assistance dog may receive a fine and/or up to three years in prison.