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What the Rise in Dog Attacks Signals About the State of America's Social Capital – The Survey Center on American Life

July 17, 2023
If you have ever had the unfortunate experience of being attacked or bitten by a dog, you’re not alone. The one time it happened to me was while walking at night in a park near my apartment. It was dark and difficult to see; I was not paying much attention and was probably staring at my phone when the dog bit my leg. After shredding some favorite jeans, the owner—rather unapologetically—said that the dog mistook me for a threat.
Dog bites are quite common, especially among children, but something strange happened during the pandemic. Shortly after many communities instituted COVID-19 lockdowns, attacks surged. One children’s hospital in Colorado experienced a threefold increase in pediatric emergency department visits due to dog bites during the first few months of the pandemic.
Pet ownership spiked during the pandemic as homebound Americans sought out alternative sources of companionship. The American Veterinary Medical Association found that the percentage of US households that own at least one dog jumped from 38 percent to 45 percent between 2016 and 2020. Young adults were especially likely to have adopted puppies. This created many new owners with limited social options for themselves and their pets.
In an interview with Forbes, dog trainer Courtney Briggs noted that the rise in dog ownership coincided with a decline in sociability for both people and their pets. “There are now more humans with more dogs than ever before, but with less training and socialization than in pre-Covid circumstances,” she explained. “So dogs, as well as humans, did not get the training they needed to avoid situations where bites could occur.” Closed parks and playgrounds meant Americans were spending less time in public and had less exposure to different types of people (such as kids) and the unique social situations that these interactions produce.
Michelle Burch, who works for Safe Hounds Pet Insurance, says that dogs are adopting an aggressive posture—“fearful aggression”—as a form of preemptive protection. Animals become aggressive because they feel threatened or insecure. And the lack of social experiences is making this behavior more common. When people and places are unfamiliar, it is more difficult for dogs, and people, to discern threats. The problem with maintaining an offensive mentality is that it results in an awful lot of tragic encounters.
Unfortunately, these defensive social postures are not limited to dogs. The social isolation brought about by the pandemic coincided with a wave of antisocial behavior, much of which was the result of a lack of social exposure and the pervasive feeling of anxiety and agitation in the early months of the pandemic.
Signs of Americans engaging in fearful aggression were everywhere during the pandemic.
When students returned to school in 2021, they witnessed a spate of fighting among students who had experienced months of social isolation during the pandemic. Denver public school officials reported a 21 percent increase in school fights across the district between the fall of 2019 and 2021. The Wall Street Journal reported that attacks against teachers have risen sharply since students returned to school.
Air travel also saw an increase in aggressive behavior. By the summer of 2020 when air travel resumed, attacks against flight attendants and other passengers skyrocketed. The Federal Aviation Administration recorded a nearly fivefold increase in investigations of in-flight disruptions from 2019 to 2021. Health care workers also reported an explosion of violent, aggressive, and degrading behavior. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that registered nurses experienced a 33 percent increase in violent encounters with patients from 2019 to 2020.
In an interview with the Atlantic, sociologist Robert Sampson said that ethical behavior is contingent on social connectedness: “When we become untethered, we tend to prioritize our own private interests over those of others or the public.” It’s hardly a novel concept. Émile Durkheim famously noted that our commitment to social norms was dependent on our connection to each other.
When the pandemic reduced social opportunities, it not only made us lonely; the experience led some people to more freely violate social norms. This increased feelings of unease and anxiety in public spaces.
The good news is that patterns of sociability appear to be returning. The number of Americans who report having not socialized at all in the past seven days dropped from 31 percent in late 2020 to only 19 percent by the spring of 2023. We’re relearning how to be with and around each other. For Americans who adopted a dog during the pandemic, the news is also good. Research has found that dogs are great catalysts for social interaction. The magnetic pull of a dog was found to be consistent regardless of how friendly (or apparently friendly) its owner was. If you are lonely and want more opportunities to forge social connections, walking around your neighborhood with a dog is a good way to do it.
Even after having a couple of negative experiences with dogs in the past, my kids still run up to dog walkers in our neighborhood to see if they can get a couple of pats. As a result, we talk to strangers or neighbors we otherwise would not have. The most important lesson here is repetition and practice. The more time we spend with each other in various places, the more familiar and comfortable we will be doing so. We expand our social repertoire. As with so many things, there is no replacement for simply being out there and doing it. If you want to pet someone’s dog, though, it’s a good idea to ask permission first.
(Full disclosure: I’m more of a cat person than a dog person. Despite recent experiences, I swear I hold no personal grudges. My kids, who are still asking for a dog of their own, don’t either.)
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