Over the past few years, the Park City and Summit County governments have been trying to figure out what to do about off-leash dogs. People see many dogs off-leash on our trails and then hear about dog bites around town and reason that off leash dogs are the cause of the problem.
I reached out to Summit County Animal Control to understand how many dog bites there were in 2014. They promptly responded that Summit County had 129 dog bites last year. I was taken aback because I would never have guessed that there were that many bites in our county. Yet sometimes numbers are misleading. I decided to research dog bites nationwide. According to a CDC study, there are approximately 4.5 million dog bites per year. That means about 1.5% percent of the US population is bitten each year.
Yet in Summit County that number is about 0.4% of the population. So, we are at about 1/3 of the national average . If this were burglaries or murder we would be celebrating our achievements. Yet with dogs, the narrative of Summit County being overrun by wild dogs seems to have overtaken the truth.
I don’t mean to make light of dog bites. I know even one dog bite is too many. The fear that victims have experienced must be extreme and I hope it never happens to me. That said, we are doing far better than average.
Yet, we as a community have seemed to correlate increased off-leash dogs with dog bites. If anything, if there are more off-leash dogs around Park City than average, then the correlation seems to demonstrate that more off-leash dogs leads to less dog bites.
So, I’m not sure there is actually an issue, relative to the populace as a whole. After getting the numbers, I am actually convinced that we are doing better than most. If our off-leash dog population decreased to the national average, would it decrease dog bites or would we revert to the mean (3 times as many dog bites)?
What I do know is that loose correlations based on what we think we see are often wrong. Perhaps initiatives like the Yellow Dog Project would be more successful at stopping dog bites than more leashes. Perhaps alternate days on certain trails (i.e. dogs both on and off-leash on even days and bikes and humans on odd days) would lower our dog bites. Perhaps exorbitant fines and restitution would make owners think twice about their aggressive dogs.
We don’t know.
What we do know is that we don’t, compared to others, have a problem. Could we reduce dog bites through government initiatives? Maybe. Is the answer proven to be cracking down on off-leash animals? Not by a long shot. Will cracking down make the problem worse? We’ll see.