WASHINGTON — A dog pack blamed for the killings of a Georgia couple is a reminder of the fragility of mankind's pact with canines. Underlying the relationship between the species is a simple expectation: We feed them, they don't kill us.
Dogs are so much a part of American life — valued members of or even substitutes for human families — that it can be easy to forget they are still animals with teeth and the ability to use them if instinct demands it.
Add the lack of an owner and steady meals, and dogs can quickly begin to resemble their wolf ancestors, teaming up in packs for hunting and protection. They may look like pets, but behave like predators.
That is what investigators believe Sherry and Lothar Schweder encountered along a country road in Georgia recently. They say a pack of wild dogs killed Sherry Schweder as she took an evening walk then fatally mauled her husband when he went to look for her. Authorities euthanized more than a dozen dogs suspected to be involved.
Very seldom do dogs kill people in the United States: At least 20 Americans have died so far this year from dog attacks, a handful fewer than have died from lightning strikes.
But it is not unusual for dogs to use their teeth on people. Dogs bite about 4.5 million people in the United States each year, and nearly 900,000 of those, about half of them children, require medical care, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. More than 31,000 Americans needed reconstructive surgery after dog attacks in 2006, CDC figures show.
The CDC says adults with two or more dogs at home are five times more likely to get bitten than people with dog-free households. What gives?
Predatory behavior — hunting for food — is just one of many reasons canines, whether wild or housedogs, may attack people, experts say.
Dog bites also may be caused by medical problems; possessiveness over food and toys; fear aggression resulting from genetics or poor socialization; or redirected aggression, such as when a dog fights another dog and goes after a person who intervenes and protection of territory.