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Dog attacks increasing in Finland, police and insurance firms confirm

There are an estimated 700,000 dogs in Finland - more than ever before - and attacks are also on the rise.

Laura Salmela leikkii koiransa kanssa.
Laura Salmela plays with her dog. Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

An increasing number of residents - and their dogs - have become victims of dog attacks this year.

Police in Finland say they receive reports of dog attacks about twice every single day, amounting to an estimated 800 dog attacks - on humans and other dogs - this year. In 2015 there were about 500 reported incidents of dog attacks.

The number of reported attacks has been steadily increasing for the past few years, but police note that not every attack is reported or included in their statistics.

Some Finnish insurance firms also say they’ve noticed an increase in canine aggression.

Insurance companies If, OP and Fennia all told Yle they receive several dog-related insurance claims each week and that reports of people being bitten by dogs are on the rise.

Thirty-three-year-old Laura Salmela became part of Finland’s dog attack statistics in 2016.

One January evening in Vihti, southern Finland, Salmela took an evening stroll with her two dogs - a full-grown Belgian Malinois and a German Shorthaired Pointer, which was still a puppy at the time.

Sudden attack

She says that her neighbour owned an American Staffordshire Terrier - often referred to as an Amstaff - and that she’d sent an SMS to remind the neighbour to keep her dog indoors while she was out with her own dogs.

But there was a miscommunication. About a half hour later, as Salmela returned home with her dogs, she was faced with the neighbour’s rapidly-approaching dog.

Story continues after photo

Amstaffi Rusina ja Maarika Wallenius Suomen Amerikanstaffordshirenterrieriyhdistyksen pentukummi
An Amstaff, or American Staffordshire Terrier (file photo). Image: Petteri Juuti / Yle

“It came at us like a rocket - first it attacked the older dog then the puppy,” Salmela says.

“I saw how the Amstaff tried to bite the puppy on the throat, and I was certain that I’d lose the dog. I screamed as loudly as I could, yelling as many cuss words I could think of. Then the dog attacked my face,” Salmela remembers.

At one point during the violent attack, Salmela said she thought she was going to die.

“I screamed at the owner and asked her to pull the dog by the hind legs, away from me. In the end it worked, but I lost nearly half of my upper lip and part of my nose,” she says.

Dogs and their owners

But what is prompting the dog attacks? Are dog owners in Finland losing control of their pets?

Animal behaviour expert Jirka Vierimaa says that may have something to do with it, but it’s more likely that there are more dogs.

“More and more people are getting dogs,” Vierimaa points out.

According to Statistics Finland, there are around 700,000 dogs in this country of 5.5 million people - more than ever before.

Vierimaa says that there will always be conflict between humans and dogs, but noted that dog owners should not always be labelled as “irresponsible.”

“There are some things [dog owners] need to do right from the start, when they get a dog,” Vierimaa explains.

She says canine owners should always ensure that leashes are secure so the dogs aren’t able to escape, even by mistake. She also says dog owners need to learn more about the animals they keep.

Experts consider some kinds of dogs to be more aggressive than others, and Amstaffs - the breed of dog which attacked Salmela and her pups - are in this group. They are among the breeds rated as highest risk by US insurance companies, along with pit bulls, Doberman Pinschers, Rottweilers and German shepherds, reports Forbes.

Meanwhile in the UK, it is illegal to own four types of dogs: the pit bull terrier, Japanese Tosa, Dogo Argentino and Fila Brasileiro. About 200 Amstaffs are registered in Finland every year.

Amstaffs and attacks

According to Maarika Wallenius, who’s an active member of Finland’s Amstaff association, the breed is generally open and friendly towards people.

“But because of the breed’s history [as attack dogs], [Amstaffs] are not always very socially comfortable with other dogs,” Wallenius says.

Norway has banned Amstaffs outright due to the breed’s purported danger, but Wallenius does not support a similar ban in Finland.

“It would be difficult [for authorities] to monitor and the dogs would be sold on the black market,” she says.

Wallenius says however that Amstaffs are not the right breed for all dog owners, saying that prospective pet buyers need to know what they’re getting themselves into if they’re considering them. She says dog owners have a clear responsibility in this regard.

It has been about two and a half years since Salmela was attacked in Vihti.

Although the attack put her into the intensive care unit for five days and an additional eight days in a plastic surgery unit, she says it could have turned out worse.

She says she’s thankful the dog didn’t bite her in the neck or her eyes. Salmela also says she doesn’t feel bitterness towards the neighbours or even the dog itself.

“I knew them well and had even cuddled with the dog, but that time it didn’t help,” she says.

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