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Every year in America alone, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs, and half of those are children. According to a CDC report, 20% of dog bites are severe enough to require medical attention.

Sunday is the beginning of Dog Bite Prevention Week, sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), so today I’m going to tell you all about why dogs bite and how to avoid getting bitten.

Why Dogs Bite

There are five main reasons that a dog may bite, and being aware of them is the first step toward prevention. They are:

  1. Possessiveness
    A dog may bite to maintain ownership of something — commonly toys, food, or space, but dogs can also become possessive of humans, especially if the human shows weak or fearful energy. In that case, the dog is trying to protect the weaker pack member from harm.
  2. Fear
    A fearful dog will react in one of three ways: fight, flight, or avoidance. In the case of the last two, the dog will move away from you. But when a fearful dog does not retreat, that’s the time to be wary of being bitten. Never approach a fearful dog directly, because this can cause it to lash out.
  3. Maternal Instincts
    When a female dog has recently given birth, she will be very protective of her puppies and guard them jealously. Humans should never approach a mother and her pups in their den. She will take care of their needs until they’re up and exploring the world on their own.
  4. Prey Drive
    Many dogs have a natural hunting instinct, and it can be triggered by fast moving objects. If your dog has ever zeroed in on a squirrel and become obsessed, that’s why — it’s a small, fast-moving thing. But squirrels aren’t the only things that can trigger the prey drive. Joggers, bicyclists, and running children can all make a dog snap into pursuit mode.
  5. Pain
    A dog in pain may instinctively lash out at anybody or anything that approaches it or the painful area. This can be the cause of the totally unexpected nip that comes from an otherwise submissive or happy-go-lucky dog. If none of the above situations apply and your dog suddenly bites you, it’s time for a visit to the vet because she’s telling you there’s something wrong.

How to Avoid Being Bitten

Those are the causes of dog bites, but the best prevention is to help your dog stay balanced and educate people around you on the do’s and don’ts of approaching a dog.

  1. Avoid Aggressive Games
    Wrestling or tug-of-war can be fun, but they’re also a good way to be accidentally bitten. Remember, dogs use their mouths like we use our hands, so it’s natural for them to grab things with their teeth, and this isn’t fun when they grab your arm or leg. Avoiding aggressive games will also help keep your dog’s prey drive in check.
  2. Teach Submissive Behavior and Socialize
    You can help a dog avoid becoming possessive by training it from the beginning to give up anything it has on command — for example, dropping a toy or stepping away from its food bowl. Teaching a dog to wait before it can take a treat from your hand is another good exercise.

    Since fear or being caught off-guard can be triggers for dog bites, it’s also important that you socialize your dog as much as possible with other people and dogs, as well as with unfamiliar places. And, needless to say, if you exhibit calm, assertive energy in these situations, your confidence will help your dog feel safe and have no need to defend itself.

  3. Spay or Neuter
    Parents of teenagers know that they can be moody, uncooperative, or even sometimes hostile, and that’s all because of hormones, which are exploding through their bodies. Dogs go through exactly the same thing as they mature, but at least we can do something about that by having them spayed or neutered.

    By removing the source of testosterone from male dogs, they naturally become a lot less aggressive. By fixing female dogs, we eliminate the problem of unwanted puppies, reduce the incidence of certain types of cancers later on, and remove the stimulus of a female dog in heat, which can make all of the male dogs in the neighborhood edgy and aggressive, whether they’re fixed or not.

  4. Vaccinate
    This is related to the pain issue. An unvaccinated dog can catch all kinds of diseases, but the symptoms often aren’t visible at first. The dog knows it’s in pain, but the humans don’t until they get unexpectedly bitten.

    And, of course, there’s the big reason that we get our dogs vaccinated: rabies. This is a disease that affects the brain and makes dogs go into the red zone of aggression — but it is completely preventable.

  5. Supervise Dogs and Children/Babies
    Never leave children and dogs alone together and supervise their play time. Also make sure to teach children how to approach dogs in their own pack and to never approach a strange dog. At the same time, teach dogs that there are boundaries around the baby and young children in the house, and that they outrank the dog in the Pack.

So there’s everything you need to know for Dog Bite Prevention Week. For everything else you need to know about dog bites, the AVMA has a great graphic showing Dog Bites by the Numbers.

Stay calm, and don’t get bitten!

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