By Dr. Kristy Conn
Approximately four and a half million people are bitten by dogs in the United States every year and one fifth of them end up needing medical attention for their wounds. Children are the most common victims with half of bite wound victims being under the age of thirteen. Children are much more likely to be severely injured by dog bites due to their small size and not being aware of how one should act around a dog. Most dog bites occur while interacting with familiar dogs thus the need to educate people and their children on how to avoid dog bites. It is important to understand that any dog has the capacity to bite and that by understanding the common reasons why dogs bite it is possible to prevent them.
5 main reasons dogs bite
1. Dog possessiveness can cause dog bites. Protection of property is a common issue and “property” in this case can be anything from toy, food, territory or even a human being. Guard dogs and herding breeds tend to be the worst offenders but this behavior can arise in any dog. Start training early to minimize this kind of possessive behavior. Teaching the “Leave it” command works well in preventing toy aggression. Food aggression can be avoided by teaching your dog to wait while you put their food down. Teach them to sit or lie down and then remove their food and then put it back. Approach the food bowl and occasionally add treats to the food so they understand that someone approaching the bowl is not a bad thing. Teach children not to bother dogs that are eating or enjoying a treat such as a bone.
2. Dog fear can cause dog bites. Fear is usually directed towards strangers such as veterinarians and postal workers or in unfamiliar situations. Never approach an unfamiliar dog and teach your children to do the same. Fear bites can occur when a dog is startled at home therefore teach children never to sneak up on a dog or bother a sleeping dog. Early socialization is important so that the young dog is exposed to many different people, animals and situations minimizing the risk of a phobia developing. For example, make your first visit to the vet a simple social visit to get a feel for the clinic and meet the veterinary staff. Leave some treats and a note in the mailbox asking your postal worker to give a treat to your puppy.
3. Dog pain can cause dog bites. Pain can cause the friendliest dog to bite. If your dog has hip dysplasia, severe otitis or any chronic injury, instruct your children to stay away from the sore areas and be gentle handling the dog. If your dog becomes snippy for no reason consider pain as a possible cause and schedule an appointment with your regular veterinarian for a physical.
4. Maternal instincts can cause dog bites. The most well trained dog can become a biter when she has puppies. Be aware of and respect the maternal instinct around a bitch that has whelped recently. Teach children not to approach a young puppy around the mother and use caution yourself when handling puppies. Make sure the mother and puppies have a place where they can feel safe with minimal distraction.
5. Prey drive can cause dog bites. Another instinct to be aware of and is sometimes triggered by running or cycling past a dog resulting in a chase. Be aware of your environment if you are jogging or cycling and if you see a roaming dog try to avoid crossing paths. If a dog does give chase then the best things to do is stop moving and stand tall facing the dog. Be aware of the dog but do not make eye contact which can be seen as a challenge by the dog. They may come up and sniff you but will eventually find you uninteresting and move on to find something else. If a dog knocks you over then curl up in a ball protecting your face hands and neck and be still. Teach children to do the same and set up a mock “stray dog” drill.
Dog Bite Warning Signs
Knowing the common triggers that cause dog bites will empower you to avoid these situations. Dog bites are always preceded by behavior that an astute observer can use as a warning and then take steps to reduce the dog’s stress or fear. Ears are typically pinned back, the fur along their back may stand up and you may be able to see the whites of their eyes. Yawning is not an attempt by the dog to appear casual but to show off their teeth and should be considered a warning sign as well. Non-social “stand-offish” behavior such as freezing in response to a touch or look followed by direct intense eye contact back from the dog is another clear sign that he may bite.
How to Stop Dog Biting from Happening
Dog bite prevention begins at home with your own dog by being a responsible dog owner. If you do not intend to breed your dog then having them spayed or neutered will help decrease the risk of bite related behaviors. Exercise and play with your dog on a regular basis to reinforce the human-animal bond and to expend excess energy that might otherwise be directed towards nervous energy. However, avoid aggressive games such as wrestling and tug of war which can lead to dominance issues. Train your dog well, they should know the basic commands such as sit, stay, come and leave it. Don’t allow your dog to roam free where they can be a danger to other people. Do try to socialize your dog and expose him to many different people and situations but take care not to overwhelm him. Keep your vaccinations up to date for a worst case scenario. In most states a dog can be destroyed if they bite someone and they are not up to date on vaccines. Seek professional help from your veterinarian if your dog shows any signs of aggression. If you have children take the time to educate them on how to act around dogs, what to watch for and what to do if a dog attacks.