If you haven’t already read or heard, this week (the third week of May) is National Dog Bite Prevention week. This is one of my favorite topics to discuss because most dog bites are preventable, so the key to prevention is education. As a dog trainer, one of my primary goals is to educate the public (whether you own a dog not) on how to prevent dog bites.
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year! Whoa! And those are just the reported cases. I have been bitten three times and only needed to report one. The elderly, children and postal carriers are the most frequent victims of dog bites. Another interesting fact: of the reported cases, 50% of bite victims were male.
I was a child the first time I was bitten. Children are the most common demographic to be affected by a dog bite and are more likely to be severely injured. By nature, children do all the wrong things to dogs (despite good intentions). Also, it’s common for dogs to be uncomfortable around kids. These two factors already set our dogs up for failure. So what can we do to prevent bites from occurring? First, we need to educate kids on what is appropriate behavior around and towards dogs. Do not let your child climb all over a dog, hug them face-to-face, pet roughly, run around or in front of a dog, or have staring contests with dogs. Socialize your dog to kids at an early age. Supervise children and dogs when together. And most importantly, know the signs of a dog who is about to bite. For more detailed tips, check out my previous blog post, https://puppupandawaysa.com/2016/05/01/safety-for-the-shmoopies/.
Here’s a fact that many people don’t understand or believe: EVERY dog can bite. It doesn’t matter how sweet your dog is, or whether he’s ever bitten before. Every dog has the tools to bite – strong jaws, sharp teeth and powerful instincts. Even our toothless friends can bite, although it may not result in injury. Biting is not an ability possessed only by “aggressive” dogs. The action can be displayed in defense or as a result of pain. In fact, most dog bites come from a dog the victim is familiar with. I was very familiar with all three of my assailants!
When dogs bite adults, it is most often the result of the adult reaching for a collar. Think about it. Dogs aren’t born wearing a collar and humans don’t focus much attention on collars. But in an emergency (your dog is about to bolt out the door or jump out of the car), what’s the one thing you reach for? The collar. And in an emergency, you may reach out with some sort of startling urgency. Well guess what? If you startle your pup enough, he just may bite – it’s not aggression, it’s instinct! So grab your dog’s collar often and pair it with treats or something pleasant. Also, don’t only grab your pup’s collar to lead him into a long stay in the crate. He will very quickly learn to avoid your outreached hand. Furthermore, teach your dog a targeting trick. Teaching your dog to high five or touch his nose to your hand is a great way to associate the hand with fun and delicious treats.
I took a pet safety and CPR class recently (I’ll post about it soon) and one thing we learned was “ANY animal that is in pain or about to be moved into pain can and will bite.” Yes, even your own beloved, gentle dog. If there is a medical emergency in which you may have to move an injured dog, please be extremely careful. Once again, it is only instinct for a dog to feel the need to protect himself while in pain. Learn how to assemble an emergency muzzle – something you also learn in a pet safety class.
I get a lot of calls about “aggressive” dogs. But once we’ve had the initial consultation, it often turns out that the aggression is simply the result of being scared. Most aggressive dogs are just anxious, uncomfortable, scared dogs. This is the case with my chiweenie, Faye. Faye is the sweetest, most snuggly thing… but only if she knows you really well. If you’re a new person, she’ll bark until your ears bleed. If you continue to get closer to her, she’ll growl at you and if you attempt to touch her, she would bite you. She’s even drawn blood a couple of times. I’ll go into more detail on how to socialize a kiddo who already has these fears in a later post, but the best plan of action is to do early socialization during puppyhood if you can.
If you have a puppy who is 8 weeks to 4 months of age, get him or her enrolled in a puppy class. Be sure to do your research on the facility – it needs to be clean and have appropriate cleaning protocol since your pup may not be fully vaccinated. Unfortunately, there are some vets who discourage their clients from getting involved in a puppy class, but this may do more harm than good. Vets are understandably concerned about the spread of infectious diseases, but in fact, behavioral issues (ones that could have been prevented with early socialization) are the number one cause of death in dogs younger than 3 years of age. So get your puppy around people of all sizes and ethnicities – men, women, children, tall, short, thin and wide. Think also about what the people wear, like glasses, sunglasses, hats, beanies, beards, big jackets, hoodies, backpacks, boots. Don’t forget about other accessories such as bikes, walkers, or wheelchairs. If you can, get around people in uniform, like police officers, firefighters, or the poor mailman. Pair each greeting with treats and lots of fun.
Most importantly, know the signs and cues a dog gives when anxious or afraid. There is usually a growl before a bite but there are lots of other signals even before that. If the dog is backing away or getting super low to the ground, head hanging low with tail between the legs, he is saying unequivocally that he is uncomfortable. More subtle signs are pressed back ears, avoiding eye contact, panting when not hot, yawning when not tired, and very quick lick lips with the tip of the tongue. Unless it’s an emergency, don’t approach this dog. The more obvious signs that we recognize are growling and/or showing teeth. If it gets to this point, please don’t approach any further. And for goodness sake, don’t take it personally! When working with Faye, we encountered many people who would either pine and coo over her saying “it’s ok, it’s ok” or feel they would need to assert their power over her as “alpha.” Neither of these approaches are appropriate. She is scared! Your constant approach, despite your sweet tone and words, makes the situation worse. She wants you to retreat, not get closer. And she’s not displaying these behaviors to make you mad or to be dominant over you. That’s the last thing she’s thinking about. Many, if not all, of these signs are displayed before resorting to a bite. If you understand how to read and react to these warnings, you won’t get bitten. If you have a dog like Faye, please seek help from a certified professional trainer – I’d be happy to help! Even if you’re not the one on the receiving end of the bite you can still help prevent it by knowing how to quickly and effectively evaluate and manage the situation.
Talking about dog bites, and coming to terms with the fact that our dogs could conceivably bite someone, is scary. We never want to think about our precious furbaby ever hurting anyone, especially young members of the family. But the reality is that they are animals with animal behaviors and instincts. Keeping your pet safe and comfortable and knowing how to handle whatever “hairy” situation you find yourself in could save a life.