“That dog is going to bite you,” I calmly said to the woman standing near me. She was concentrating on talking to the dog’s owner while reaching down absently to pet the dog. I could see the dog was being super patient, lifting its lip and showing teeth repeatedly. I repeated my warning. The third time she heard me, looked down and said, “Oh!”
What a good dog, I thought.
Not all dogs show such restraint, however.
May 15 to 21 is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. Almost a million children and adults seek medical attention for dog bites each year. Tragically, according to a number of researchers, most of the bites could have been prevented. Knowledge and, most important, good skills when interacting with dogs can minimize risks.
Can you quickly list the scenarios most likely to elicit a bite? What skills do you practice and teach children? How frequently do you take time to socialize your dog?
Accurate dog bite statistics are notoriously hard to pin down. Seeking to understand the causes of child-oriented dog aggression, one research project examined the attitudes and knowledge of parents and caretakers. Too often it found “that dog owners frequently had only limited knowledge of dog behavior and often were unaware of factors that increased the risk of dog bites to children.” Article
In this column I’ll list the three dog bite scenarios and then make suggestions to help dog owners take preventive action.
Three High Bite Risk Situations
Most people, including children, are bitten by dogs familiar to them. Two common bite scenarios are resource guarding and social interactions. Too often behavioral cues given by the dog to stop an interaction or claim possession of a resource are misinterpreted or missed, particularly by children.
A dog is resource guarding when it exhibits threatening or harmful behavior around its toys or food. Beds and couches should be considered a resource. Walking by or lying down next to a resting dog, pulling or pushing it off its bed, even inadvertently surprising, stepping or falling on a dog can elicit an aggressive response.
Another high bite risk scenario includes both “benign” and painful interactions. Hugging, kissing, reaching out to pet and leaning over are considered benign; the human has no intent to harm and the interaction is not painful. When the interaction causes pain either deliberately or inadvertently, perhaps pulling hair or punishing the dog, the bite risk increases. As well old dogs and those in failing health might more easily react due to pain.
A third type of bite occurs when faced with an unfamiliar dog on or near its property. Adults and children will be at greater risk if they misread the dog’s behavior or act in an unsafe manner..
Now let’s look at a few bite prevention suggestions. As with most encounters being forewarned opens our awareness of possible danger as well as opportunities for learning.
How to Lower Bite Risks
- Children should not go near dogs while they are eating, chewing on treats or playing with toys. Resting dogs and their beds may need to be moved out of family rooms. Using reward-based methods teach your dog to tolerate adults and children in these high risk situations. Physical punishment and confrontational communication are more likely to elicit aggression.
- Show children how to interact safely and kindly with dogs. Discourage hugging and kissing. Many dogs tolerate these actions from humans, but some don’t. Learn the signals that a dog doesn’t welcome close physical contact. Don’t push it.
- To prevent aggression toward unfamiliar people, confine your dog safely on your property unless you can supervise interactions. Teach children to “be a tree” (still, tall, quiet) if a dog starts to run toward them.
- Anticipate high risk situations. If your dog is worried or over-stimulated, intervene quickly to defuse the situation. Become skilled in your interactions with dogs and teach others. Make sure your dog’s training and social skills match your social demands.
Rather than assume a bite won’t happen, it is always safer to assume it could. Sufficient dog owner knowledge and safe dog-human interaction skills are the keys to prevention.