I originally published this article over a year ago but I’ve been hearing some dog bite stories lately so I thought it was time for a reminder.
When I first adopted my dog, Jake, he had been living in the woods since birth. No one taught him bite inhibition in play or frustration and he bit me – a lot. He weight fifty pounds and his bites hurt. He wasn’t malicious and could have done a lot more damage. He didn’t want to hurt me, he just didn’t know how to communicate with me, and since he was my first dog, I didn’t know how to communicate with him effectively either. Eight years later, all that has changed. We can read each other’s body language very well and Jake hasn’t bitten me since that challenging first six months together.
In working on my relationship and training with Jake, I’ve studied, practiced and learned a lot about what makes dogs bite and what you can do to avoid being bit. I’m even becoming certified as a dog bite safety educator so I can help even more people learn the lessons I had to learn the hard way.
Why is this so important?
Dog bites are dangerous.
There are approximately 4.5 million dog bites in the U.S. each year and, while most dog bites cause no or only minor injuries, 77% of dog bite injuries that do occur are to the face of children under ten years old. On top of that, in 75% of dog bites, the dog belongs to the victim’s family or friends and take place in the victim’s home or the home of a friend. As we talk more about why dog bites happen, you’ll understand why this is the case.
In 2016, there were 41 fatal dog bites/attacks in the U.S. That may seem like a low number compared to the total number of bites, and it is, but when you consider that the odds of the deceased person being an intruder who broke into your house are only 1 in 177 while the odds of the deceased being a child are 7 out of 10, you see that most of those deaths are to children, likely under 10 years of age. That is completely unacceptable considering the vast majority of dog bites are preventable.
So yes, I’m on a mission to teach people how to avoid getting bit by dogs.
Why do dogs bite people?
Well, it’s for more or less the same reason you might bite someone.
Dogs bite as a reaction to stress
Dogs bit to protect themselves, their puppies or their people
Dogs bite when they feel scared or threatened
Dogs bite when they are sick or in pain
Dogs bite out of reflex when startled
Dogs bite because they are guarding their resources (food, toys, territory, people)
Dogs bite when they get overstimulated during play
Why are children the most likely to get bit?
Because of this:
Kids are grabby and like to stick their faces and fingers close to people and things they love. Human families cuddle children and smooch them. Children cuddle their stuffed toys. People tend to adopt this same practice with dogs and not all dogs can tolerate it. The picture above might seem adorable, but the dog is showing all the signs that he is stressed and could bite. Where is he most likely to bite this little girl? That’s right, the face, and she will never see it coming.
Unless they have significant behavioral/emotional issues, most dogs do not want to bite. That is why the warnings exist. Let’s break down the warning signs so you can recognize them for yourself. Remember though, dogs aren’t a textbook, not all dogs will show all warning signs in sequence or at all. If a dog has been punished for growling (one type of warning) in the past, he may just skip that step and go straight to a bite. Before you ever let your child around a dog, yours, a friend’s or a stranger’s, teach them how to safely approach dogs and know the animal’s signs of stress. That said, the common warning signs a dog gives before biting are:
Holding the tail down (especially between the legs) or stiff and straight up. Contrary to popular belief, a wagging tail is not always a sign of a friendly dog. You want to observe the dog’s body language as a whole to ascertain the meaning of different postures.
Having a wide-eyed stare with the whites of the eyes showing (aka “whale eye”)
Ears pulled back and laid flat against the head (this is not always easy to see if the dog has long floppy ears or their ears have been cropped)
The dog turns his head and even his body away from you, avoiding eye contact. This is the pose people often interpret as “guilt.” It is a form of appeasement in which the dog is indicating they are fearful or nervous and asking you to back away and/or not harm them.
Having a furrowed brow just like an upset person might
The dog may yawn and/or lick their lips or nose
Having a tense and tightly closed jaw
Having an overall stiffened posture and tense muscles
This image shows a breakdown of some of these warning signs:
If you see any of these signs -or even think you see them – with a dog you are interacting with, take a step back and assess the situation. As you are learning to read your and other people’s dogs’ body language better, here are some basic tips you can implement right away so you don’t put yourself or your children in a position to get bitten by a dog.
Don’t assume all dogs are friendly, the same or like the dogs you know. Even dogs you pet one day may not be in the mood another day. Just like people, dogs have their emotional ups and downs. This is where watching for the warning signs will come in handy.
Spay/neuter your pets, especially male dogs. Most dogs that bite are NOT fixed and 92% of fatal dog attacks involve male dogs, 94% of whom were not neutered.
Don’t approach a lone animal even if it looks friendly. Leashed dogs can be unpredictable due to stress and fear. Chained dogs are much more likely to bite.
Always ask permission to pet someone’s dog and don’t be offended if the person says no. Not all dogs are comfortable around strangers or their dog may not be feeling well. Allow the dog to sniff and smell you before you attempt to pet it. If you are holding out your hand for them to sniff, go under their chin vs. over their head which can make the dog think you may strike him.
Take direction from the dog’s owner as to how they like to be pet. My dog will turn his bum toward anyone who wants to pet him because he loves a good butt scratch more than anything in the world.
If a strange dog approaches you, don’t run or make loud noises. Breathe and stay calm. Keep arms crossed or at your sides and turn your back on the dog. You can also say “No” in a stern voice (but don’t shout). If the dog stops approaching, you can walk calmly away. Running and high pitched noises can either cause the dog’s prey drive to kick in and chase you or make the dog think it’s a game and chase you. Even if the dog just wants to play, you can get knocked down and possibly injured.
Never hug a dong you don’t know. Most dogs don’t like to be hugged by strangers. Many dogs don’t like to be hugged at all.
Don’t run up and hug a friend in the street if they are with a dog that doesn’t know you. The dog may perceive this as a threat to their person.
Don’t disturb a dog while they’re eating, sleeping or taking care of their puppies. Some dogs are OK with this and some are not so err on the side of caution. You do not want to find out a new mom doesn’t want you to touch her puppies because she bit you.
Don’t go onto property where there is an unsupervised dog even if you know the dog as they can be quite territorial. A fellow pet sitter in one of the groups I belong to forgot this for just a moment, put her hand through a friend’s car window to pet a dog she knew well and got bit by her trouble. Some dogs can be very territorial of their cars with or without their people in them.
The final two tips are the most important to remember:
The absolute best way to be safe around dogs is to use your common sense, stay calm and control your movements and the situation. You do this by adhering to the suggestions above.
NEVER EVER EVER leave small children unsupervised with a dog, even your own dog, until you know with certainty how your animal will react in every situation.
Dogs are awesome and most dogs never bite anyone but it is still important to be aware of the signs and protect yourself. As more people have dogs and more places become dog friendly, the more interactions people are going to have with dogs. Let’s build strong and positive relationships!
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