How Not to Say “Bite Me”: Avoiding Dog Bites
By Susan Garlinghouse DVM
This is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, so let’s talk about how to avoid being either the owner or victim of dog bites. According to the Centers of Disease Control, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year, with 1 in 5 (that’s over 800,000) requiring medical attention. The most common victims are young children and the elderly, and most are bitten during everyday activities by a dog familiar to them.
Any dog can bite if provoked, regardless of size, age, breed or gender. Usually, dogs bite as a reaction—either out of fear, from pain, to protect their territory or possessions, or during play that gets out of hand.
As a pet owner, it’s important to socialize puppies early on, exposing them to new people and experiences on a regular basis, with plenty of positive reinforcement for good behavior. Play-biting is never ‘cute’ and should always be gently but consistently discouraged. Playing tug-of-war and wrestling should likewise be avoided, at least until the puppy has a strong foundation understanding acceptable behavior.
Puppy training classes are a great way to interact with others in a controlled setting. Dogs adopted at an older age also benefit from obedience classes to teach them to look to their owner for guidance and protection rather than taking matters into their own hands (or paws). The more your dog is introduced to potentially scary scenarios and taught to remain calm, the better. Regardless of how well socialized your own dog is, always keep them on a leash in public. This ensures your dog is under control and better protected if the unexpected happens.
Learn to Read the Signposts of Potential Dog Bites
Be aware of canine body language and situations where dogs might feel threatened or territorial. Never pet an unfamiliar dog without the owner’s permission, reach over a fence, into a vehicle or where the dog might feel cornered or fearful. Don’t try to take away a toy or food, and always be careful around puppies if their mom is acting protective or anxious.
A dog’s body language can tell you how they are feeling. A friendly dog open to interaction will hold its ears up, tail low but not tucked, and wagging its entire length. The head and body will be at a relaxed, normal level and he will readily make eye contact with you. The mouth will be relaxed and slightly open, with the tongue exposed.
A fearful, anxious dog’s body language will attempt to evade direct contact. He will avoid eye contact (glancing at you from the corner of the eye), attempt to turn away or escape, and the body will be tense and slightly hunched, with ears down against the head. The tail will be low or under the belly, and even if the tip is wagging just a tiny bit, don’t take this as an open invitation to interact. Yawning and licking the lips are also signs of stress, not sleepiness.
An overtly dominant-aggressive dog is more obvious—-growling or barking continuously, or in rapid strings with a few pauses, all mean, “Stranger danger!”. The head and hackles are raised and tense, the body directly faces the perceived threat, and the tail is raised and stiff. The mouth, nose and lips are tense and slightly wrinkled, indicating a potential dog bite. Don’t approach this dog or let your own dog approach!
Just like people, dogs will use lots of body language to communicate how they’re feeling and whether they are open to making new friends, or not. For more resources understanding how to approach dogs safely for children click here.