All dogs have teeth, which means every dog has the potential to bite. An estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the US each year, and more than 800,000 people bitten require medical care. May is National Dog Bite Prevention Month, so let’s examine the issue and explore methods to keep you from becoming a statistic.
Children are the most frequent victims of dog bites, and are the group that are injured the most severely when bites occur. Fifty percent of bites involve children under the age of 12, and 82 percent of dog bites treated in the emergency room involve children under the age of 15. Senior citizens are the next group most frequently bitten. Most people are bitten not by stray dogs, but when interacting with a dog they know.
Dogs bite for many reasons, but there are some issues that often result in bites. Many dogs are possessive of things they regard as “theirs” such as toys, food, treats, their own bodies, a specific area or even a person.
Dogs may also bite due to fear. Dogs may be scared in unfamiliar situations, when they are startled at home, or when they feel cornered. Children’s unpredictable sounds and movements, and senior citizens using things such as canes or walkers can often trigger a fear response in a dog.
Pain and illness can cause a dog to bite. Chronic conditions such as hip dysplasia and arthritis can cause a dog to be more likely to bite, as can injuries and sickness. If a dog is hurting or sick, he may become snippy.
Dogs sometimes nip and bite during play. Wrestling, biting and nipping are enjoyable for the dog, but not much fun for the people at the other end of the teeth.
Natural instincts such as herding drive and prey drive can also trigger bites. Herding breeds are notorious for nipping family members and friends as they try to bunch them together into a group. The prey drive may be triggered by movement or sound, such as a baby crying or a jogger or biking going past.
There are steps you can take to keep your dog from becoming a biter. First, choose your dog carefully. If you purchase a dog from a breeder, make sure it is someone who selects dogs for good temperament. If you’re adopting a dog from a shelter or rescue group, find out if the dog has been temperament tested. If you have children, be very cautious about adding a shy or reclusive dog to the family, as these dogs are more likely to be fear biters.
If you get a puppy, socialize him early and often. Prior to completing his vaccinations you need to be cautious about where you take him, focusing on places where you know the vaccination status of the dogs going to that location. After he is fully vaccinated, expose him to lots of situations, people and environments.
Train your dog from the time you bring him home. Teach him basic commands, and get him accustomed to letting you handle his possessions. Teach him to give you his toys when you ask for them, handle him all over his body, and pet him and put your hand in his dish when you feed him. It’s also important that he learn bite inhibition during play.
If your dog shows any signs of biting or aggression, don’t make excuses for him or ignore the behavior. Consult with a dog trainer, animal behaviorist or your veterinarian right away. Such behaviors are always more successfully managed when they first emerge.
When you encounter other dogs, exercise caution. Watch for signs of fear and discomfort, such as a dog who will not make eye contact, tucks his tail, or yawns frequently. Teach your children to receive permission before petting a dog. Do not approach a dog behind a fence or one that is tied, as he may protect his territory.
If faced with a loose dog that appears aggressive, it is crucial that you not panic. Hold very still, wrapping your arms around your body as if giving yourself a big hug. Avoid making eye contact with the dog; do NOT try to “stare him down.” Don’t scream or run. Once the dog moves away, back up slowly to remove yourself from the situation.
Any dog can be dangerous and any dog can bite. Train and socialize your own dog, ask permission before touching or playing with a dog, and be smart. You can do a lot to prevent bites.