May 15 – 21 is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. According to the Center for Disease Control, about 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. That’s about 500 people per hour, or one dog bite every 7 seconds.
Dog bites are frightening, painful, and dangerous. They can require medical treatment ranging from basic wound care to reconstructive surgery, as well as medicine to prevent or fight infection. It’s just as dangerous for the dog, as dogs who bite are often prime candidates for euthanasia.
Fortunately, many dog bites are preventable. What can you do to decrease the chances that you’ll be one of those unfortunate people who make up the statistics? Read on for a few tips to help keep you, your friends and family (especially your children) safe.
Understand that any dog can bite. A question people often ask when being introduced to a new dog is “Does s/he bite?” The right answer is ALWAYS “Yes.” All dogs can and will bite if provoked enough. Here are a few of the prime reasons dogs will bite.
- Self defense – Dogs may bite when they feel threatened. Given the choice, many dogs would prefer to get out of a scary situation than hold their ground. But if cornered, any dog can bite if they feel they are in danger. Notice it’s a matter of how the dog feels, not what you or I might intend. I may just want to offer a friendly scratch behind the ears. To the dog, however, my hand reaching toward his head might seem like I’m preparing to grab or hit him. When afraid of being captured or hurt, a bite makes a lot of sense from the dog’s point of view.
- Protecting their stuff – Maybe it’s a comfy spot on the sofa. Maybe it’s a prized chew toy or food bowl. Maybe it’s a beloved family member being approached by someone the dog doesn’t know or recognize. If a dog feels that something belonging to him is at risk, there’s a good chance a bite is in the offing.
- Stressed to the max – A good way to understand dog bites is in terms of stress. According to behavior expert Jean Donaldson, it doesn’t have to be just one thing that causes a bite. It can be the cumulative effect of a few or many stressful experiences. Suppose a dog had its tail caught in the door earlier that day and it still hurts. And suppose yesterday he had to go to the vet’s office (which he’s afraid of) and get a vaccination (which also hurt). And suppose there’s a storm approaching and the same dog is afraid of thunder. And suppose a child visiting the home comes over and reaches to pick up a favorite chew toy the dog is enjoying. Any of these stressors in and of itself might not be enough to provoke a bite, but taken together, the dog is stressed out enough that the worry of losing a valued chew toy is the last straw. From a dog’s point of view, a bite is never unjustified.
Out of the blue? Not so much! In addition to being stressed out in ways we might not appreciate, dogs often give “go away” signals we might not know how to recognize. There can be an array of warning signs a dog will give in an attempt to get someone to back off so that she won’t need to bite. Turning away, growling and or/barking, a hard stare, stiff body language, a curled lip to expose her teeth, a tail high-and-waving or low and tucked, ears pricked forwards or held flat against the head, hair standing up on the shoulders and back, any of these and more can be signals that a dog is not feeling friendly at that moment. Particularly about the tail, realize that merely “wagging her tail” is not necessarily a sign of being friendly. It has to be interpreted in context of other body language and the environment. If a dog’s overall body language isn’t soft, loose and wiggly, assume the dog is not interested in making your acquaintance and let it be.
Help your own dog be a safe citizen in the neighborhood. Make sure Rover is always confined securely so he can’t go out for a stroll on his own. When out and about, have him on a secure flat buckle collar or a Martingale collar or harness if he’s prone to becoming an escape artist. Socialize him by providing lots of pleasant experiences such as tasty treats, praise and opportunities to play tug or fetch (from a safe distance and on a long line) nearby playgrounds, passing traffic, bicycles and skateboards, other dogs, baby strollers, people in uniforms, people using walkers, etc., etc. Also, be prepared to tell people not to approach your dog if you know he isn’t comfortable with new people. Say “Stop!” Then, once they have stopped, if you want to you can offer a brief polite word explaining why, and move on.
Give a dog her space. If you aren’t familiar with a certain dog, don’t approach it. It’s unfair and unrealistic to expect all dogs to accept the approach and handling of all people. If you want to meet a dog, first ask the owner’s permission. If you get the go-ahead, then allow the dog to decide – stay back a few steps and allow the dog to approach you. Turn your body and face away from the dog at a 45 to 90 degree angle. Allow the dog to sniff you. If she has soft, squinty eyes, a relaxed and smiley looking mouth, and loose, wiggly body language, without surprising her let your hand gently brush her chest or side (don’t reach over the back or head, don’t hug). If she responds with some easy body contact, try a gentle stroke to gauge her comfort with being touched. If she seems at all hesitant or worried, allow her to opt out of the introduction, or you can gently move away.
If a dog approaches you and you’d prefer not to meet, don’t run away – at best you’re likely to look like something fun to chase and play with, maybe roughly. At worst, you might look like prey for the dog to hunt and bring down. Rather, be as still as you can, remain calm and quiet, staring off in the distance, offering no eye contact, feet together and arms folded. If a dog charges you, try to get inside a house or car if you have time. You may be able to climb up on a car. If someone is nearby, yell for assistance. If you have to fight, do so. If you can, use a nearby stick, an umbrella, anything to ward off the dog. Use your arms to protect your face and neck. Curl up to protect your abdomen.
There is a lot more to share than one blog entry can provide. For more information, check out some resources by Dr. Sophia yin at the websites linked below.
There are also more resources at doggonesafe.com
You can even download a pamphlet with child safety tips for parents…