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Posted on Fri, May 25, 2012 : 2:30 p.m.

Dog bites are preventable if you understand the causes of them, and know how to stay safe

By Lorrie Shaw


Dogs often bite for one common reason: They are uncomfortable or fearful about a situation that a human has put them in, and the human is not reading the dog's behavior correctly. The dog then reacts.

Lorrie Shaw | Contributor

A frequent conversation that I have with someone who contacts me for the first time to care for their pet involves a lot of dialogue about their dog's behavior, and the better part of it is on the caller's part.

"My dog has been labeled as aggressive toward members of the staff and has been asked not to come back to doggie daycare, but they are fine at home," or, "My pet is uneasy and becomes unmanageable on walks, or around new people or groups of people," are familiar statements.

Some of these pets have snapped at people or even worse — bitten them.

Can you relate?

The truth is, many of my clients have ended up calling on me because they need a caregiver while they are away or a dog walker through the week, and I'm a last resort, of sorts.

Other arrangements have not worked out well because the pooch, regardless of the size or breed, has been deemed 'dominant', and the owners believe they behave that way for various reasons — one that I detest is that the dog doesn't respect the fact that their human is the 'pack leader.'

When I say to a potential client, "I understand, and it's common, but let's talk more about that so we can understand why it might be happening, first. Surely there is a reasonable explanation for the behavior..." they tend to relax a bit after a bit of open and honest discussion about what behaviors that their furry friend is exhibiting, revealing a picture about the pet that they didn't expect.

In most of the cases, the dog's behavior is misunderstood: It just boils down to the fact that some pets haven't had proper socialization early in life, they haven't attained the skills they need to navigate through these type of encounters (with both other pets and humans) and some are actually quite fearful.

The sad reality is that misunderstanding these concepts or writing a dog off as merely 'aggressive' and leaving it at that can lead to situations where things escalate to a point when a dog bites someone — and that's never a good thing.

May 20-27 is Dog Bite Prevention Week, and to highlight that, it only seems fitting to talk about a totally preventable problem that has grown significantly in recent years. One estimate is that 4.7 million dog bites occur each year, and in 1 million of those cases, medical attention is sought.

In a piece by Melissa Bain, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and chief of the Behavior Service at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, she offers some interesting insight into some facts about dog bites that you might find surprising.

  • According to one study, half of children between 4 and 18 years old reported having been bitten by a dog.

  • The vast majority of victims were bitten by a dog that they knew, not a stray dog roaming the streets, contrary to popular belief.

  • Children and seniors are most likely to be bitten.

These statistic speak to me clearly, and illustrate some of my previous points on why most dog bites occur. These situations are preventable, and it comes down to humans (both kids and adults) understanding what facilitates them and how to best deal with a dog who bites.

In a great piece by Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, she offers some sage insight when it comes to dogs who bite.

One point that stands out is that, quite often, a dog is conveying to the human that he is uncomfortable, but said human is not understanding the message. It's up to us to learn the cues that dogs exhibit by way of body language.

This is especially important for kids, since they are those who fall in the demographic of those who are often bitten. So, what factors create these dog bite cases?

Many times, children have not learned how to approach a dog correctly and they don't know how to 'read' what a dog is saying when they communicate that they are not comfortable being approached. Other scenarios include a child approaching a sleeping pet — surprising them — or not understanding how to greet dogs. (Embedded in the text are great video links that you can watch with your children.)

On the other hand, many dogs who bite are fearful. Time and time again, we see in that fearful dogs haven't had proper socialization early in life, and they haven't attained the skills they need to navigate through encounters that they find challenging.

Yin explains this concept in her most recent blog post.

Generally fearful dogs start off by trying to stay away from the things that scare them. But as they are confronted with scary situations repeatedly, they can learn that offense (barking, snapping, biting) is their best defense because it makes the scary people go away.

Fortunately, there are ways to help dogs learn how to navigate through encounters with humans that they find challenging, by way of desensitization and classical counterconditioning (DS/CC). And with some diligence, finesse and patience on the human's part, their dog can behave more confidently when it comes to being social, regardless of the situation.

Yin gives more detail on this and other concepts, such as how canines can be taught to carry out proper replacement behaviors that are disparate with the fearful behavior they have become so familiar with exhibiting, in her blog post, 'Help, My Dog Bites! How to Deal with Dogs Who Bite'.

Excellent resources related to the topic of preventing dog bites are included as well.

I can't deny that some dog bites happen when one encounters an unfamiliar dog who is fearful or aggressive, and Bain details some must-have tips for what to do in a situation like this in her piece, 'Any Dog Can Bite: Strategies to Protect Your Family'.

In reality, all dog bite situations happen because of an oversight on the part of a human. With diligence, proper education and understanding of canine socialization, behavior and body language — and precautions to ensure that dogs are not placed in a situation where they will react by biting — we can keep it from happening.

Lorrie Shaw leads the pets section for Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly and subscribe to's email newsletters.



Mon, May 28, 2012 : 6:04 a.m.

Give me a break. Ann Arbor can't seem to bring themselves to hold pedestrians accountable for looking both ways to cross a street or enforce distracted driving laws and she wants children to become animal behaviorists. How about owners of these dogs being in control at all times. These are animals, they have bad days, they are 1,000 times more sensitive to odors than humans. They may not like the leather jacket you're wearing or your cologne. The way I see it, dog owners have a potentially lethal weapon in their charge, it is their reponsibility to provide the "trigger lock" not everyone else. Lorrie needs some training in responsibility and how to reduce the B. S. because I don't care a twit about how a dog feels, if it's marginally socialized, the owner should lock him up when humans are around if theire's ansy danger. Got it Lorrie?

Lorrie Shaw

Mon, May 28, 2012 : 3:28 p.m.

snapshot, It seems that you've missed the point. The of main premise of this piece is to edify people (all ages) that the vast majority of dog bites that happen are because the person involved most often doesn't respect a dog's space and disregards or doesn't understand body language. The bottom line is that dog bites are totally preventable, and adults and children *can* ensure that. "How about owners of these dogs being in control at all times?", you noted. 'In control' is a two-way street. Of course, dogs should be harnessed, leashed & have self-control in public. But, children & adults alike who rush up & don't bother to ask the person on the other end of the leash if approaching a pet is okay make the error. I see that far too often. I don't see too many strangers approaching each other, say at a park, & being all touchy-feely with each other. It's understood that we humans have an expectation of being afforded personal space and not being manhandled, right? Dogs aren't any different. We can't just expect a dog to tolerate *whatever* we dish out to them by invading their personal space - whether they are on a walk, in public, in a home, etc. - without voicing some sort of displeasure. When that communication is ignored, expect a problem. A dog doesn't need to be 'marginally socialized' to have that happen. While we're on the topic, be assured that both humans & dogs are lethal weapons. We both make the decision on a daily basis not to cause harm, although at any time, we could choose to. (I'll add that the former has hurt far more numbers of the latter species, but that's another topic.) Remembering that the 'trigger lock' on that 'weapon' is to be respectful & kind to animals, and understand what a dog is communicating when they say, "I'm uncomfortable with what you're doing" or "I'm afraid". Any human can be taught to understand that. Another 'trigger lock': Children should never be left alone with a dog, regardl

Soft Paw

Sat, May 26, 2012 : 1:37 p.m.

Never approach a dog on a leash or tied to something and try to pet it. The dog will probably try to defend it's owner/territory. If an unleashed dog approaches it's usually possible to calm it down. Running away is not a good idea as it triggers the hunting instinct.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 1:57 a.m.

Here is one for you, keep your pooch away from my kids! I don't think your doggie is cute and I don't want to risk their face for a poop kiss. Docile or not I don't trust dogs. I don't care if a dog bites me, I'll just kick the thing to the moon, but a dog who bites my children will need to be destroyed and the OWNERS sued for every nickle they're worth and then some. So unless you want to get sued to the hills and your dog put down, KEEP THEM AWAY FROM MY KIDS!

Lorrie Shaw

Sat, May 26, 2012 : 4:30 p.m.

joe.blow, Have you had a negative experience with dogs? I know that many people have, and it's understandable that it leaves one with a general mistrust and disdain for dogs. In the past, I've had experiences with dogs that have been less-than-desirable, even quite frightening. Through clear examination of each situation - devoid of emotion - I was able to see that the fault was either my own or another humans, not the dogs. As GoNavy stated in a comment, (and I did as well in the text of the post) that the majority of instances of dogs-biting-children occurs not because of a loose or vicious dog, but because of the oversight of a human (usually the one in charge of the child). These incidents usually happen in the backyard, in the home etc. When was the last time that you were bitten (and how badly) - and what events immediately led up to the incident? Are you finding instances in your travels when dogs are approaching your children? What is the scenario? And, what is the owner doing? How do you intervene? I'd be interested in reading your response.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 1:57 p.m.

It bears repeating: Children startling dogs is much more prevalent than dogs attacking children. Despite being only 4, my dog has a level of self-control that an 8 year old child does not. Thus, when I'm walking around town, I'll specifically avoid groups of children. Even more bothersome are the parents who let their children wander away. I'm not talking about the sort of child who is old enough to ride a bike away from home without their parents' supervision: I'm talking about a child who is at the age where it would be better off if they were leashed, or strapped into a chair. It's very hard to avoid a curious, unleashed child rushing towards me and my dog while screaming with delight.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 6:12 a.m.

there's a reason leash laws exist, and good owners like me obey them... keep your kids away from my dog.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 2 a.m.



Fri, May 25, 2012 : 10:01 p.m.

My siblings still tease me, 45 years after the fact, about the time I ran to the neighbor's farm dog to hug him. Yep. Lesson learned. Don't startle dogs.


Fri, May 25, 2012 : 7:34 p.m.

I have a very docile dog. He only shows interest when you show interest in him. One piece of advice I can give to adults - and specifically, parents - is ask me first before letting your screaming child run over and attack my dog.

Lorrie Shaw

Sat, May 26, 2012 : 4:07 p.m.

GoNavy: That's a good point. The fact is that kids are attracted to dogs. It's natural for them to want to run up and get to know them. And, quite often they are excited, speaking in excited tones and yes, that can be disconcerting for any dog. I find that most of the time, kids have been taught to ask, and do will approach a dog appropriately. There is always the exception, though. My policy is to never allow anyone to pet my clients - especially children. I will do so with my own dogs, if I'm seeing that the dogs feel like they are okay with it. I mean, we all have our personal space, right? My philosophy is that we're all entitled to that. Thanks for making that very important point.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 6:11 a.m.

Joe I walk my dog through a park daily, I keep him on a leash... if your kid came up to him and got bit then it would be on you.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 3:36 a.m.

Good luck Joe. That dog is on a leash and your human isn't. I think you lose that round. Sorry. Ask away, sue it you like. Sorry you couldn't keep your kid under control.


Sat, May 26, 2012 : 1:58 a.m.

Please don't walk your dog in children's parks, my children are afraid of your monster, if your daughter/son bites my HUMAN child, I will sue you and ask that your dog be put down.