Dog bites are preventable if you understand the causes of them, and know how to stay safe
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 AnnArbor.com. Catch her daily dog walking and pet sitting adventures or email her directly and subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.