Dog Bite Prevention

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

How do we know when a dog is likely to bite? How often do dogs bite and whom? And how can we not get bitten? Dog bites can happen any day of the week in the year and any dog can bite. The second week of April is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, dedicated to increasing our knowledge at being better at preventing dog bites. There are over 43 million households owning at least one dog in the United States and over 66% of those households consider those dogs members of the family according to the Humane Society. In our dog loving society approximately 4.5 million dog bites happen each year according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) with children between the ages of 5 to 9 being the most at risk. Two thirds of the children bitten are boys and men are more likely to be bitten than are women.

The numbers are impressive and as sources such as The National Canine Research Council and the ASPCA reminds us, need to be put in perspective children are twelve times more likely to be hurt by a car than be bitten by a dog or seven times more likely to be hurt by a sharp object than be bitten by a dog or one and half times more likely to be hurt by a bicycle than be bitten by a dog. Further, with 75 million pet dogs in the United States in 2007 -2008 and 400,000 bite injuries to children the overall bite rate is extremely low.

A popular misconception is that stray dogs are doing the biting. The fact is, children are more likely to be bitten by a dog they know, in their own home. The CDC notes that the likelihood increases with the greater number of dogs in the home. What is most important to note is that most, if not all, dog bites can be avoided. Dog bite prevention starts with education for children and adults regarding appropriate handling, training and how dogs communicate with humans along with adequate and appropriate supervision of children around dogs. Understanding why dogs bite, canine body language and the appropriate human responses can benefit our health and our dogs’ welfare as well.

Learning canine body language begins with learning that dog body language is not human body language. Dog body language has its own unique vocabulary to communicate emotions and intent. While humans may value eye contact, hand shaking or hugging as greeting behavior for dogs a sidelong glance, lowered head and a good butt sniff are a more appropriate way to say hello. A jubilant dog greeting consists of jumping, definitely not a welcome human behavior and a fearful or aggressive dog warns off another with a whole set of behaviors that communicate discomfort. Identifying what a dog is saying is what keeps everyone comfortable and safe. So how are we doing? A 2010 study in the Journal of Nursing, Social Studies and Public Health found that children correctly identify a dog’s emotions on average 17% of the time. Recognizing fearfulness in dogs was accurately reported by 41% of girls and 29% of boys studied. Adults may not be doing a much better job at reading their dogs than children. Dog expert, Stanley Coren’s viral post on not hugging your dog looked at a random sample of 250 photos posted on the internet of people hugging dogs. Researchers found that in 81.6% of the photos dogs displayed at least one sign of discomfort such as turning the head away, lip licking, yawning, lowered ears or “whale eye” -where the white of the eye is visible at the corners or rim. Coren points out that the posters of the photos are most probably posting proof of their happy and close relationships with their dogs but how close and how happy?

Dogs, like many other animals, manage conflict with highly ritualized display signals that demonstrate or promote deference. Minor signs of stress such as lip licking or yawning out of the context of being hungry or tired and or looking away are strong indicators that what is happening to the dog is not what they would like to be happening. Signs of increasing stress such as whale eye or round eye, creeping, trying to leave, tucked tail, weight back, rigid body tension and raised hackles are definite calls for more space. Because fighting is costly for animals biologically, and can result in injury there is a progression of responses to promote distance and deference in response to stress with many animals. Getting away from an antagonistic individual is always a safer and healthier strategy for both parties. Pressing the dog increases the signs given, for example, alarm barking, growling, a rigid and tense body with the weight carried forward, stiff and wagging tail. These are more severe warnings. (Continue Reading Below)