Most people fear dog bites at a primal level. Yet, somehow, dogs exist peacefully in our world, at least for the most part. Prevent dog bites to keep both your family and your dog safe.
A report from the CDC suggests that over 4 million people are bitten each year in the United States, and about 20% of those dog bites result in medical treatment. However, only about fifty people die each year from dog bites, with most of those deaths in children under 5 years of age.
Statistically, dogs bite men and boys more often than women and girls (except the elderly, which makes sense as women statistically live longer). Most fatalities occur with dogs that live in the home, though some of those fatalities happen in the dog’s home, not the victim’s home.
So why do dogs bite people? What can we do to prevent our dog from becoming a scary statistic?
Why Dogs Bite People
Many factors come into play when dogs bite. However, the root cause of every bite is some form of stress on the dog’s psyche. Happy, well-socialized, well-bred, and healthy dogs rarely bite.
Fear makes sense. Dogs defend themselves when they think something will hurt them or take things away from them.
But what happens when the dog fears something that isn’t going to hurt it? Some dogs react violently to these irrational fears. Maybe the dog doesn’t know the veterinarian is trying to help, or maybe they genuinely fear the mailman.
Other dogs have a firm sense of boundaries, and react aggressively when someone tries to cross their self-imposed boundary. Sometimes, this is a good thing. It might be a burglar, or a crazy ex.
But usually, a dog reacting with territorial aggression is doing so because they don’t trust their owner to enforce safe boundaries. What’s that about trust? Yep. The dog fears that the owner is letting in bad guys. (There’s that fear word again.)
Many dogs that bite do so out of possessiveness. They have something, and don’t want to share it. It might be stolen garbage, it might be a toy–but they are biting because they don’t want to share.
Why don’t they want to share? Again, they don’t trust their owner. They fear they won’t get the item back, or that they won’t get any more food. (Fear, again.)
Dogs will react when they are in pain. Just like you might be short-tempered when you’re hurt, so are they. But dogs can’t tell us when they hurt, so we have to figure it out through their actions.
But in a nutshell, almost all dog bites happen because the dog doesn’t trust people. This lack of trust causes an enormous amount of stress.
Dogs exist as natural followers. They have been bred for thousands of years to trust and follow the direction of their owner. When they don’t feel as though they have someone to look to for direction, they take it upon themselves to make decisions.
And those decisions are poorly made, because they’ve never had to do it before. Just like what would happen if you put your 4 year old in charge of the grocery shopping.
Some bites are acceptable. Police dogs learn that biting is a great game that they must win. Other dogs do bite defending their home, but it’s acceptable. Their purpose is defending livestock or the homestead.
Preventing Dog Bites
Since stress causes most preventable or unacceptable dog bites, it’s important to reduce stress. Most of these techniques prove effective no matter the age of the dog. However, it’s a lot easier to create a permanently happy dog from a puppy, than it is to de-stress an adult dog.
Signs of Stress
Watch your dog carefully for signs of stress. Your dog should be relaxed, with loose muscles, and shouldn’t freeze. If your dog starts freezing or tensing up, crate him. He’ll learn that you’ll protect him, and he’ll also have time to de-stress. This way he won’t feel the need to escalate his behavior.
If your dog ever growls, snaps, or shows his teeth, immediately put him in his crate and leave him there until guests leave. Do not scold him–he gave plenty of warnings that he was stressed before he got to that point, and you don’t want him to feel like he can’t warn you without getting in trouble. However, he is absolutely warning you that if something doesn’t give, he’s going to hurt someone. Listen to him, and get him out of that situation.
Socialize Your Dog Constantly
Socialization is extremely important. As soon as your puppy has finished their shots and received the all-clear from your veterinarian and breeder, start socialization.
A well-socialized dog is comfortable so long as they are with their owner. This doesn’t mean that they obnoxiously approach every stranger looking for a handout, though it’s obviously better than the dog cowering. Take your puppy or dog every single place you possibly can. Most home improvement stores allow dogs, and they can go to the park too.
You don’t want to teach them that everyone has food for them (or they’ll become obnoxious) but you also want to teach them that people aren’t to be feared. So they have to spend a lot of time with strangers to realize nothing bad will happen.
Socialization at Home
Your dog is awesome out in public, but some dogs with territorial aggression become much more assertive at home. They’re angels in public, because nothing belongs to them or their person. At home, they stress out because people are in their space.
When guests are over, expect your dog to behave or put him in his crate. (Don’t allow guests to ever approach him in his crate. It should be his safe space, and he should never feel stress about the crate.)
Don’t allow your dog to sit on the furniture next to a guest, or sit in a guest’s lap. It leads them to believe that they “own” the guest, and also puts them closer to the guest’s face in case they do bite. It also helps them believe they are equal with the guest, because guests often don’t know how to put a dog in it’s place without causing a confrontation.
Basically, don’t set your dog up to be in a position where he might think he needs to bite. Keep guests away from his crate and food bowl. Don’t let children hang on him or play with his toys. If you can’t keep guests from bothering him, crate him safely away from the guests.
Preventing Dog Bites Around Food
Most dogs that bite do so around their food or treats.
Teaching dogs to relax around food takes just a few steps, and when done consistently most dogs come around in a month or two.
Start by walking past your dog’s bowl as he eats, and drop a small piece of hot dog or other smelly treat in the bowl. Soon, he’ll learn that you only walk past to give him better stuff.
Start getting closer and closer to the bowl as you add the treat. Soon he’ll accept you putting your hands right in the bowl to add a treat. Once you can touch his face, start asking him to back off for a second and remove his head. Don’t move the bowl–just use the smelly treat to get him to pick his head up out of the bowl.
Once he backs up reliably, you can start messing with the bowl. Make sure to practice this technique whenever he has a toy as well, or he’ll keep guarding toys. Remember that every time you mess with his bowl, you should give it back to him with better stuff in it.
It’s my firm belief that all pet owners should spend a year or so going to classes at an Obedience Training Club.
The members of Obedience Training Clubs usually compete in obedience and agility trials. Many breeders join O.T.C.’s, and for the most part the membership is extremely experienced in dog behavior problems. While the classes teach skills like walking on a loose leash, you’ll receive an amazing amount of advice.
An OTC can help recognize early signs of aggression, and teach techniques to prevent dog bites.
How to Prevent Dog Bites in the Moment
Despite all these preventative measures, sometimes situations happen and you need to prevent a dog bite in the moment. Maybe your dog is already tensed up or snarling. Or maybe you know that your dog is in a situation you can’t avoid.
Use these steps to avoid a bite after your dog has already indicated that he is upset.
Give the Dog Space
When your dog is stressed, don’t push him. When he freezes or growls, even if he’s broken the rules, take a step back.
Usually this happens because your dog stole food or garbage. If the food isn’t dangerous for him, give him space and prevent him from stealing more. However, if the food is dangerous, you may have to escalate the situation and take it away from him.
When he’s in a place that you can’t allow him to stay, try sending him to his crate. He’ll take his valuable with him.
Offer a Trade
If he has something that you don’t want him to have, you can try trading him for something better.
For example, maybe he has some fried chicken, which is super dangerous. You might be able to convince him to trade his chicken for a hot dog. Use the bait to get the dog to move away from the dangerous object.
Use the bait to get him to move into his crate, which will allow you to clean up any mess before he returns.
Remove Him from the Space
Sometimes dogs become possessive over a space. For example, they might not be willing to move off the couch or might get under the table and bite feet and legs. Prevent dog bites in these situations by redirecting the dog.
Crate training is critical in these cases. Once your dog is trained to go in his crate, you can order him off the couch and into his crate.
What if your dog isn’t crate trained? Use bait, like a piece of hot dog, to get him off the furniture. Once your dog is off the furniture, snap a leash on to his collar. (Note: Do NOT leave a leash on a dog unsupervised.) If he returns to his spot, tell him to get down, and use your leash to remove him when he refuses.
Any time you ask your dog to do something, and he does–even if he does because you physically forced him–reward him immediately. Tell him what a good dog he is, and if you have treats offer them. Make sure he thinks that doing what he’s told is the right decision.
Dogs that Guard People
Some dogs guard their person. This is extremely common in toy breeds. They sit on their person 24/7 and go after anyone that comes near their person. Prevent dog bites in this situation by re-training the human to respond to their signals.
This is extremely damaging to a dog’s psyche. The dog sees literally everyone as a threat. The dog spends their entire life terrified of being separated from their person, instead of being well-adjusted.
Luckily, this one is pretty easy to resolve.
Any time the dog displays any stress signals at all, they should be sent to their crate to calm down. Stress signals include freezing, placing themselves between their person and anyone else, moving to the person’s lap, snarling, growling, or staring.
Does your dog bite?
What steps have you taken to prevent dog bites?
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