an ounce of understanding: ways to prevent dog bites

Posted by Dr. Nina Mantione on Jul 31 2012

Having a dog is one of the joys in life. Living with dogs can make us healthier, happier and maybe even longer-lived. But there is no denying that dog-inflicted bite wounds are a significant issue in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, and that one in five of those people who are bitten will need medical attention. Children are at the highest risk for being the victim of a dog bite.

Preventing dog bites is something every dog owner should educate themselves on, because dog bites can be costly both financially and emotionally. The financial liability of a dog bite nearly always rests on the dog’s owner, and dog bites take an emotional toll on the victim of the bite and the dog’s family. I will never forget listening to a young man cry as he told the story about how his dog bit a woman in the face, causing her to need extensive plastic surgery.

The good news is that most dogs will never bite anyone. The vast majority of dogs are well adjusted, loving and tolerant, but there is a small subset of dogs who may be more likely to bite.

Dogs may bite for several different reasons. Some can be aggressive when protecting their territory or their food. There are certainly some dog breeds that may be more likely to bite. Breeds that are bred or trained for protection may be more reactive and may have increased risk of inappropriate aggression. Intact dogs (those not spayed or neutered) can also have a higher incidence of inappropriate aggression. Some dogs can be fearfully aggressive, choosing to bite if they feel threatened. These dogs may have been poorly socialized or abused, and may not understand normal social interactions.

Understanding the difference between normal dog behavior and the signs of aggression, and teaching children to do the same, is key to helping prevent bite wounds.

Here are some rules I teach my clients and my family:
  • Never approach a strange dog without an adult, and always ask the owner’s permission before doing so. Kids should be taught never to hug or kiss a dog (especially one they don’t know well), since many dogs feel threatened by this “in your face” contact.
  • Never bother a dog while it is eating.
  • Do not use your body to break up a dog fight. Instead, use a broom or another object that allows you to intervene without being accidentally bitten.
  • Never leave a baby or toddler alone with a dog.
  • Always respect a dog’s warning. Most (but not all) dogs will bare their teeth or growl prior to a bite. This means BACK OFF in dog language and will typically be followed by a snap or bite if it is ignored.
  • Be careful when introducing a new dog into your household. He or she may be anxious, making them more reactive and likely to lash out.
  • Spay and neuter your dogs, which helps to alleviate some inappropriate aggression.
  • Never allow children to interact with a dog that has known aggression issues.

For further information on preventing dog bites, talk to your veterinarian or visit the CDC website. In this case, education can go a long way in prevention.