This year, an estimated 4.7 million people will be bitten by dogs. Dog bites can range from minor to very serious; in fact, every year about 800,000 people require medical attention for a dog bite, and up to 12 people die from dog bites according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.
For those of you who think your dog would never bite anyone, it is important to consider that you can’t predict your own dog’s behaviors, no matter how gentle or innocent your dog may be. Any dog can bite and will bite in the right situation. The most lovable, sweet and snugly dog can and will bite if scared, stressed or threatened enough. A dog’s breed is less important than its personal history, genetics and current environment. Not all dog bites happen to strangers either; a majority of dog bites to children occur when a child is interacting with a dog that is familiar to them.
While anyone who is bitten by a dog will likely be traumatized by the experience, so will the dog. No one wins when a dog bites someone. Obviously, family members and those you know and love will also be upset and traumatized by the experience. And since any dog can bite someone, we should all know and understand how to prevent a dog bite, so that your beloved dog doesn’t become the next statistic.
Don’t Silence Your Dog’s Warning Signs:
Dogs have a natural communication system that is designed to let us know when they are feeling anxious, overwhelmed or frustrated. They use body language to communicate to us what they are feeling. If you see signs of your dog trying to retreat, looking away, or showing signs of anxiety, step in and try to relieve the situation; these could be signs that he or she is getting over-stimulated or nervous. Behaviors can escalate quickly, and you will want to pay attention to these important warning signs.
Typically, as a dog is getting upset or anxious, he will growl, bark or snap before he gets to the point of biting. However, I have seen many dog owners correct their dog for these very natural behaviors. When you correct a dog for growling, or showing teeth, you teach the dog to “silence” that warning sign. If you take away the dog’s ability to communicate, it may get to a point where it feels it has no choice but to bite to protect itself or to remove itself from an uncomfortable situation.
If your dog does growl, try to notice what is making him uncomfortable. Whether it’s a child, a stranger, loud noises, or other interruptions in its environment, pay attention to their cues and mitigate the situation as soon as possible. You know your dog better than anyone, so if you know he or she gets anxious when the mailman comes, for example, it would be smart to anticipate these circumstances and keep the dog in a secure room in order to prevent any serious issues. By knowing and heeding your dog’s cues and ways he communicates with you, your dog will learn that he can trust you to keep him safe and will likely be more relaxed in the long run.
If you want more information on how to recognize signs of anxiety in pets, check out our post Signs your Dog is Stressed.
Teach your Dog How to Handle Stress:
It is not reasonable to assume that you will provide an environment for your dog where he/she never experiences stress or anxiety. But what can you do? Since you know stress is inevitable, even in your pets, you can train your pup how to appropriately express frustration and anxiety when he/she does experience those emotions.
One important thing you can do is to give your dog a safe place to retreat to in your home. Many dogs love their crates and will go there if they feel overwhelmed while at home. Make the crate a comfortable space and make it a rule that no one is allowed to reach into the crate and engage with the dog if he is relaxing. Utilize the crate as a safe space for your pet.
To create positive associations, a good trainer can also help with counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is a process in which you utilize a high value treat or reward to basically retrain the dog’s brain. Instead of a stimulus being stressful, the dog learns to associate it with positive rewards and good feelings. This is a complicated process that does require the use of a good trainer. If you are interested in learning more, we can refer you to an appropriate trainer in our community.
Know How to Approach an Anxious or Fearful Dog:
A dog is most likely to bite if they are anxious or fearful. Typically, bites are not true aggression, but an anxiety reaction. If you encounter a dog who is fearful (hair on back may be standing, dog may be growling, snarling, barking, or backing away from you), knowing how to approach them may prevent a dog bite.
· When approaching an anxious or fearful dog, the most important thing is to give them space. Encroaching on the dog’s personal space will increase fear and anxiety. Give the dog plenty of space and room to retreat if possible.
· Speak in a calm, low voice. Yelling or speaking very fast will increase the pup’s anxiety.
· Avoid eye contact. Many dogs will see eye contact as threatening. Turn your head slightly away so you can see the dog in your peripheral vision, but do not make direct eye contact with the dog.
· Turn your body sideways: this serves to make your body appear smaller to the dog, which can help with fear.
· Use treats! Toss them gently towards the dog. Giving treats will begin to show the dog that you are not scary and that your presence is a positive thing!
· Give the dog time to come to you. If possible, allow the dog to approach you. When he does, move slowly before petting or reaching for the pet. Remember that sudden movements will likely scare the dog.
· Remember that the dog is still fearful and anxious, even if he is allowing you to pet him. Take your time and allow the dog to dictate the speed that you move.