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Dog Bites: Let's Talk Root Causes and Prevention

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, every year more than 4.5 million people in the United States are victims of dog bites

 |  Jun 13th 2013  |   33 Contributions


A blood-curdling scream and a pacing Greater Swiss Mountain Dog alerted me to the horror unfolding about a hundred yards away. Hearing the sound someone makes when a dog bites them is not something I ever wish to encounter again.

The incident happened when my significant other and I were dog sitting a dozen or so Cocker Spaniels and one "Swissie" for a breeder friend of ours. We are dog lovers of the highest order who know what to do in an emergency, and we felt prepared for the task at hand.

I stayed in the house with most of the pack while my partner went to tend to the boys in the kennels outside. We'd been warned that two of the boys could not be kept together because they would fight and bite at one another. Darlene took one male dog out at a time, and when she was returning with Rex, she left Bowser's kennel open. As one dog attempted to lunge and attack the other, Darlene stepped in the middle -- and got bitten.

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Though she was bitten by a dog, her love for pooches goes on and on.

Seeing someone in the process of a dog bite is horrific, to say the least. As I approached the kennels, I saw one Cocker Spaniel clamped down on her arm while the other paced around, snapping at the other dog. I slammed a bucket down on the ground, Darlene screamed and the dog let go. We were able to safely get both dogs back into their kennels and deal with the aftermath.

The unfortunate series of events took place in such a short period. Accidents happen, but when they happen to you and the accident is a dog bite, it really, simply stated, sucks.

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Even puppies have pincer-sharp teeth, so proceed with caution.

We called our friend so she could come home and we could rush to the emergency room. Unfortunately, medical personnel are required to report a dog bite to the proper authorities, who, in turn, will investigate. We felt terrible, because our treasured friend had nothing to do with it. It happened on our watch. It was our mistake. Everything turned out fine, however, and with proper treatment and antibiotics, Darlene recovered nicely, despite having a wounded spirit.

We aren't alone

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), every year more than 4.5 million people in the United States are victims of dog bites. One of the highest incidents of dog bites occurs toward mail carriers. The U.S. Postal Service ranks Los Angeles as the No. 1 city for postal employee dog bites in 2012. Nationwide, nearly 6,000 postal employees have been attacked in that same period.

I know when the postal carrier approaches our residence -- my very own dog, Dexter, barks and wags simultaneously. From an early age, I taught him that the "mailman" is good and welcomed. After the mail arrives, Dexter loves to carry a piece upstairs as a reward.

You have to think like a dog to discover why dogs are so threatened by a stranger on "their" property. The stranger appears almost every day, trespasses, leaves something with his or her scent on it, and then departs -- only after the dog has barked and "scared" the stranger off. To a dog, he's done his duty.

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Dogs read one another's body language when meeting strange canines.

Kids are the No. 1 victims of dog bites. Surprisingly, the AVMA says most dog bites happen in the course of everyday activities with familiar dogs. Seniors are the second most common dog bite victims.

"I've treated dogs for bite wounds on numerous occasions, more than I care to count," says Dr. Lorie Huston, a veterinarian with more than 20 years of experience with dogs and cats. "The most recent was just a couple of days ago. Wounds from dog bites can range from minor to quite severe."

Dog Bites by the Numbers

Why do dogs bite?

There are a variety of reasons dogs bite, and sometimes they are not the most obvious reasons. Dogs bite when they are afraid, feel threatened, get excited, are at play, have been trained to be aggressive, are being protective with food or treats, or are in pain or annoyed.

Dr. Huston says she encounters many people who ignore an owner's request not to pet their dog and get bitten.

"Never approach a strange dog without first asking permission from the dog's owner," Dr. Huston says. "If the owner indicates that handling the dog is dangerous, listen to that advice and keep your distance."

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Dogs are victims of bites, too, as this patient can attest.

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After stitches, the dog bite wound is closed and the patient is sent home with antibiotics.

Laurie C. Williams CPDT-KA is a trainer and behavior consultant as well as the owner of Pup 'N Iron Canine Fitness & Learning Center in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She has been training dogs for years and has a plethora of experience in recognizing if a dog will bite. She also trains her clients to prevent their own dogs from biting.

Williams offers these guidelines to reduce the likelihood of dog bites. 

Tips to prevent dog bites: 

  • Know the basics of a dog's body language. A wagging tail does not always mean a dog is friendly. Depending on the carriage of the tail, it could mean the dog is nervous, stressed, and uneasy.
  • Teach children to never approach a stray dog under any circumstances. And if they are approached by a stray, they should “be a tree,” and not move until the dog moves away.
  • Never taunt a dog. If you dare a dog to bite you, he just might give you exactly what you’re asking for. 

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I posed with "Lion Dog" Charles the Monarch, who was mistaken for a real lion and caused 911 to be dispatched. No one was bitten in the process.

  • Don’t put your face in a dog's face you don’t know. Children should be taught to never get up in a dog's face, even the family pet. Many dogs read that as a challenge and react out of impulse to protect themselves.
  • Respect the growl. A growl is a warning from a dog that he may bite, and you should always believe him!
  • Never sneak up on a sleeping dog. Never approach a dog who is eating. Never back a dog into a corner where he feels he can’t escape.
  • Supervise all interactions between young children (under 10) and dogs at all times. Children forget to tie their shoes and make their beds, so naturally they could forget the correct way to play with and handle the family dog. An adult should always be present to make sure the rules are followed.

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Knowing what a wagging tail means can prevent problems.

Though National Dog Bite Prevention Week happens in May, dog bites are commonplace year round. As for my friend and I, we continue to dog sit, and the dog biting incident has not had any permanent effect on my partner. My heart, of course, continues to beat dog.

Have you ever had a dog bite happen to you or someone you know? Tell me about it in the comments.

Read more about dog bites and prevention:

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