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How to Prevent Dog Bites

The AVMA estimates that dogs bite 4.5 million people every year in this country. Here's how to reduce the risk for your dog.

Annie Phenix, CPDT-KA  |  Feb 16th 2017


Editor’s note: Have you seen the Dogster print magazine in stores? Or in the waiting room of your vet’s office? This article appeared in our February-March issue. Subscribe to Dogster and get the bimonthly magazine delivered to your home.

In my new book about helping troubled dogs, The Midnight Dog Walkers: Positive Training and Practical Advice for Living with a Reactive or Aggressive Dog, I devote an entire chapter to the “scope of the problem” facing dog owners today. I could have, however, written a very large book just on the subject of why some dogs are willing to use their teeth to communicate.

Dog bites are a serious problem. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that there are 4.5 million people bitten by dogs every year in this country.

Who is bitten most often? Children — usually young boys. One study showed that an adult was not present in the dog bite incident 69 percent of the time. Even when an adult stands inches away from a child and a dog, that’s no guarantee that a bite won’t occur.

It is vitally important that parents and all dog owners understand what they can do to prevent such a tragedy. When a dog bites — even if harassed by a child — there is a substantial chance that the bite leads to a swift death by euthanasia. It also can create lifelong fear and anxiety of dogs in children who suffer a bite. And let’s not forget the potentially large financial consequences should your dog bite someone.

Puppy by Shutterstock.

Puppy by Shutterstock.

How can you prevent dog bites?

A national study of 256 fatal dog bites that occurred between 2000 and 2009 noted these facts:

  • no able-bodied person was present to intervene
  • the victim had no familiar relationship with the dog
  • the dog was not spayed or neutered
  • the victim’s ability to manage interactions with the dog was compromised due to age or physical condition
  • the dog had previously been mismanaged
  • the dog had been abused or neglected

Based on that information, my knowledge of other studies, and as a professional dog trainer, here are eight things dog owners can do to reduce the risk of a dog bite:

  1. Never leave a dog unattended with a child or anyone who is not capable of intervening in the event it is necessary to do so. Never? Really? Yes, really. Any dog with teeth can bite, even your super sweet fluff ball at your feet. Forced into just the right situation where a dog feels he needs to defend himself, he has those teeth there to do the job.
  2. Respect dogs you don’t know, and do not approach them. Simply don’t do it.
  3. Spay or neuter your dog at an appropriate age.
  4. Use positive reinforcement training. Never use pain, force, or fear to train a dog. Using these outdated methods is counterproductive, harmful, and unnecessary.
  5. Proper and positive early socialization before the dog hits 16 weeks of age lays the foundation for the dog for the rest of his life. Get busy introducing the world to your young dog in a way that builds his confidence and resilience, and you will enjoy a lifetime with a well-rounded dog (assuming there are no genetic or medical reasons causing undesired behavior issues).
  6. Teach young children positive methods of interacting with dogs. No child should be allowed to sit on a dog, pull a dog’s body parts, or in any way corner or harass a dog. Teach children to respect the dog’s right to walk away from a situation that makes him uncomfortable.
  7. We have bred dogs to be our companions. Dogs left alone outside in the backyard or on a chain are unhappy, lonely dogs. They grow frustrated, which can lead to aggression, just as it does in humans. Dogs need to be “residents” of the household and not left alone.
  8. Learn canine communication. Dogs have their own species-specific language. They warn us when they feel uncomfortable. Take the time to learn from a professional in the dog industry just what fear, anxiety, or frustration look like from a dog’s point of view.

If a bite does occur, after medical needs are met, step back and reassess your management and training plans. Reassess why and how the bite occurred:

  • What was happening in the dog’s environment just prior to the bite?
  • What warning signals did the dog give that the humans didn’t understand or ignored?

Dogs don’t bite “all of a sudden.” They warn using their canine communication language. Warning signs include trying to escape or avoid the situation, lip licking, tail tucked, sudden sniffing or scratching out of context, whites showing in the eyes, shaking, barking, growling, lunging, body stiffness, giving a hard stare, etc.

Call in a true canine behavior expert for help. Do it sooner rather than later, as the dog’s life may depend on quality help. Dogs are masters of understanding us. Let’s return the favor, and spend more time and energy understanding their point of view and how they communicate.

Doing so can literally save a life, and that life may be that of your own dog — or your own child.