According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 1 in 5 people in America will be bitten by a dog and require medical attention. While many of these stats include children who aren’t properly supervised, with 4.5 million dog bites recorded annually — and this doesn’t take into account bites that aren’t reported to authorities — it’s important to be knowledgable about dog bite treatments for all different biting situations. A dog bit me about a month ago, and it was a painful reminder that dog bites can happen to even the most experienced dog people.
I think dog parks are often high-stress and poorly-managed spaces. (Going to a dog park? Here are some tips and considerations.) However, my youngest dog, a 17-month-old Newfoundland, is very social and passed the Canine Good Citizen test. So, for a little while this spring, we were taking her to visit well-maintained, large dog parks where people seemed very attentive to their dogs, and where the dogs appeared calm and social. The last time we visited the dog park, a few dogs got into a squabble. As I went to retrieve my dog from getting too close, one of the dogs who had been fighting redirected and bit my shin — twice.
The dog that bit me was one of two Portuguese Water Dogs. (I couldn’t tell them apart and both of them were fighting.) They were at the park with their dog walker, and the dog walker wasn’t watching the dogs because he was helping in a community service project to spread bark dust. Thankfully, once he became aware of what had happened, the dog walker was very concerned and got me the contact information for the dogs’ owner. The owner then provided me with proof of rabies vaccinations and was very apologetic about the incident.
I’ve been involved in dog sports and training for 20 years, and this was the first major dog bite I’ve experienced. Thankfully, I know what to do, but as I talked about the incident with friends, I realized that many people are uncertain about dog bite treatments or how to handle different dog bite situations.
In some cities, any incidents that involve dogs biting humans must be reported to the City Health Department so that the health department and animal control can investigate the situation to determine if they consider the dog dangerous. Research dog-bite laws and regulations in your local area to learn what your rights are as a dog owner.
While dog bites are always scary, there are different levels of bites that range in severity. The Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) has this very readable version of world-renowned dog trainer Ian Dunbar’s dog bite scale, known as the Dunbar Scale. It rates dog bites on a scale from 1 — aggression but no skin contact with teeth — to a level 6 bite where the bite victim dies as a result of the bite.
There are bite levels in between those two extremes that look at how deep bites are and how many punctures are made to understand a dog’s bite inhibition. A bite inhibition is a skill most dogs naturally develop as puppies to adjust the pressure with which they use their mouths when playing with other dogs and with people. The Dunbar scale also provides basic training recommendations for each bite level. This is helpful information to have but doesn’t take the place of working with an experienced dog trainer and/or behaviorist.
Many dog bites are avoidable by managing the situations that you put yourself and your dogs in. (For example, my recent bite reminded me why I don’t like dog parks.) Similarly, learning more about dog behavior and dog body signals can help prevent dog bites. Dog trainer Jill Breitner created the Dog Decoder App in collaboration with artist Lili Chin of Doggie Drawings. The Dog Decoder app is an interactive educational app that teaches you how to understand your dog’s body language. It’s available for iPhones and Androids.
Breitner likens the lack of understanding among the general public to how “back in the day, the only people that talked about psychology were psychologists.” Thankfully, that’s changed, with a wider cultural understanding of mental health for people, and Breitner is doing the same for dogs. “Now, with the digital age, we are able to reach a lot of people and we can get there,” Breitner says.
The Dog Decoder App includes examples of 60 common body postures to demystify dog body signals and help people have better relationships with their dogs. Breitner explains that veterinarians use the app, as do people around the world to understand dogs and prevent dog bites.
Sassafras Lowrey is an award-winning author whose novels have been honored by the Lambda Literary Foundation and the American Library Association. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor and assists with dog agility classes. She lives and writes in Brooklyn with her partner, a senior Chihuahua mix, a rescued Shepherd mix, a Newfoundland puppy, two bossy cats and a semi-feral kitten. Learn more at sassafraslowrey.com.
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