I was recently reading a blog online about “breed bans.” I won’t delve too deeply into this topic because there is a wealth of information online and there is something much more important, that actually has much more of a likelihood of keeping both dogs and humans safe, that I would like to address in the blog today. Before moving on to that, I will say that like many other behavior professionals, I do not support the banning of breeds (by municipalities, insurance companies, dog training schools, or in any other circumstance). In my experience, socialization, training, and management (or lack thereof) are far more reliable predictors of a dog’s ability to live safely within a family and community than breed.
Considering how prevalent dogs are in our society and how many dogs we have in our own homes, it’s amazing that serious bites are not more common. For those wanting to learn more about actual dog bite statistics, I highly recommend Janis Bradley’s Dogs Bite But Ballons and Slippers are More Dangerous. While it’s true that serious bites are fairly rare, it’s also true that these numbers could be dramatically reduced, not by banning breeds but through educating people. Not just dog owners, either, but everyone in the community – dogs are a part of our society and even if you don’t have one, it’s worth learning how to keep yourself safe around them.
In the comments for the blog I was reading, one of the commenters suggested that a far more useful list would be one that describes human behaviors which directly increase the risk for dog bites. What a great idea, a list that might actually help keep people and dogs safe! I’d like to start that list in this blog today, listing some things humans do that increase the risk of dog bites. If you would like to make any additions, please do so in the comments section!
Arguably, this is one of the biggest contributing factors to the development of reactivity or aggression problems. Puppies must be socialized well and appropriately. Socialization isn’t just about exposing your puppy to lots of sounds, types of touch, environments, people, and other dogs, but it is about building confidence around these stimuli and introducing them at a pace and level of exposure which sets a puppy up to succeed. Socialization isn’t socialization if it scares the puppy to death. Getting your puppy into a well-taught, fun, confidence-building puppy class is one of the best things a dog owner can do to reduce bite risk in the adult dog.
PUPPIES TAKEN FROM LITTER TOO EARLY
Ideally, puppies should not leave their litter before eight weeks of age (and if the breeder is doing a good job of socialization, it may even be worth waiting an extra few weeks and bringing home your new puppy at 10 or 12 weeks of age). I’ve heard of puppies taken from their litters and adopted into homes as young as four weeks of age! Not only is taking a puppy away from his litter too early a medically questionable decision, there are a lot of learning experiences that this young pup will miss out on. Leaving your puppy with his litter for the appropriate amount of time may not necessarily directly reduce bite risk, but the last few weeks with his litter will teach him how to use his teeth, to regulate the force behind a bite. During this time, social feedback from his dam (particularly during weaning) and littermates (during play) will begin the work of training bite inhibition. Puppy owners should reinforce these early lessons with positive training to address nipping behaviors throughout puppyhood.
AGGRESSIVE TRAINING TECHNIQUES
There is a wealth of ever-mounting evidence which indicates that aggressive training techniques exacerbate aggression.
HUGGING AND KISSING
Lots of dogs do not like being hugged, or having their faces kissed. Some dogs tolerate it well from their owners, others are less accommodating. Few enjoy this type of physical interaction with strangers.
MAKING A BAD FIRST IMPRESSION
Many people readily walk straight forward to a new dog, making eye contact the entire time, baring their teeth in a big smile, sometimes making funny noises, hands outstretched, bending over the dog, and grabbing at him despite signs the dog does not welcome the encounter (more on these signs in a minute!). There is a right way and a wrong way to greet a new dog. I just described the wrong way. Here are some tips for greeting a dog the right way. Here is a great blog from Doggone Safe on why dogs bite and how they warn us.
NEVER APPROACH OR ATTEMPT TO TOUCH A STRANGE DOG WHO IS…
- Chewing a bone or playing with a toy
- In a crate
- Nursing a litter of puppies
- In pain (which may not always be readily apparent)
- Tied or chained up
- Behind a fence
- Unsupervised by a human
- Actively trying to get away from you
- Displaying unfriendly body language
INABILITY TO READ CANINE BODY LANGUAGE
People that are able to read canine body language are much less likely to get bitten by a dog. Doggone Safe is a wonderful organization committed to keeping both dogs and the public safe through bite prevention education. Doggone Safe’s “Speak Dog” page is a fantastic resource for learning the basics of canine body language. The $30 body language course is also a great investment!
Children and the elderly are the populations most likely to suffer from dog bites. Not only are these individuals at greater risk, they often have a reduced ability to defend themselves or manage an attack quickly and effectively. Children should never be permitted to “man handle” a dog, though dogs should be conditioned to accept this type of handling (poking, having fur or tail tugged, etc.) as a preventative measure, particularly in puppyhood.
It only takes a few seconds for a dog of any size to cause significant damage. When interacting with any non-family member and even family members from the mentioned high-risk populations, the dog should be supervised constantly. If you are not able to supervise your dog at any time, use a crate, baby gates, or provide him with a safe environment away from the hustle and bustle.
Also, it must be said, some people are just jerks and intentionally harass dogs, virtually inviting a bite. This is why it is so important for pet owners to supervise their animal at all times – even if the victim was antagonizing your dog, the dog is likely going to take the blame for the incident and may well pay for it with his life.
Never assume a dog is friendly to other dogs and people. Always assume a dog will bite. If you are walking your dog and encounter another dog-handler team, do not allow your dog to greet the other without obtaining permission from the owner. Even if you have permission, you have an obligation to safety and must observe both dogs’ emotional signals throughout the approach and interaction. If someone tells you to “STAY AWAY!” from their dog, listen to them, and please, give them space; they are likely not kidding when they’re asking for it. Trust me, it’s not personal.
These are just a few suggestions that would greatly reduce the number of people injured by dogs and the number of dogs being euthanized for biting. Well-trained humans are less likely to get bit, even when they find themselves in the company of poorly trained canines. The best way to end BSL and prevent dog bites at the same time is through educating the public on the actual reasons dogs bite and how they can avoid becoming the victims of dog bites.