How to Prevent Dog Bites

Two girls with a happy white dog in grass.
Two girls with a happy white dog in grass. Photography ©TongRo Images Inc | Thinkstock.

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. 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.

Who gets bitten by dogs?

A dog growling and looking angry.
Children are bitten by dogs most often. Photography ©Volodymyr_Plysiuk | Thinkstock.

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.

How can you prevent dog bites?

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

  1. no able-bodied person was present to intervene
  2. the victim had no familiar relationship with the dog
  3. the dog was not spayed or neutered
  4. the victim’s ability to manage interactions with the dog was compromised due to age or physical condition
  5. the dog had previously been mismanaged
  6. 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:

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

Read more advice on what to do if your dog bites here >>

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.

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

Thumbnail: Photography ©TongRo Images Inc | Thinkstock. 

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11 thoughts on “How to Prevent Dog Bites”

  1. Pingback: How to Prepare Your Pup – The Dog Delight

  2. Thank you for the tips on how to prevent dog bites; there are a lot of great suggestions. I agree that one of the best things you can do is to avoid dogs that you don’t know; you don’t want to scare them or startle them. I would imagine that there are some legal actions that would need to be taken if a dog bite were to occur.

  3. I would like to use the Facebook icon at the top of the article to share this article and other I have read. However, I get a error message every time. Please fix. Thanks

    1. Hi — Could you please contact us with screenshots and details ?

  4. Pingback: Tail Biting in Dogs — What Are the Causes? – Pets World

  5. Can anyone tell me how to walk my dog and not get hurt when another dog tries to attack us. I’ve been hurt bad when knocked down face first into the street. Second time banged my leg bad. Both times the owners were present. I’m going to be seventy and I’m afraid to walk my dog again.

  6. Marie DeBol: You say “She runs to me when she is frightened, but I am the only one she snaps at. I have never hit her, and rarely even spoken harshly. ”
    Your dog knows you all too well, and seeks comfort and approval from you, that she possibly doesn’t get from others in the household. She sees the sweetness in you as her opportunity to govern. If you’re not the Alpha, she will be. You say she growls when you pet her. Does she have any pain on her body near the spot where you pet her? Maybe she’s trying to tell you something. If she’s frightened and runs to you, what do you do and what is she frightened of? If you’ve exhausted all methods of correction, I would consider a good animal communicator, who will get down to the cause of the problem.

  7. We have had our dog for 6 years. We adopted her at 4 mos. old. Just basic training. She loves everyone else in the family but me. She runs to me when she is frightened, but I am the only one she snaps at. I have never hit her, and rarely even spoken harshly. The others have disciplined her much more harshly. She growls when I pet her. She is a very large (120lb) mixed breed. I have worked with animals most of my adult life, and how to interact with dogs. I just don’t understand.

  8. This is a great article. So many people are misinformed when it comes to interacting with dogs they don’t know and dogs in general.

  9. If you bring a new dog into your home, be careful around food, treats, toys. No matter how GENTLE your original dog has been, he/she could get possesive enough to bite you!
    Just reaching down to move a food bowl or toy while your pet is eating/playing could get you bitten!

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