Ask a Trainer: Dog Bite Prevention

May 15 – 21 2011 is National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada approximately 1300 dog bites are reported each year by hospitals that provide treatment. Thirty percent of the bite victims are 5 – 9 year olds and 60% of those are boys. A third of these children are bitten in the family home by their own dogs. Most bites happen with younger children during everyday activities but 6% happen when the dog was being disciplined. Seniors are the second most common victims. People more than 70 years old are 10% of those bitten and 20% of those killed. In the United States, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention estimates close to five million Americans are bitten by dogs annually with approximately 1,000 people requiring emergency medical attention every day. Alarmingly, all these statistics are on the rise.

Statistics tell us we have a problem. But they are just numbers and never fully describe the scope of the problem. Numbers never show the pain of the person bitten or the anguish of parents of a bitten child. Numbers never reveal the numbers of dogs destroyed for biting behaviour. The numbers from both countries reflect only bites that are treated as reporting by the hospital is mandatory. We have no idea how many bites go unreported because they are not serious enough to warrant medical attention. But, even if medical attention isn’t necessary the victim, usually a child, has experienced the emotional trauma of being bitten by the dog the child may love and trust.

Numbers also do not reveal the financial cost for families trying to cope with the problem without getting rid of their dog. At Two Brown Dogs I have assessed 74 dogs with ‘issues’ in the last couple of years. Twenty-four or 33% were dogs that had bitten. Many people who see me have already seen their veterinarian and been referred to me for assessment and behavioural management through training.  Every time the owner sees a professional costs increase. So what can our community do?

In my opinion we need to be proactive. We need to set up programs for prevention rather than dealing with issues after they happen. I enjoy helping people by doing assessments and providing education and training plans but my preference would be to deal with issues that do not include biting. I would rather no one ever had to experience being bitten by a dog.

 Which Dogs Bite? (from http://www.avma.org)

The short and long answer is we do not know. Media reports present information as if it is a ‘done deal’ and suggests certain sizes and types of dogs are more likely to bite. In fact, there is just not enough information to be able to identify any breed, size or type of dog as being a ‘biting’ dog. For example;

  •  Any popular breed has more individuals that could bite. Golden Retrievers are bred in much greater numbers than other large breeds so the number of Goldens that bite may be high. But no one ever identifies how many bite in relation to how many there are. The ratio may actually be very low.
  • Large breeds can physically do more damage if they do bite, and often large dogs are identified as the ‘problem’ but dogs from small breeds also bite and are capable of causing severe injury.
  • Reporting is inconsistent and done by people who may not know dogs. Crossbred dogs might be identified as purebred and vice versa.

 The one area for which we do have some information is related to sex differences.

  • Intact (unneutered) male dogs are involved in 70 to 76% of reported dog bite incidents.
  • Female dogs that are not spayed may attract roaming males, which increases bite risk to people through increased exposure to unfamiliar dogs.
  • Females protective of their puppies may bite those who try to handle the young. This is of concern to inexperienced home breeders.

Why do dogs bite? (from www.doggonesafe.com)

There are several possible reasons why a dog may bite a child:

  • The dog is protecting a possession, food or water dish or puppies.
  • The dog is protecting a resting place.
  • The dog is protecting its owner or the owner’s property.
  • The child has done something to provoke or frighten the dog (e.g., hugging the dog, moving into the dog’s space, leaning or stepping over the dog, trying to take something from the dog).
  • The dog is old and grumpy and having a bad day and has no patience for the actions of a child.
  • The dog is injured or sick.
  • The child has hurt or startled it by stepping on it, poking it or pulling its fur, tail or ears.
  • The dog has not learned bite inhibition and bites hard by accident when the child offers food or a toy to the dog.
  • The child and dog are engaging in rough play and the dog gets overly excited.
  • The dog views the child as a prey item because the child is running and/or screaming near the dog or riding a bicycle or otherwise moving past the dog.

How do they warn us? (from http://www.doggonesafe.com)

There are always warning signs before a bite occurs, but these can be very subtle and may be missed by many people. A dog may appear to tolerate being repeatedly mauled by a child and one day bites, surprising everyone. Sometimes the warning has gone on for months or even years before the dog finally loses its tolerance and bites. Signs that you should take very seriously that indicate that the dog is saying “I have been very patient with this child, but I am nearing the end of my patience”, include:

  • The dog gets up and moves away from the child.
  • The dog turns his head away from the child.
  • The dog looks at you with a pleading expression.
  • You can see the ‘whites’ of the dogs eyes, in a half moon shape (see photo at right).
  • The dog yawns while the child approaches or is interacting with him.
  • The dog licks his chops while the child approaches or is interacting with him.
  • The dog suddenly starts scratching, biting or licking himself.
  • The dog does a big ‘wet dog shake’ after the child stops touching him.

You may think that your dog loves to have the children climbing all over him and hugging him, but if you see any of these signs, then you are being warned that a bite could occur if the dog feels he has no other way of defending himself. Do your dog and your child a favour and intervene if you notice any of these signs.

Do Dogs Bite ‘Out of the Blue’? (from http://www.doggonesafe.com)

Read a great article by Madeline Gabriel that explains that dogs do not bite ‘out of the blue’.

Dogs don’t bite ‘out of blue’. Sometimes nice dogs have just been subjected to one too many stressors and the result is a bite. Read this article by Casey Lomonaco.

What can we do?

Preventing dogs bites begin with the choices you make about when and where you get your puppy or dog. It includes safe and structured puppy socialization beginning at eight weeks of age and continues with training that is humane, not punishment-based, and provides owners with current advice and information that helps them to teach their dogs to be family-friendly pets.

What’s a dog owner to do?

  • Carefully select your pet. Puppies should not be obtained on impulse. Please do not buy a puppy sight unseen. Puppy mills provide the majority of dogs sold in pet stores and on-line sales. We have no idea how those puppies have been raised and treated. If an on-line breeder claims to be a Canadian Kennel Club or American Kennel Club registered breeder check it out with the kennel club.
  • Make sure your pet is socialized as a young puppy so it feels at ease around people and other animals. Check out http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/images/stories/Position_Statements/puppy%20socialization.pdf  for information on why puppy socialization should start at eight weeks of age and http://twobrowndogs.tripod.com/id34.html for Puppy Play Group information.
  • Don’t put your dog in a position where it feels threatened or teased.
  • Learn how to read and understand the signals your dog is giving. Understanding dog body language is a part of all classes at Two Brown Dogs.
  • Train your dog. The basic commands ‘sit,’ ‘stay,’ and ‘come’ help dogs understand what is expected of them and can be incorporated into fun activities that build a bond of trust between pets and people. Check out Two Brown Dog’s commitment to family-friendly training and the special training we have and programs we offer for family pet dogs at http://twobrowndogs.tripod.com/id35.html
  • Walk and exercise your dog regularly to keep it healthy and provide mental stimulation.
  • Use a leash in public to ensure you are able to control your dog.
  • Keep your dog healthy. Have your dog vaccinated against rabies and preventable infectious diseases. Parasite control and other health care are important because how your dog feels affects how it behaves.
  • Spay or Neuter your pet.
  • Keep your dog secure in your yard.

 How can you protect your family?

  • Be cautious around strange dogs and treat your own pet with respect. Because children are the most common victims of dog bites, parents and caregivers should:
    • NEVER leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
    • Be alert for potentially dangerous situations.
    • Teach their children – including toddlers – to be careful around pets. Children must learn not to approach strange dogs or try to pet dogs through fences. Teach children to ask permission from the dog’s owner before petting the dog
  • Train, Train, train – the best owners and best behaved dogs can always benefit from training. New ideas come out all the time and new ways to teach owners and dogs are presented every year at conferences across Canada and the United States.
  • Choose your trainer and behaviourist carefully. Expect them to be able to show you their credentials, memberships and attendance records at conferences and continuing education programs to be certain they are current and well-informed.
  • Check out http://twobrowndogs.tripod.com/id15.html for information on choosing a trainer.
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