Of all the dog bites that occur in the U.S., children are most often the victims. Did you know that when a dog bites, it’s usually due to human error and not because the dog is vicious? How you interact with dogs has a direct bearing on your safety.
As a Grandmother of seven and the owner of two dogs, I care very much about helping to keep you and your children safe around dogs. I would also like to lessen the number of dogs who suffer the ultimate consequence by unnecessarily and unfairly paying with their lives just because they’ve bitten. My focus will be on the most common reasons a dog bites (which may be quite different from you might think) and tell you how you can help yourself and your children to be safer around dogs.
Puppies are not born vicious any more than human babies are. A dog that can be fairly labeled as being aggressive is one that behaves aggressively with all humans and other animals the majority of, if not all the time and would handle every situation in an aggressive manner. There is also an extremely rare disorder known as “Rage Syndrome” which so far studies show is linked to genetics and other medical factors. The chances of encountering a dog with either of these issues in your lifetime are slim as are the chances of experiencing a dog bite in which the dog should be declared vicious and put down as a consequence. The “once a biter always a biter” is simply not true and dogs do not “thirst for blood” after they have tasted it. Even the friendliest of family pets may bite under the right circumstances but that doesn’t mean it’s become vicious or any more unsafe to be around than it was before it bit. In other words, just because a dog bites does not mean they’ve morphed into Cujo.
Generations of humans believe that that when a dog bites, it’s dangerous and should be euthanized. In most cases this could not be farther from the truth. If a normally easy going person with a “never hurt a fly” personality were to step outside their usual character and punch someone, this person is not then automatically considered violent just as one bite does not mean the dog should be labeled vicious.
There is a huge difference between a dog bite and a dog attack. The two phrases are not interchangeable and although some of the dynamics are similar they are also different and much more involved than I will go into. I do believe that if more people practiced solid dog safety, we could cut down on the number of dog attacks as well but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
If a Rottweiler bares his teeth and growls he’s considered aggressive. If a four pound Yorkshire Terrier bares his teeth and growls he’s considered cute. Why the double standard? Growling and showing teeth is a dog behavior on which breed and size has no bearing. The Yorkie going crazy at your living room window when someone passes by is no different than the Rottweiler going crazy at your window. Granted, the Rottie can do more damage and is much scarier but the behavior is the same. People quite readily excuse little dogs from aggressive behavior while the big dog displaying the same behavior is considered vicious.
Neither the size nor the breed of the dog matters when it comes to practicing dog safety. A dog bite is a dog behavior most often resulting from fear and/or an attempt to protect itself or its family. Any breed of any size is not only capable of biting but will bite under the right circumstances. The circumstances may not make one bit of sense to us humans, but they make perfect sense to the dog and this is quite often what humans fail to realize when a dog bites.
A common name for this is “fear biting” or “fear aggression.” A fearful dog is a dangerous dog. Do not believe for one minute that every dog gives a signal such as a warning growl before striking. The truth is that most dogs strike silently, without warning and they’re fast as greased lightning. You have hands, feet and the ability to think and reason to help you fight off danger; a dog has but one thing … his teeth. If you’re afraid or in danger you’re going to use every weapon at your disposal and so will a dog. You are not euthanized for protecting yourself, but millions of dogs are every day.
After a dog bites its natural for both owner and victim to say things like “I don’t understand, there was no reason for the dog to bite.” They’re confused, scared, angry, hurt and totally thinking of the incident like a human which is exactly why they don’t get it!
Dogs do not bite just to bite. In the dog’s mind there was a valid reason to bite. In order for humans to understand what and why it happened for what it really is, they need to first understand dog behaviors and how a dog perceives and relates to people and situations. Notice I did not say “how a dog thinks” because dog’s don’t “think” like you and I do. There is ALWAYS a valid reason the dog has bitten but you cannot determine or understand it by thinking as a human.
Here’s the part that most people won’t like, don’t understand and definitely do not want to hear. Humans are responsible for most dog bites whether it be the dog’s owner, the victim or both. Like it or not, if you or your child suffers a dog bite it’s the victim and/or the dog’s owner who opened the door for it to happen. It’s the same principal as “driver error” when there’s been an accident. Nobody meant for it to happen but the fact is that someone goofed. Someone wasn’t paying enough attention; they made a bad judgment call or any number of other factors play a part with the bottom line being human error. In order to keep people safer and save more dogs lives, people need to learn to:
Dogs are social animals that in most cases enjoy and thrive on human companionship but they communicate in the language of animals which is very different from the human language. Dog to dog interaction takes place first through smell then through eye contact (which includes very subtle signals to one another) and finally through hearing. Most humans don’t understand dog language or behaviors so they don’t see these signals nor can they translate them into human sense. Dogs can learn to respond to simple human commands but they don’t grasp the human language as we do. They actually respond more to the tone and sound of our voice than to the words we use.
Think of yourself visiting France without knowing the French language. Perceptions and visuals become a huge part of communicating with the French population. Miscommunication, misunderstood visuals and misconstrued perceptions due to the language barrier are very similar as to why human actions or reactions can lead to a bite or help keep it from happening.
If you’re afraid of dogs the best thing to do is to stay away from them. Even though your fear may not be apparent to the humans around you, dogs sense it which makes it unsafe for you to be near dogs. Fear is instability to some dogs and may make them uncomfortable or fearful. Remember that a fearful dog is dangerous to be around. If you’re afraid of something are you not going to try to protect yourself from it? Remember that no matter how domesticated dogs are, they are animals first before they are anything else and they may revert to survival mode in order to protect themselves which is no different from a human when faced with danger.
I encourage you to work towards ridding yourself of your fear because not only are dogs wonderful creatures but you’re safer around dogs if you are not afraid of them. Please don’t attempt to do this on your own nor with strange dogs. Get some help from a professional dog behaviorist (not to be confused with a dog trainer) and make sure the dog(s) you work with have a very calm personality. You don’t want to try to get over your fear of dogs with one that’s high strung, excitable or anxious. A certified service dog is a good choice. As an example of behavior before breed, some of the best service dogs are Pit Bulls! One of the Michael Vick dogs (a Pit Bull named Georgia) has become a fantastic service dog, which is just another example of how people misunderstand and misjudge dogs when they judge strictly by breed reputation. It’s not the breed that’s important it’s the behavior.
Parents who teach their children to fear dogs are actually putting their child in more danger. A fearful child is a target. Their fear will stress them and they are likely to make bad choices which only escalate the danger level. Children are actually safer if they’re not afraid of dogs and learn instead to respect and interact safely with them. What you teach them now they’ll carry with them into adulthood. Remember that living in fear of anything is no fun, so consider what you’re saddling your child with if you teach them to be afraid of dogs.
Some dogs interpret direct eye contact as a threat or confrontation and will react to protect themselves. One dog staring at another dog is a potential dog fight waiting to happen. Aren’t you uncomfortable when someone stares at you? So is a dog.
Young children have a normal tendency to stare and their height puts them at dog level. These two things put children at a dangerous disadvantage when encountering a dog that’s reactive to direct eye contact. If the child’s gaze happens to fall on a reactive dog’s face and particularly the dog’s eyes, this can be very dangerous. Most dog bites to children result in facial injuries.
If you see a child staring at a dog, do not speak to nor directly look at the dog. If the dog is leashed and can be safely removed from the area by its owner that’s perfect. But if that’s not possible then quietly and calmly divert the child’s visual attention off the dog. This will help to ease any threat the dog may perceive making the dog less likely to be a threat to the child. If you must speak to do this, keep your voice calm and in a low tone. An excited, nervous high pitched voice will excite the dog and the danger level. If there’s something handy that you could toss for the dog to play with like a ball for instance (but away from the child), this may help to redirect the dog’s attention and buy the opportunity to walk the child away from the situation. Walk calmly, do not run and do not pick the child up if at all possible. Picking up the child may make another target of the child because it may cause the dog to jump up on you and the child and the dog may try to grab at the child.
For your safety and protection and that of dogs everywhere, always ask the owner from a safe distance if it’s alright to meet their dog before approaching. If the owner grants permission then practice safety guidelines and any additional rules the dog’s owner requires when interacting with their dog.
Dogs meet first by smelling. It’s a common practice for people to stick their hand out for the dog to sniff and some are even looking directly in the dog’s face. This is like saying “Come on Fido, bite me!” How might you react if someone stuck their hand in your face and stared at you when you met them?
A safer way to meet a dog is to ignore the dog. Stand off-center or sideways with your arms and hands relaxed at your sides. This position tells the dog that you’re not a threat. The dog’s owner should sit or down their dog particularly if the dog is in an excited state. After you’re positioned in a non-threatening way and when (and only when) the dog is calm, the owner can then allow the dog to sniff you. Continue to ignore the dog as he approaches and sniffs; carry on a friendly conversation with the owner. Keep your voice calm and in a low tone. An excited voice excites a dog and an excited dog poses more of a bite threat than a calm one. When the dog and his nose have determined you are not a threat to them or their family they usually lose interest in active sniffing and then it’s safer to pet.
If you are one to pet a dog on its head, stop this. Some dogs interpret a hand moving toward or down on their head as that they are going to be hit. The dog may become fearful and defensive because they perceive the human as a threat to their safety and so the potential for a bite increases.
Without leaning over the dog, pet under the chin or on the chest area and do not “thump” the dog. By thumping I mean slapping the dog on its side which seems to be popular with men. If you’re meeting a dog that came from an abusive situation thumping just might trigger some painful memories for the dog and he may react to protect himself. You may cause the dog pain or fear. I’ve seen some pretty heavy thumpers and I think how I would feel if someone would slap me on the back like that. I don’t like it, it stings!
Small children and teen-age girls love hugging and cuddling stuffed animals. What’s better than a stuffed animal? A live one of course! How many times have you seen an excited child run to a dog and hug it? I shudder every time I see this happen. Picture yourself being rushed by an excited stranger and hugging you. Are you uncomfortable? Don’t you feel a need to protect yourself?
Dogs don’t hug one another. Hugging is a comfort for the human not the dog. Like you, dogs have that “personal space” need and hugging invades these invisible boundaries. Although most dogs allow it without incident and many even appear to ask for it, dogs aren’t comfortable being hugged. Most humans don’t see the emotional discomfort hugging may cause a dog, even their own, because a dog calming itself is not obvious to the human eye.
This section is particularly important for children and sports minded people like joggers and bicyclists because this has to do with fast movement in the immediate vicinity of a dog.
Running towards a dog may cause him to interpret the runner as a threat and he may bite to protect. Running away from a dog may trigger any number of interpretations to the dog but a big one is prey drive. Prey drive is an instinct which is stronger in some dogs than others. Instincts cannot be trained out of a dog and this is one exception to behavior over breed where breed holds some importance.
Some breeds are bred for prey driven activities. Yorkies were originally bred for catching rats in clothing mills in the 1800’s. Australian Shepherds (Aussies) have herding in their genetic makeup. To help humans understand this, dogs relate to catching rats and herding sheep as their jobs. To some dogs, fast moving objects are something that needs to be caught, taken down or corralled. In the dog’s mind he’s only doing the job he was bred to do. Think about it, neither of these jobs can be done gently. A dog’s mouth and teeth essentially become their hands and a human may get bitten and the dog declared vicious and maybe even put down for doing his job.
Most of us are guilty of this one. Never step over any dog including your own. Not only are you invading their personal space but you could be mid-stride and the dog could suddenly get up, knocking you over. You could misstep, lose your balance and land on your dog which might not only injure your dog but you as well. This will most definitely startle the dog at the very least and startling, scaring or hurting a dog may result in a bite. If someone sneaks up behind you and goes “Boo!” don’t you just want to slap them?
There are a number of medical conditions that might cause a dog to act in ways that concern you and/or lead to a bite. Dogs can’t tell us when they’re not feeling well and they are experts at hiding pain and suffering just as a matter of survival. There are breeds, sizes and even shapes of dogs that are prone to various different ailments such as Hypothyroidism which may cause a dog to display inappropriate aggressive behavior. A simple blood test can diagnose Hypothyroidism and the medication for it is very inexpensive.
Please make sure to have your dog checked by a vet if it displays unexpected or inappropriate aggressive behavior. You may save someone from being bitten and you may save your dog’s life.
I hope I’ve been able to give you some tips on how to help keep yourself and your children more safe in the presence of dogs. I also hope that I’ve been able to show you that there are many reasons a dog may bite and that the instance of a dog being truly dangerous because it’s bitten is almost non-existent. Most bites can be prevented just by people educating themselves and their children. Dog owners need to educate themselves in the language and behaviors of dogs and get a little training or behavior modification help if you have concerns your dog may bite.