My sister’s dog Daisy was a feisty little pup who had more bark than bite — well, most of the time. The only time Daisy might bite was during grooming sessions. My brother-in-law bore the brunt of our beloved mini schnauzer’s wrath, ending each session with three or four minor nips to his hand. Many others fare far worse during dog-human encounters.
The American Veterinary Medical Association notes that 4.5 million dog bites occur each year. Children are most likely to be bitten and suffer serious injury as a result of these bites. Addressing dog bites also can be costly for homeowners. Insurance companies paid about $489 million to resolve claims in 2012, according to the Insurance Information Institute. State Farm customers alone submitted 3,670 dog bite claims last year at a cost of $108 million. The biggest chunk of that payout went to residents of California, who submitted 451 claims at a cost of more than $17 million.
So, how do you prevent dog bites? In honor of Dog Bite Prevention Week (May 19-25), Dr. Katherine Miller from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers these tips:
Expose dogs to other people and pets
Dogs are likely to become fearful of things they don’t experience at a young age — and fearful dogs are most likely to bite, says Miller. Grab a leash and expose young dogs to the sights and sounds of local festivals, patio dining or other opportunities to meet people of all shapes and sizes. Early exposure will teach the dog that there’s nothing to fear and they will be more relaxed when placed in similar situations.
“Some people think puppies should be kept indoors to be protected from disease; talk to your vet,” says Miller, a certified applied animal behaviorist who works with fearful, under-socialized and aggressive dogs. “Dogs are likely to become fearful of things they don’t experience at a young age.”
Be an advocate for your dog
While it’s easier to instill good habits with young dogs, Miller says you can help older dogs overcome difficult experiences too. Don’t force dogs into situations where they feel uncomfortable, and always watch their body language. Look for a loose demeanor with wagging tail — that’s a sign the dog is excited and happy. For more tips on interpreting a dog’s body language, check out the ASPCA’s virtual behaviorist site and share the info with kids. If your dog seems uncomfortable – crouching, fidgeting or lowering its tail, she recommends moving away from crowds and keeping treats on hand to make focusing on you easier.
“Start out assuming that maybe they might be nervous or have never experienced certain situations,” she says. “Take them to the periphery of the festival and be prepared to leave if they are not prepare to be there.”
Speak up if your dog needs space
Some well-intentioned pet lovers assume that every pooch wants to frolic with canine counterparts or receive an onslaught of human affection. If your pooch prefers not to be cuddled or kissed by strangers, speak up. Overly affectionate dog lovers also should resist the urge to pet first. Always ask for permission to approach a dog, and make sure kids do the same.
“A pet parent knows their pet much better than anyone else on the planet,” Miller says. “They will let you [the owner] know if they feel safer with you not approaching. As a pet parent, don’t hesitate to say, ‘it makes me uncomfortable.’ Don’t ever put your dog in a situation where you say, ‘I hope this goes well.’”
Even if pet parents say it’s safe to approach, ask the dog’s permission before proceeding. Extend a closed hand for the dog to sniff, and make sure it’s held low so dogs don’t perceive it as threatening. When it comes to mixing kids and pets, avoid leaving dogs unattended with children under the age of 10. If kids visit, place the pooch in a quiet room far away from the action.
“It’s really important for pet parents to really monitor the situation, and be prepared to take action on behalf of your dog,” she says.
Invest in training
Obedience training as well as fun activities such as agility or canine nose work can improve communication between dogs and their owners. Miller recommends training courses that involve positive reinforcement. By strengthening that bond during training, dogs are more likely to seek guidance from their owners in stressful situations.
“The more dogs look to you for guidance on what to do next, the more it’s likely to happen when they become uncomfortable,” she says.
Make the dog part of your pack
Dogs that are left chained outside or isolated are more likely to become nervous, upset and territorial, Miller says. This makes them much more likely to bite when approached, so avoid leaving dogs chained outside or unsupervised for long periods.
“Dogs are social animals and very motivated to be in social groupings,” she says. “Humans in their lives are part of their social group.”
When dogs bite, assess the situation
It’s common for people to say, ‘they never saw it coming,’ when dogs bite. But Miller says that dogs almost always show warning signs before biting. Review the situation and assess what happened. The bite could have been caused by a stranger’s approach or a hug when dogs are not accustomed to being hugged. Perhaps the dog was being territorial and guarding food. Watch a dog’s body language for signs that something is amiss.
“It can be difficult for people, especially children, to pay attention to a different language. It’s like the dog is speaking Swahili or French. If you don’t know that language, you miss it. There’s almost always a lesson. It’s something to work on or prevent.”
Related on MNN: