Becoming a Bite-Free Nation
This is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. The purpose of this week is twofold: to bring awareness to the problem AND to provide information on how to prevent dog bites from happening to you and those you love.
It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that nearly 4.7 million people are bitten by a dog each year. As a dog trainer, people may assume that dog bites go with the territory and that dog trainers are bit hundreds of times in their career. Well, I am happy to report that the opposite is true! Trainers that are educated in canine body language, follow certain protocol when dealing with dogs, and think before they “reach” are seldom bit. Communicating well with the canine species is what keeps a trainer safe. It is estimated that a dog can bite up to 3 times in a second, so no matter how fast a person is, the dog is going to be faster! It is imperative that humans know what to look for in order to avoid those teeth! Unfortunately, reading a dog’s body language is still a foreign concept to most humans. By the time many owners understand what their dog is “saying”, it is too late. This is why a week dedicated to bite prevention is so important. The hope of this week is to educate the public on how to appropriately communicate with a dog, when to interact with a dog, and when to leave a dog alone.
The following are some important considerations when dealing with the canine species.
- Become an expert at reading a dog’s body language. Most dogs send out stress signals when they need some space. The dog training community has come a long way in dissecting canine behavior. Body language seems to be a canine’s strongest form of communication. Professional trainer Turid Rugaas has an excellent book dedicated to these signals. “On Talking Terms with Dogs – Calming Signals” provides a wonderful education in canine communication. She points out that by the time a growl or bite occurs, most dogs have given off quite a few signals that they are uncomfortable. These include: excessive yawning, tongue flicking (licking lips), body shake offs, whale eye (seeing the whites of the eyes), a stiff body, and a hard stare. All of these are signs that the dog is not comfortable and that his stress levels are increasing. Consider these signals your dog’s way of saying, “I am not comfortable with what is happening.”
- Space is very important for dogs. Never corner a dog and always give him an “escape” route if possible. Most trainers are very aware of their spatial relationship when working with a client’s dog and realize that it is imperative to give Fido plenty of options. A dog’s main concern at his core is to feel safe. Having the ability to gain enough space provides comfort to dogs. If given the option, most dogs will avoid a situation and will choose to avoid a confrontation. Dogs bite if they feel that they don’t have another choice so always give dogs plenty of space in which to operate.
- Monitor all interactions between dogs and children. Things can go wrong quickly, as most children will ignore a dog’s signals. Children seldom know when to leave a dog alone which is where adult supervision comes into play. All dogs have a limit on what they will tolerate from a child. Make sure that there is always appropriate hands on supervision between a dog and a child. There are two wonderful organizations dedicated to keeping children safe: Doggone Safe and Family Paws. Both organizations provide a plethora of information and tips on educating children on appropriate interactions with dogs as well as ways in which to keep a house full of dogs and children safe. Take the time to check them out….you will be amazed at what you don’t know!
- Make sure that your dog has a safe place to go if he needs to be alone. Dogs deserve some “down” time when eating, sleeping or enjoying a favorite chew. Whether it’s a dog pen, crate, bed, or gated off area…it should be off limits from anyone teasing or interfering with these activities. While many dogs gladly give up their favorite chews to whoever comes along, not all dogs are so “happy” to relinquish their resources. I don’t blame them. After all, who wants to be bothered when enjoying a favorite dessert? Help your dog succeed, provide a special out of the way place for him to go, if only to detox from the chaos of the day. It is also a good idea to give Fido a safe place to go when visitors come over, especially if children are present.
- Be an advocate for your dog. You are responsible for everything your dog does. You, as the owner, get to call the shots and decide where and with whom your dog interacts. If your pup is not comfortable in certain situations, then don’t let him participate. If someone wants to pet your dog while on a walk, and Fido doesn’t like people, then step up and say so. If he is not a fan of other dogs, then don’t bring him to a dog park or an event. Not all dogs are party animals…some prefer the comfort of a nice quiet home with minimal interactions and there is nothing wrong with that. Never force a dog to interact with a person or another dog. If a dog chooses to avoid a situation, then respect that. Let your dog choose his comfort zone. Provide only successful situations for Fido.
- Teach children (and adults) how to appropriately approach a dog. Most people want to rush straight up to a dog which can be unsafe. Always ask the owner if the dog is safe to pet. And even if the owner has agreed to let you pet his dog, it is always safer to “invite” the dog to come over to you. This gives him the option to engage or to avoid. This simple choice helps keep a dog’s stress level low because he can control the space. The late Sophia Yin has a wonderful handout on how to approach a dog. Check out her website.
- Never approach a dog that you don’t know; that is in a car; that is tethered ; or that is behind a fence. Teach your children to follow your lead. There are situations where it is never safe to approach a dog. Dogs that are behind barriers or restrained in some way are not safe to approach. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for a dog is to leave him alone and walk on by.
- Make certain that your own pet is managed properly. This includes proper fencing and leashing. It is your job to keep your pet from roaming free. Remember that not all people are dog lovers and many are actually terrified of dogs. They may confront your dog and put him in a position where he may feel he needs to defend himself. Keep your dog safe and manage him properly.
- Use positive techniques when working with your dogs. Harsh corrections create additional stress and stress can manifest itself into aggression. When we take away all choices from a dog, then he only has two options: fight or flight. If we take away the possibility of flight…it only leaves, fight. The wonderful benefit of using positive training techniques is that it keep stress at bay by giving the dog choices.
- If you feel that you need additional help, or that your dog may be a bite risk, contact a qualified, positively based trainer. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are concerned about your own dog. Help is out there and a good trainer should provide you with the answers that you need.
Trainers realize early on that there are ways to stay safe when dealing with dogs. We never forget what they are at their core…animals. When put into certain situations, all dogs can and may bite. By gaining an education on canine body language and by following a few safety rules, most people should be able to remain bite free their entire life. It is amazing what a little bit of knowledge in the right hands can do. Help us build a country of safe canine/human interactions. Spread the word!
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