Dog Bite Prevention – Part I

This week, I'm joining forces with State Farm, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the US Postal Service and other organizations to promote National Dog Bite Prevention Week.  Now more than ever, awareness needs to be raised about how to prevent dog bites from occurring.  If you're like me and are concerned about this issue, then the latest statistics will alarm you, because dog bites in the United States and Great Britain are growing.  Over a sixteen year period the number of hospital admissions caused by dog bites in the U.S. nearly doubled, increasing from 5,100 in 1993 to 9,500 in 2008, according to a report by the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.  And as if these numbers weren’t bad enough, according to 2010 statistics, there were approximately 4.5 million reported dog bites in the US, 800,000 of which were serious enough to require medical attention.  Over the last ten years dog bites have increased 50% in England and 150% in Scotland.  What is happening in these countries to cause such an increase?  The more I investigate the dog bite problem, the more I am discovering the reasons why.  You might be surprised at what I have found.

In a veterinary study published in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior (2009), lead author Meghan Herron, DVM says that confrontational training methods practiced by many trainers and handlers in the United States and Britain, are a contributing factor.   Dr. Herron states that, "Our study demonstrated that many confrontational training methods, whether staring down dogs, striking them, or intimidating them with physical manipulation such as alpha rolls [holding dogs on their back], do little to correct improper behavior and can elicit aggressive responses."

Dr. Jennie Jamtgaard, an applied animal behavior consultant and behavior instructor at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine gives an example:

"I saw an Australian Cattledog mix with severe aggression (lunging, growling, barking) directed at other dogs whenever they came into view, even hundreds of feet away. The dog was fine with people and had never been aggressive to people before. The owners were mimicking what they had seen in popular media and dealt with the dog in a completely punishment-based way. They repeatedly tried to physically subdue the dog whenever it was aggressive. Finally, at a pet store the dog growled and lunged, and when the female owner tried to force the dog down, she was bitten on the arm. That was when they called me."

Dr. John Ciribassi, past-president of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), explains why punishment can cause aggression:

"A typical scenario is a client with a 3 year old dog who has presented because of aggression directed at strangers that the dog meets either on walks or when guests come to the home. Initially the dog barks at people as they pass and backs away if approached, indicating that the aggression is due to fear. The owner is referred to a trainer or watches a show that demonstrates the use of choke chain or pinch collar and verbal or physical corrections. Because the dog now feels pain when it encounters the person it fears, the aggression escalates. As a result, now the dog lunges, snaps, and bites in situations where it used to bark and back away. In some cases the dog is so aroused it learns to redirect its aggression towards humans."

Other contributing factors to dog bites include bad breeding practices utilized by the puppy mill industry and back yard breeders.  These people only breed dogs for money, churning out puppies with no care or attention to correctly raising those puppies to be sociable and comfortable around humans and other animals.  Lack of socialization causes fear and insecurity, which is at the very heart of aggressive response. Irresponsible dog ownership, particularly by those who own large breed dogs for intimidation or protection, is also a major factor.

Jim Crosby, a leading investigator of dog bites and human fatalities from dog bites in the U. S.  states: 

"What I see these numbers indicating, based on my on-scene investigations, is that irresponsible owners tend not to spay and neuter, tend to chain their animals out for extended times with little or no socialization, and maintain their animals with less wisdom and care than most of us. Once again, it's the two-legged problem behind the four legger that precipitates the problems."

The Humane Society of the United States reports that 50% of children will be bitten by a dog before their 12th birthday.  Children under the age of five are most likely to be bitten and most of these bites come from a dog that the child knows; the family dog or that of a relative or friend.  Children are most likely to be bitten in the face as they are closer to a dog’s eye level making it easier for a dog to feel threatened by eye to eye contact.  Children love to kiss and hug dogs, even though these expressions of affection do not translate well in the dog world.  Fast movements can stimulate a dog’s prey drive and/or chase instinct.  Higher pitched voices can sometimes startle a dog and make it fearful.   A dog can be frustrated through rough play or by teasing and a child can inadvertently inflict pain with the pull of a tail or a poke in the eye.  It is also hard for a child to read and understand a dog’s body language, therefore missing vital signals that can put them in harm’s way.

So how should children protect themselves? 

Read on in Part II of this blog as well as my new article about Dog & Child Safety.


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  • Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing this crucial issue to the fore.

    As the owner of a reactive dog I'm sick to the back teeth of the mis-placed Alpha rubbish that's thrown around as 'advice' from armchair 'experts' with no qualifications or expertise.

    Positive reinforcement works and the proof is sleeping happily at my feet. He no longer batters an eyelid when he sees children in the street (he used to bark) as we've worked tirelessly to re-educate him that children mean good things and don't need to be feared.

    I'm really thrilled with this campaign. Let's hope it will start to turn the tide. Well done for tackling such an important issue. 🙂

  • I feel from my own experience the reason for the 50% increase in dog bites is due to the ever increasing dog bans and leash laws. By limiting the opportunity for dogs to socialise with the public and other dogs these discriminatory laws which are designed to "protect" the public are actually making dog biting more likely. It would be interesting to hold a survey and compare the areas with a dog friendlyand educational policy with the draconian areas, I would be pretty sure that the statistics would bear my theory out.

  • As a Be A Tree (Doggone Safe) educator, I present to children on the topic of dog safety. I am so glad to see you bringing this important issue to light, Victoria.

    I've just been invited to speak at our local Kiwanis club on the subject of keeping children safe around dogs. I can't wait to educate adults about dog body language, how to teach their kids to Be A Tree, and to explain how many parents often unknowingly magnetize their children to dogs. We can't just focus on the children. Educating the community is also vitally important if we are to reduce these alarming statistics. - -Lisa Matthews, Pawsitive Practice Training, LLC, Alpharetta, GA 30005

  • I couldn't agree more. When the published stats came out regarding the increase in dogs bites, and admins were quoted as saying they couldn't imagine why, the first thing I said to myself (and when I discuss this with clients) is that the increase is most likely due to folks trying to mimic aversive training techniques. Glad to see my initial reaction was spot on.

  • Connie Clark

    I have a retired breeding dam German Shepherd who has had a really rough life. I'm giving her a stable,loving, and social home. She's wonderful with family especially the children. It's folks we meet when walking or who come into my home where we have a problem. She's learned that by nipping, she can cause people to back away & maintain a distance. She never growls, barks, or gives a warning. The only signal I have is an excited body language. I've stopped allowing strangers to pet her unless she's calm & they are squatting. I have been unable to find a local trainer who is willing to work with us. This is the only problem I have with this dog but nipping is biting & it could escalate. Help!

  • I'm so happy to read this and share on FB and with all the children I can reach. My contribution is my children's picture book for kids 3-8, "Don't Lick the Dog…Making Friends with Dogs."
    Victoria gave it a great review when it came out in 2009. My publisher and I hope to help change 'kid's behavior' one bed story at a time! And that of course, helps the doggies too. You can check out the book trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exoQtUxpHR8

  • Skye

    That study certainly lays it on the line. I'm glad to see this put forth in clear words and facts that are very difficult to ignore. I hope this can be the start of the tide turning the other way.

  • I have that problem with my lab mix. She and my other dog were both on a leash when a Rot. came and grabbed my smaller dog making my bigger dog Daffy to attack the Rot. Now when I walk her on the leash & a dog barks or tries to go at her , Daffy bites the leash which sometimes my hand gets in her mouth. CAN ANYONE HELP ME .!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    8189260397

  • This is an excellent article. I have seen many cases of dogs who have been trained with punishment techniques and aversives and the response you get with positive based training is amazing, you automatically see a spark within the dog who ultimately wants to please 🙂

  • Jenny Haskins

    I am disappointed with John Crosby's statement.

    Spaying and castrating has little if any effect on the tendency of a dog to bite.

    When I was a girl very few dogs were 'desexed' and yet according to the statistics, although increasing numbers of dogs are being desexed, there is an increase in dog bites being reported.

  • Susan

    Thanks so much for putting this out! I teach Self-Defense to kids (and adults), and part of the kids' classes is material around all kinds of safety, including the proper way to meet a dog! I take my GSD, Maggie, and the kids love meeting her, getting a cold nose, and learning an important skill. We role play what to do if a dog shows aggression (how close, what level--etc.). By the end, they really come to understand that language does not cross the species barrier! Thanks, Victoria, for this and all your great material.

  • Jenny Haskins

    I tend to agree with Michael Haslam.

    We see ever increasing restrictive laws re dogs and yet the bite statistics continue to go up.

    When I was a kiddy, most people, not only did not de-sex their dogs, but also let them run free. IMy sisters and I grew up with dogs all around us, though we never owned one. We grew up knowing about dogs in the same way that we knew about traffic. Do NOT run across the road, always LOOK before crossing a road, do NOT pat a strange dog, look away from a dog that approaches you unless you know the dog.

  • Judy Price

    Thank you Victoria for raising awareness about the way in which humans behave towards dogs that may be be interpreted as intimidating or aggressive by the dog. Ordinary behaviors that are considered common courtesy in human terms are considered aggression by dogs. For example, a smile, showing one's teeth is like a dog baring its teeth. Direct eye contact is confrontational. A hug around the neck is a an act of aggression. It is no wonder that so many small children (and many adults, too) are bitten by dogs. If only we humans understood that dogs are dogs, not humans, and they communicate in different ways.

  • It is a concerning subject, but unfortunately it is becoming more common. The comments have hit on many things that need to be looked into, like socialisation for a dog, easing restrictions on having a dog on the lead at certain parks, and also owners not understanding their dogs like they should do.

    Dogs are so misunderstood and the more we can help them at a younger age, with socialisation, bite inhibition, good manners, and also convincing owners that they need training too, the better things may change.

    If owners understood that doing simple things like mastering the recall, knowing why basic commands are a must for them and their dog, understanding why socialising a dog is a must, and importantly even knowing how to read their dogs better, maybe things will improve.

    Until then most dogs may just be an untrained good looking pet, who's intelligence is neglected and not given chance to flourish.

  • Angela Oakes

    I have a small chihuahua that can get stressed when too many people are around or if she feels that her people are threatened anyway. My own son will rough-house with her, and so her concept of play is a bit more aggressive. I wanted her to see people (including children) as a good thing and not a threat and and also wanted to make sure that children didn't get nipped. I began holding her in my arms (a place of security for her) when children would come close, repeating the phrase "nice". As they would pet her, I would pet her also, and praise her for allowing them to pet her. Of course, I also limit the amount of hands at one time. I don't know if it is the approved method, but it DID work and I didn't need to bully my dog.

  • Adrian Johnson

    To Jenny Haskins: I agree with your statement, "Spaying and castrating has little if any effect on the tendency of a dog to bite". But the issue is many welfare organizations who are promoting the Trap, Neuter and Release concept in order to reduce the stray dog populations are misguiding the public by making statements that sterilization will "alter" dog aggression levels to a minimal therefore making it safer to release them.

    Are there any case studies available on the subject?

  • A lot of force based training is based on the Alpha Male theory that was observed in wolves in captivity. Recent studies of wolves in the wild suggest they act more like a family. If wolves were constantly fighting for Alpha status in the wild they would soon injure each other to extinction that is how submissive and dominant behaviours evolved. 21st Century life for a lot of dogs is an ever restrictive affair akin to being in captivity, the more we allow our dogs freedom to express natural behaviour to run and play with other dogs not only will they be physically healthier but mentally too. We desperately need the 1997 Dog Control Orders to be rewritten, councils issue them under the pretex of a cleaner and safer place for the public yet it is in fact an excuse to collect fines. I live in a small town with a seafront, all the dogs can go offlead and most dogs are relatively well behaved, a pair of swans have been nesting and successfully reared 5 successive families on the local boating pond where the dogs play. which I think says volumes for the behaviour of the dogs. Yet the county council recently tried to introduce county wide dogs on leads orders and beach bans. I checked with our local police and no incidents regarding dogs were reported in our area, countywide six were investigated by the police in 2010. We have had to endure anonymous letters in the local press calling for mandatory muzzling of all dogs, how all dogs should not be allowed in public areas etc every letters page for the three weeks of the consultation period was accompanied with a picture of a dog poo bin. The County Council had said they were going to introduce these laws by April the first but have had to revise their timetable substantially because they admitted they were going to decide on a countywide basis rather than a site specific basis. Which is totally against the DEFRA guidlines. For the past few weeks not one letter about dog muck and dog behaviour has appeared in the local press. When they start again I will take that as a sign the County council will be trying it on again. If these control orders are proposed in your area spread the news quickly, KCdogs have great advice on the guidelines and how to submit to the council's consultation. Make sure they are following the guidelines to the letter, they never do.

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