Blog: Dog Bite Prevention Part 1

Dog Bite Prevention Part 1

by Alexandra Mittner DVM

Dog bite prevention is an important topic to discuss both for dog owners as well as the general public, as dogs are seen in more and more public venues in today’s society. America is leading the way in terms of recognizing the importance of the human-animal bond and seeing the animals we live with as an interactive part of our life and family, and not simply a possession or working tool. Accompanied with this is a rise in the incidence of animal related injuries seen every year by human healthcare services. If you ask Google, “Each year, more than 350,000 dog bite victims are seen in emergency rooms, and approximately 850,000 victims receive medical attention. Data that the CDC collected in the USA between 2001 and 2003 indicated there were 4.5 million dog bite victims per year, but that figure appears to be rising.”  The goal of this blog segment is to talk about the behaviors that lead up to a bite, and some techniques that can help prevent bites from occurring. Today we will go over the body language associated with fear and aggression, and how to recognize the difference, so that you and the other people and animals you love can stay safe. During part two we will talk about techniques for greeting a dog and allowing dogs to greet each other to help prevent a bite.

Dogs can’t talk. This is a very important fact when talking about bite prevention, because humans rely so strongly on our ability to vocalize what is bothering us, and we tend to ignore body language cues of others. Dogs are unable to do this, they can’t tell us what or where it hurts, and they can’t tell you “hey I’m uncomfortable, can we please not ……” They rely on body language to convey this message to other animals as well as people, so it is important for us to  closely watch our dogs interactions to decode how they are feeling. Being aware of a dog’s body language cues is the first step towards preventing a bite.

Dogs present a lot of subtle anxiety and appeasement behaviors before they escalate to a bite. These behaviors may be different depending on the dog and its personality and they may progress through these behaviors quickly. The behaviors  can be  subtle and easy to miss. Examples of these behaviors are panting when the dog is not hot or thirsty, a furrowed “worried” brow, licking of their lips when no food present, or whale eye, (“Whale eye” is when extra white of the eye is seen and the dog looks like it is surprised or trying to look out of the corner of its eyes). Dogs may act like they are sleepy, attempt to move away or pace when they are anxious about a situation or may seem like they are constantly looking around for an attack (hyper-vigilance) or hide behind the owner. 

Being able to differentiate between a dog that is fearful and may bite and one that is fearful but unlikely to bite can be very subtle. First, lets learn what a fearful dog looks like; generally they will have lowered body position or may cower, with their ears back and tail low. Lifting a paw is a sign of uncertainty about a situation and is an appeasement gesture. If the dog has a lifted paw it is still deciding if it is going to cower or bite and this is a sign to approach very slowly. Watch for the facial cues discussed below, especially lip licking as this may just be a very subtle, and tension or drawing back of the corners of the mouth to see if the dog is escalating to a potential bite or more likely to roll over when approached.

If you look at the dogs facial expression and you see a lot of tension, the corners of the mouth are pulled back and tight, you can see a lot of the whites of the eye (whale eye) or they are very focused with a narrow stance, this dog is telling you I need some space and may bite. They may or may not have hackles raised and often are seen with the tail tucked. Some dogs may curl the lips and wrinkle the nose, possibly exposing some teeth as a warning they are ready to bite. Teeth baring may or may not be accompanied by a growl.

Dogs often avoid eye contact except with their owners and looking a dog directly in the eyes when they are fearful can lead to escalation.

Dogs may also adopt an aggressive posture when fearful. This is often a learned behavior, that reacting a certain way makes the threat go away. These are dogs that charge up to you or your fence and are trying to intimidate you into running away from them. Usually this tactic is accompanied by loud barking and usually does have the desired result of the person or animal moves away, which further reinforces this behavior. These dogs are less likely to bite someone because people are much less likely to approach them, however any dog exhibiting these  behaviors should be approached with extreme caution as it is often much more difficult to tell if these animals will actually bite. We will discuss fear aggression more in a later blog segment.

In our next blog segment we will discuss how to approach a dog and what to watch for when children are around. We will also discuss how to allow dogs to greet each other. But remember the best safety tip is always ask the owner before petting their dog or letting your dog meet them.