Dog bite awareness
Mosi does not have a bite record, but because he is a highly anxious dog and at-risk for becoming a dog with a bite record, he has been muzzle-trained using positive-reinforcement tactics only. Now he associates his muzzle with treats and adventures. A muzzle is a sign of a well-trained dog, not a bad dog.

Our best friend. That’s what we think of our dogs. To them, we are their world. So it is truly traumatizing when you see good old Fido bite, especially when it happens to one of the most susceptible populations, your own child. But you can set your dog up for success. April 9 – 15, 2023, is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and we would like to cover the who, what, when, where, and why of dog bites to help you stay safe and come to a better understanding of your dog.

Who can stay safe from dog bites?

The answer is everyone! The key to this is learning to be receptive to how dogs communicate. Dogs that growl, bark, or raise their hackles are telling you something important; something is not right! The moment they tell you this, you need to back off. The best rule of thumb with any dog is to be like a tree. Don’t rush up to a dog you don’t know. Don’t push yourself into their space. Respect their space, and let them initiate contact with you. You might think you need to force your dog into situations to help properly socialize them, but this just teaches them that their current method of communication isn’t working and they need to escalate it. Escalation only goes so far before they communicate the one way that gets results to make someone back off … by biting.

Stay still, stay calm, and give space if the dog is showing signs of discomfort. Try standing sideways to avoid seeming confrontational.

So the key to staying safe from dog bites is respecting your dog’s boundaries. You can work with a professional dog trainer or behaviorist to understand how to help them expand these boundaries, but as far as advice that anyone can follow … be a tree!

What can you do to protect yourself from dog bites?

If you’re the owner of a puppy, start training right away. Some behaviors like mouthing or jumping may seem harmless or cute when your puppy is small, but imagine how it will be when your dog is fully grown or when with a new person. Find a leash that is sturdy and easy to see so that when walking your dog in public, others can see your dog is leashed and can give appropriate distance. Teach your dog to accept pets calmly while sitting or to politely set boundaries and refuse to allow strangers to pet your dog if their approach makes your dog uncomfortable. Try not to let your dog off-leash in public settings, because even if your dog is well-trained and adjusted, it may run into a dog that isn’t and could easily get pulled into a dog fight no one was looking for.

When walking in public and you see a dog off-leash, move away calmly and slowly from the dog. If the dog is showing signs of aggression or stress, contact authorities immediately to report the dog’s appearance and location. If the dog approaches you, avoid any behaviors that might be seen as predatorial, such as maintaining eye contact, making sudden movements, or creating loud or high-pitched sounds. Stay calm and encourage any passersby, especially children, to stay calm as well. Do not run from the dog or chase the dog.

If your dog has a history of anxiety and nipping in public settings or at the vet, remember, a basket muzzle that gives them space to pant and accept treats is not a sign of a dangerous dog but of a responsible owner!

When are dogs most likely to bite?

Remember what we were saying about boundaries? The more you push past your dog’s comfort zone and ignore those warning signs of hackles raising, growling, yawning, whining, “whale eyes”, etc., the closer you get to the danger zone where your dog feels like they are out of options of how to communicate with you or the person who is pushing their boundaries. If you ignore the signs and break into the zone where the dog feels they have few options left, you are at high-risk of an injury that may have been avoided. This especially becomes a common issue with children who don’t know better, making it crucial for parents to be pro-active in teaching their children how to treat dogs with respect and gentle handling. The dog may seem to tolerate rough play for a while, but once it reaches that breaking point and snaps, it takes a lot of hard work and resilience to come back from the trust that may be lost – oftentimes, this involves working with a professional to find out, not what is wrong with your dog, but what you need to do differently. Try not to put your dog in that uncomfortable situation in the first place and learn to recognize some common but often misunderstood signals dogs use to communicate with us to ensure your children can recognize these signs as well. 

Where might bites commonly occur?

This is going to depend entirely on your dog and what they are comfortable with. If you’re like a lot of people who got a puppy at the start of the pandemic, then you’ll want to ease your dog into your new everyday-life, and likely with the help of a professional trainer. Going out for walks where you might run into strangers and new animals could easily scare a dog that is not properly conditioned into fight-or-flight mode. This includes going to dog parks, popular hiking trails, and other public places where you might easily run into another person – and especially when you run the risk of running into a dog off-leash.

Introduce your dog to new experiences at their own pace and focus on keeping the outing positive. You may be eager to do everything with your dog, and they want to be there with you, but remember, they only have so many ways to tell you, hey, this is making me uncomfortable. Show them you’re listening by being willing to take a step back and take it slow when they are getting overwhelmed or anxious.

Likewise, bites may occur within the home because a dog’s boundaries are not being respected. A fair amount of bites within the home happen when children are left unsupervised with dogs and break into their personal space bubble, as mentioned previously. As scary as it is when your dog may growl at you, take a moment and listen to it to try to understand what it is communicating. Has a boundary been pushed? Does it feel a resource is being threatened? Does it feel cornered? A dog who growls is a good dog and a safe dog because they are communicating with you – never punish a growl!

So why do dogs bite?

In conclusion, there are a variety of causes that can lead a dog to biting, but there is one simple solution: respect your dog. If you have difficulty understanding why your dog behaves the way it does, don’t be afraid to seek out the opinion of a professional dog trainer or behavioral counselor (tip, search for someone who is IAABC-affiliated or accredited or otherwise in compliance with LIMA guidelines). Your dog will love you all the more for coming to understand it at a deeper level – and that’s saying something because you’re already your dog’s world!

Additional resources:

Teaching Children How to Prevent Dog Bites by AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association)

Recognizing Risky Situations Helps Prevent Dog Bites by AVMA

Dog bite prevention: top ten scenarios to avoid by AVMA 

Dog bite emergencies by AVMA

(Video) Dog Body Language 101 by Fear-Free Homes

Dog Body Language by Best Friends Animal Society

Teleconference appointments with Calder Veterinary Behavior Services

Consultation with Salty Dogs Obedience and Adventure in Blue Hill, Maine