Learn what you can do to reduce your risk of a dog bite!

  By: Jacquelyn Jacobs, BSc, MSc, PhD in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare

  May 15, 2016

If you've ever been bitten by a dog, you know just how scary it can be.

When I was 16 years old, I worked at a dog kennel. I interacted with hundreds of dogs on a daily basis; dogs of all different breeds and sizes. Like many people, I was most cautious around the large dogs that I believed were more likely to be aggressive: German Shepherds, "Pit bull" breeds, Doberman Pinchers, and the list goes on. I often paid little attention to my approach with the smaller, "friendly" breed dogs. One day, I was leaning over a Beagle to pick her up and put her in a crate, and (much to my surprise at the time) she popped up and snapped at my face. She caught me on my lower lip and chin. I had an emergency room visit, several stitches, and was left wondering: what is wrong with this dog?

The answer was: nothing, really. My own actions (i.e., looming over her when she probably "told" me a number of times she was uncomfortable) caused her to feel she had no other option than to snap at me. I learned a very valuable lesson that day: any dog can bite. When a dog feels anxious, fearful, threatened, or even in pain, the risk of that dog becoming aggressive increases quickly, even when that dog has been well-bred, socialized, and trained.

It turns out I was not alone the year I was bitten. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs each year. Fortunately, there are several ways to reduce your risk of a dog bite. 

Tips for lowering your risk of a dog bite:

  1. Leave a dog alone when he or she is:

    -   Sleeping
    -   Eating
    -   Sick
    -   Injured
    -   Appears to be hiding or seeking time alone in its special place
    -   Playing with a toy and the dog is unfamiliar with you
    -   Not with its owner or on the other side of a fence

    Approaching a dog in these situations leaves you more vulnerable to a bite because the dog may feel anxious or threatened by your approach. Children are most likely to be bitten, so if you have children, teach them that certain scenarios are off-limits. For tips on improving the relationship between dogs and kids, see Dr. Lee Niel's blog post.

    If a dog is with its owner, always ask permission (and teach your children to ask permission) before approaching to pet the dog.

  2. Be aware of your own actions:

    An outstretched hand over the top of an unfamiliar dog's head in preparation of a pat or grabbing a dog's face to lean in close for a kiss are common human actions that can be perceived as scary or threatening to a dog. Most of us would feel uncomfortable if another person did these things to us, so it is equally important to be respectful of a dog's personal space.

    Tip:
    When you do approach a dog, try stopping a few feet away from the dog and waiting for them to close the gap. If they don't, it's better for you to walk away. Giving them the choice makes it far more likely they actually want to meet or interact with you when they approach you.

    Never
    approach or interact with a dog when they appear to be fearful or aggressive. That brings me to my next point:

  3. Learn how to read dog body language: it's not all about a wagging tail!

    Don't
    assume just because a dog's tail is wagging that it is ok to approach them. In fact, dogs wag their tails for a number of reasons and not all of them are positive.

    In particular, be on the lookout for signs of fear or anxiety, which increase the risk of aggression. This includes behaviours such as:
    -   Cowering
    -   Lip licking toward the nose (when no food is present)
    -   Looking in all directions
    -   Yawning
    -   Moving away when given the space to do so
    -   Pacing
    -   Refusing food

This poster on Body Language of Fear in Dogs by Dr. Sophia Yin may help by giving visual examples.

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Dr. Sophia Yin's website has many good references, as do a number of other organizations and professionals such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), and Dr. Patricia McConnell's blog.

If you're tech savvy, the new "dog decoder" app may be just the thing for you!

Dog Bite Prevention Week is a great opportunity to raise awareness about a very important topic. Make it a priority to get educated and to share your new knowledge with everyone you know!