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Shirley Zindler
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Avoiding Dog Bites
The Still & Silent Way Works Best
A dog may bite to defend food or toys.

Two minor punctures were just visible above the old man’s ankle. He held his slacks up from his skinny leg as he told me how the dog had rushed off its property and bitten him as he walked by. As I took the report he told me about many other dog bites he had received.
    

The man was a quiet, soft-spoken widower who spent every morning walking around his suburban neighborhood. He lived in a nice area without a lot of loose dogs and I was puzzled at how he had been bitten so often. As an animal control officer, I handle aggressive dogs daily and am rarely bitten.
 

What was about him or his demeanor that incited normally docile canines to aggression? It’s not like the old guy wrapped his legs in bacon before he set out each morning. I questioned him about each bite and he told me that when he saw a dog he would yell in an attempt to frighten it away. As the dog approached he would flail around, kicking, swinging his arms and screaming.  Wow…. that’s probably more effective than bacon. Jump around like a wounded antelope and hope the predator doesn’t eat you. No one deserves to be bitten while minding his own business but I could see how the man’s response could be a contributing factor.
 

In observance of the recent Dog Bite Prevention Week, May 20-26, I offer a view of dog bites from that of someone who has investigated literally thousands of them. In most cases the dogs were family pets that are normally friendly. A few were dogs with a history of aggression that was permitted or excused by the owner.
 

More than 4 million people a year are bitten by dogs and children are the most common victims. In almost every case, the bite could have been avoided with some effort on the part of the dog owner as well as from the victim (or their parent). In one case I investigated, a toddler was bitten by a relative’s elderly arthritic dog. The child’s father was furious, demanding that the dog be euthanized immediately. The family was visiting the wife’s sister and the child wandered into the other room where the dog was lying on his bed, chewing a bone. The child climbed on the dogs back and sustained a minor puncture to the hand. The parents were extremely negligent for letting their baby roam around someone else’s home unattended.  Of course the dog’s owner should have been alert as well. It was deemed a provoked bite and the dog was spared, but sadly many dogs are euthanized for minor, easily preventable bites.
 

The importance of socialization, training, not allowing dogs to roam and not leaving dogs unsupervised with children is critical. Many people are also in denial about what their dog might do. I can’t tell you how many times a person has told me “Oh he would never bite”. Often when I’m looking at a dog whose body language screams “I would bite in a hot second!”  Dogs are limited in how they can say “you’re scaring me” or simply “leave me alone”. Biting is a way that dogs communicate. Most dogs won’t (and shouldn’t) challenge their owners, but a child or visitor may not be so lucky. I’m also amazed by how many people allow their kids to abuse their dogs. “They can do anything to him.” They tell me proudly. Sadly, the long-suffering dog may eventually tire of the torment and suffer the ultimate consequence for his predictable response.
 

Dogs should be off limits to kids when eating, sleeping, chewing a bone etc. It’s critical that children are taught to respect a dog’s space, food and other potential triggers. Dogs who are sick, scared, injured or have pups are also at higher risk for biting.  
 

Equally important is that people stay still when approached by a potentially aggressive dog. Even an aggressively charging dog on its own property will rarely bite a perfectly still person. I can vouch for this, having been charged many times by dogs that have previously bitten. When they don’t get a response from me, they stop and lose interest.
 

I was impressed with a boy who approached a house while selling candy bars. Inside, a highly aggressive dog that had bitten several previous visitors saw the child. She crashed right through the front window in a shower of glass. The terrified boy screamed bloody murder but didn’t move a muscle. The dog snarled and circled him repeatedly but didn’t bite.
 

Please remember that even the nicest dog can bite and even the nicest child can irritate them. Dogs deserve our respect and protection, as do our children and visitors to our homes.

 

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Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.

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Submitted by Christina Hansen | June 6 2012 |

Great article Shirley. My lab just bit a guy last week. His staring her down and approaching her with his arm extended while she was already lunging at the end of her leash and barking at him was just too much for her. She chomped his arm. She loves kids and girls especially, but men often don't realize they are challenging a dog when they stare them down and make the dog feel threatened. My other dogs don't like smelly people. Something about their body odor triggers them.

Submitted by shirley zindler | June 7 2012 |

It is surprising how many people will continue to ignore a dogs attempts at communicating. As long as there are people and dogs, there will be dog bites, but hopefully we can reduce the number of incidents with some good management on our part. That might mean being very alert for people doing dumb things.

Submitted by Anonymous | June 28 2012 |

This is a case of knowing your dog. Obviously if you have a dog that dislikes "smelly people" or people approaching, you are better off keeping them out of public or walking them in a place with no people around. Otherwise you are setting yourself up for a lawsuit. Owners can be just as dumb as other people.

Submitted by Shirley Zindler | July 3 2012 |

I would certainly agree that the owners bear a burden of responsibilty for keeping people safe around their dogs and many dont do it very well :)

Submitted by Pawsitive Atten... | June 7 2012 |

One of the most well-written and educated articles I've read on preventing dog bites in a long time. No sensationalism, just the facts with simple and wish-it-were-common-sense ways to avoid being bitten. I love this and am sharing it everywhere. Thank you!

Submitted by shirley zindler | June 8 2012 |

How encouraging! Thank you for your kind words. As a dog lover, I have seen so many nice dogs euthanized for biting when a little care could have prevented the situation in the first place. If people are better educated, maybe we can prevent people from getting hurt and spare dogs from sad ends at the same time.

Submitted by Katherine Quick | May 1 2013 |

What a great article and definitely one worth sharing with everyone you know! No one (except for myself or my husband) is allowed to approach our dog, Molly, while she's eating - well, in a way that might make her think you're going to take her food away - just as a precaution. My in-laws thought I was being ridiculous, until they let their dog wander into the kitchen while Molly was eating and it took three of us to pull them off each other & my brother-in-law was bit in the process. It's so vital for owners to really know their dog and what he/she can or can't tolerate. We don't set our children up for failure, so why should we with our four legged kids?

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