Bites to the Face

Human behaviors that precede them
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2015

One disadvantage of being a canine behaviorist is that so many human behaviors scare me. My heart leaps into my throat all too often when I see people performing risky behaviors around dogs. From hugging dogs and picking up dogs to sticking their faces right by a dog’s face or bending over a dog, there are plenty of gasp-worthy moments. I see people performing these behaviors and want to scream out a warning. It’s similar to the reaction I have when watching a horror movie and want to yell, “Don’t go in the house!”

I work with so many clients whose dogs have bitten someone, and as I hear the stories of the bites, the same human behaviors are mentioned over and over. I’m not saying this to blame the people, but rather to help us all learn how to lower our risk of being bitten.

Dog bites are a serious problem that we should all attempt to avoid, and among the most distressing are bites to the face. In a new study called Human behavior preceding bites to the face, scientists examined 132 incidents of bites to human faces that did not involve bites to any other parts of the body. The goal of the study was to determine the human behavior that preceded bites.

Well-know risky behaviors such as bending over a dog, putting the face close to a dog’s face and eye contact with the dog and person very close to each other did occur before many of the bites, which is no surprise. What was a bit of a shock was the percentage of times that these no-no behaviors happened before the 132 incidents in the study. In 76 percent of the bites, people bent over the dog just before the bite! In 19 percent of the cases, a bite was preceded by people putting their faces close to the dog’s face, and in five percent of the cases, gazing between dog and person at close range occurred before a bite. In no incidents was a bite to the face preceded by trimming the dog’s nails, falling on the dog, hitting the dog as punishment, stepping on the dog, pulling the dog’s hair, tugging the dog’s body or scolding the dog.

More than 75 percent of the bites to the face happened to people who knew the dog. Over two-thirds of the bites were to children, and of those, 84 percent were to children under the age of 12. Children who were bitten were with their parents in 43 percent of the cases and with the dog guardian in 62 percent of the incidents. Sixty percent of the bites were to females, and no adults were bitten by their own dogs. More than half of the bites were to the nose and lips of the person, as opposed to the chin, cheek, forehead or eye area.

All of the dogs who bit someone in the face were adult dogs, and over two-thirds of them were male dogs. In only six percent of the bites did people report that the dog gave a warning such as growling or tooth displaying prior to biting. (To me, this is the single most surprising finding in the study, and I think it’s quite possible that some people did not notice or failed to remember warnings by dogs.)

As the authors of the paper mention, this research is based on questionnaires that ask people about past events. As such, there are inherent limitations with the study. Still, the results about the frequency with which kids are bitten, the greater likelihood of male dogs biting faces than female dogs, and the finding that only adult dogs bit faces are consistent with previous research.

If you have ever been bitten in the face or seen it happen to someone else, what do you remember about the human behavior right before the bite?

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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