Out with friends last week, one of our group revealed that she had been bitten by a dog as a child. It was a serious bite and, 40 years later, I can still see the scars on her cheek. It quickly turned into a dog-owner-busting session: The mothers in my group complained about how people let their dogs wander right up to their kids. I agreed that’s no good but I also told them I often have the opposite experience: Parents allowing their children to zero in on my dogs, even as my dogs turn away or cower. (They aren’t used to being eye-to-eye with toddlers.) While we’ve never had an incident, it’s unnerving and we calmly steer out of their path.
I know a dog doesn’t have to be a “biter” or behaviorally challenged to bite. Sometimes they are simply afraid, and when the person inspiring the fear can’t read the signs of fear in the dog, the outcome can be injurious.
Around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year, many of them children. Fortunately, the majority of these painful interactions can be avoided. During this National Dog Bite Prevention Week, it’s a good time to bone up on why dogs bite and how to avoid being on the receiving end.
Behaviorist Sophia Yin created a downloadable poster illustrating signs of fear and anxiety in dogs along with a video demonstrating how to approach a dog appropriately. It's an excellent primer on bite-avoidance.
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s tips on how to avoid being bitten include:
- Don’t run past a dog. The dog’s natural instinct is to chase and catch you.
- Ask for permission from the owner before petting a dog.
- Don’t approach a strange dog, especially one that’s tethered or confined.
- If a dog threatens you, don’t scream. Avoid eye contact. Try to remain motionless until the dog leaves, then back away slowly until the dog is out of sight.
- If you believe a dog is about to attack you, try to place something between yourself and the dog, such as a backpack or a bicycle.
On the owner side:
- Obedience training can teach dogs proper behavior and help owners control their dogs.
- When a stranger comes to your home, keep your dog inside, away from the door in another room. (The AVMA's tips are especially focused on mail carriers, who are on the front lines of dealing with dog attacks.)
- Dogs can be protective of their territory and may interpret the actions of visitors as a threat.
- Spay or neuter your dog. Neutered dogs are less likely to roam and bite.
- Dogs that receive little attention or handling, or are left tied up for long periods of time, frequently turn into biters.