Introduction to Dog Bites:
The good news about serious dog bites is that they are a relatively rare occurrence, and deaths resulting from them are even rarer, especially considering just how many pet dogs exist. In the USA, 40% of households have a dog (Mills, 2017, p. 391).
Dr. Ian Dunbar, who created a Dog Bite Assessment Scale, states that well over 99% of dog bites fall into Level 1 and Level 2 bite categories. Level 1 bites consist of aggressive behavior but no contact of teeth to a person’s skin, while Level 2 bites comprise skin contact without punctures – there may be small skin nicks and scratches (Mills, 2017, p. 232). This is illuminating information considering how much damage dogs can do with their teeth.
This information is not intended to dismiss victims of dog bites of any level, though, and is why dog bite prevention is a serious and crucial topic for dog trainers and guardians to address.
Identifying Causes of Dog Bites and Aggression Classification:
The process of identifying causes of dog bites is complicated. As Dr. Daniel Mills describes in his book (2017), there are inconsistencies with describing what exactly is aggressive behavior and what is a dog bite. For example, do accidental bites from dog play count towards statistics gathered? Does predatory behavior count as aggression, even though in the former case the dog is trying to catch food, and the latter is attempting to drive away another individual? (p. 11-16).
Luckily in the dog training field, by using inference we have a pretty good idea of the contexts that dogs bite. These include:
- Situations they are fearful: towards strangers/unfamiliar people, with body handling, like for veterinary care and nail trims.
- Resource Guarding: guarding or possessive behavior around objects (food, toys, etc.), locations/sleeping areas, and people.
- Territorial aggression – guarding a home territory and its resources.
- When frustration levels tip over. For example, when dogs are unable to reach what they want due to walking on leash, and eventually can lash out when they reach another dog or person. This is called barrier frustration, where a fence, leash, or other barrier prevents dogs from accessing what they want.
- There can also be redirected bites, where dogs bite something other than the target of their frustration/aggression.
- Maternal aggression to protect offspring.
- Aggression due to pain, or fear of painful experiences.
- Medical-related aggression problems – this could include pain, but also biting due to seizures, brain-tumors, etc.
And although we’re focusing primarily on dogs biting people in this article, dogs can also have aggression towards other dogs for the same/similar reasons as above, and additionally:
- Play-skill deficit behaviors with other dogs
- Bullying behavior towards other dogs
The great news about making inferences to create classifications of these different types of aggression, is that we currently have positive reinforcement training strategies to solve them.
The Target of Dog Bites:
Although statistics on dog bites are not complete by any means, there is evidence that many children are bitten by dogs. “The prevalence of dog bites in children is twice that of other age groups” (Mills, 2017, p. 391). Most bites to young children are from familiar dogs (72-75% of cases) and occur when there is no active parental supervision (Mills, 2017, p. 392).
It’s worth noting there are plenty of benefits of dog-child interactions. Studies have shown…
- Dogs are social facilitators and are seen as friends, social partners, and family members.
- Cognitive improvements occurred in children when a dog was present during problem-solving tasks.
- Children followed instructions better and paid more attention, and displayed calmer behavior in class-rooms with dogs present.
- While in hospitals, children showed less anxiety and distress with animal-assisted therapy.
- Dogs can help children with autism spectrum disorder relax more.
- It’s thought children with pets have more self-esteem and empathy towards others.
- Dogs can become a child’s best friend and help relieve anxiety and isolation (Mills, 2017, p. 391).
There is also a myth that specific breeds, or “dangerous” breeds, are more at risk of biting. There is now ample evidence that Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) has not worked to reduce dog bites, which makes sense, since individuals of all dog breeds have the potential to bite. There is not a dichotomy of: good dogs do not bite vs. bad dogs do bite. Dog breed and size are not indicative of bite-risk toward people.
Since we do have a general idea of the contexts when dog bites occur, we can can focus on preventing those situations from arising.
First, reading dog body language is ultimately important. Since we regularly observe dogs bite when they are afraid, frustrated, upset, or in pain, if we can recognize these emotional states and signals in their body language, we can intervene.
The majority of dogs give warning signals prior to biting. An individual person may or may not correctly read or understand the dog’s body language, and therefore, may take inappropriate action that leads to a bite, even if the dog is trying to convey he is uncomfortable or fearful about the situation.
One free resource to get started learning about dog body language/behavior, is iSpeakDog.
Second, using a strategy called management we can keep dogs from being in situations that they are uncomfortable and there is more risk of biting. We can set them up to succeed by avoiding situations that will upset them.
This could include, crating dogs in a quiet, calm room away from visitors if they are afraid of them, or away from children, or those who may approach the dog’s toys/food bowl and trigger a resource guarding aggression response.
Another type of management, is to walk in areas away from things that upset your dog, or to use a muzzle as an extra means of safety (after conditioning a dog to accept wearing the muzzle).
Set children and dogs up to succeed. For younger children, use active supervision, where you as the adult literally watch every interaction from a close distance and are ready to physically intervene if necessary. This is most effective if you can read dog body language and tell when your dog is uncomfortable or upset.
Never allow your child to climb on, ride, stand on, lay over dogs, or pull ears/tails/body parts. These are not fair to dogs, and are intrinsically uncomfortable to them at the very least, if not outright painful.
Be careful about children running around dogs, and prevent it if it causes your dog to start chasing.
Also, be careful about predatory or guarding behavior around babies. There is really no reason to put your baby on the ground or somewhere the dog has access to them, and could potentially bite. Instead separate them in different rooms, or hold your baby while your dog lies calmly away or nearby.
Likewise, be careful around food bowls and any puzzle toys with food or chew toys (and sometimes regular toys) that dogs may guard if children (or adults) are close or grabbing them. Many people choose to leave dogs alone while their dogs are eating, and that is good management practice.
Puppies and dogs that are socialized properly are less likely to display aggression to people (Mills, 2017, p. 386). Introduce your puppies to everyone. Make them form great, positive associations with all kinds of people and always be comfortable and confident, and to enjoy places like veterinary clinics, the vets, and vet techs, since they will likely need care in those environments and some procedures are naturally scary/painful.
Socialize any newly acquired adult dog, too.
“In the past, dog owners were advised to physically assert their authority over their dog – but this advice is in all cases inadvisable” (Mills, 2017, p. 343). Any training that is designed to set-dogs up to fail and then physically punish them (with leash corrections, shock collars, hitting, or any other aversive technique), is ill-advised and can lead to fear and aggression in dogs as well as creating new, additional behavior problems.
Instead use reward/positive reinforcement training, since this is non-confrontational and won’t lead to pain or fear, thereby eliminating a huge reason for dogs to bite.
The exact type of training within positive reinforcement strategies that is appropriate to use will be based on the specific issue, but…
- desensitization (working below a dog’s upset-threshold, and gradually increasing the intensity around the upsetting thing as the dog gains confidence),
- counterconditioning (pairing upsetting things with good things to change your dog’s emotional response to them), and
- differential reinforcement of an incompatible behavior (teaching a new, desired behavior in place of an unwanted behavior)
are all go-to-methods for fear/aggression issues.
Better breeding standards could lead to more suitable pet dogs for dog guardians to acquire. If breeders would avoid allowing fearful dogs to breed, their resulting offspring puppies would have less fear. This would eliminate a large reason for aggressive bites to people.
In addition, if breeders focused on allowing adult dogs to produce puppies that have pet qualities (calm behavior, easy to socialize, no fear, confidence, less exercise needed), as opposed to extreme working dog behaviors, it would be easier for the average dog-owning family to care for them. There would be less frustration if the dog’s needs were met, and if those needs were not high-energy working-type dog activities.
Use Your Veterinarian’s Expertise:
Take your dog to the vet for regular physical exams, and especially whenever your dog is exhibiting new behavior that wasn’t previously present (for example, urinating in the house for a normally house-trained adult dog, or whenever fearful or aggressive behavior pops up seemingly out of nowhere).
Use your veterinarian’s expertise in identifying medical illness-related causes for dog aggression, including for example, seizures, brain tumors, pain such as arthritis, or other types.
Mills, D., & Westgarth, C. (Eds.). (2017). Dog Bites: A Multidisciplinary Perspective. Sheffield, UK. 5M Publishing Ltd.
Note: There are graphic photographs in this book that may be distressing to readers (for example, crime scene photographs designed for professionals who deal with dog bites).