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Dog Bite Prevention Week Part 1: Bite-proofing your dog

20 May

My dogs are family.

My dogs are family.

This week is considered Dog Bite Prevention Week, a week in which professionals who work with animals strive to put out good and useful information about dog bites and about how to prevent them. In a country where more homes contain dogs than don’t, it’s an important topic. Dogs bite humans every single day. The good news is that according to the National Canine Research Council, greater than 80% of reported bites require no medical treatment at all. 19.4% of reported bites require minor medical attention, and the last 0.01% of bites are the ugly ones requiring major medical attention.

This is probably not the impression you get from the media. So frequently there are dramatic news stories about children attacked by vicious pit bulls, or police having to shoot attacking dogs. The truth is, a lot of this is media and attention-driven. In 2010, there were 33 dog attacks that resulted in fatality. In contrast, there were 33,041 unintentional poisioning fatalities, and 3,782 unintentional drowning deaths. (Source: NCRC).
According to Janice Bradley’s book Dogs Bite But Balloons and Slippers are More Dangerous, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning twice than you are to be killed by a dog. There are more cow-related human deaths every year than dog-related ones.

So why this great fear of dog bites?

I think it is just something primal in us. As a society, we have in many ways taken the “animal” out of dogs. We’ve tried to turn them into Disney characters– always affable, never dangerous. They are “man’s best friend” and they are supposed to fit neatly into our cultural expectations. But the truth is, dogs are living, breathing, thinking, emotional animals. They are the sum of their genetics and their environments, and when they get into serious trouble, it is almost always the result of human error in one way or another.

The next question: How do you bite-proof your dog?

First off, choose a breed or dog that is appropriate to your lifestyle and experience. If you’ve never owned a dog before, it’s probably not the best idea to go out and get a dog who is going to react to everything he sees in his environment by wanting to bite it. If you have kids, you are going to be better off looking for a dog who likes kids and is pretty go-with-the-flow, not a dog who is scared of his own shadow. If you plan to use a dog-park to exercise a dog, do not choose one whose entire breed is built around fighting with other dogs. Do your research! There are lots of breed-selectors available online that can point you in the right direction. Here’s one from Animal Planet that’s pretty nice. Iams has an interesting breed selector as well.

If you bring home a puppy, it is so very important that you socialize him so that he learns to roll with the punches and tolerate having to deal with new things. Helping him to have plenty of good experiences in all kinds of locations with all kinds of people will set him up to be more tolerant later on, and tolerance is always something we prize in a pet dog.

Buy your dog either from a responsible breeder who is breeding dogs who have been proven to have good temperaments or rescue one from an organization that temperament tests its dogs, and ideally keeps them in foster homes. Meet the dogs. If from a breeder, meet the dogs’ relatives. Make sure you are seeing dogs who are steady and engaged, not dogs who are shrinking back from the world, and not dogs who are aggressively approaching every person they meet. You don’t want to see hard eyes, raised hackles, stiff bodies. Look for fluid motion and appropriate interaction.

Please please do NOT buy your puppy from a petstore, online vendor, or a puppy mill or farm where the pups have lived their whole lives in cages or a pen, rarely handled, and not at all socialized to the world. Socialization in puppies is HUGE and if your pup is not exposed to a variety of people and sounds and experiences and textures under his feet at a young age, life is going to be that much harder for him, and he’s going to be that much more of a bite risk.

Whether your new dog is a baby or an adult, attending a postive-reinforcement-based obedience class dramatically decreases your dog’s future bite risk.

All dogs should go to school.

All dogs should go to school.

One of the biggest factors in serious dog attacks and fatalities is that they frequently involve dogs who are not considered members of the family. These dogs are referred to as “resident dogs”, and while they live on the property, usually chained or penned or relegated to the backyard, they miss out on the bond with humans, they miss out on the opportunity to learn appropriate behavior, and they miss out on the constant mental and physical stimulation of life shared with people.

The dogs with the highest risk of getting into trouble are those who are recently acquired, kept as “resident animals” instead of pets, are chained and rarely if ever let off the chain to lead a normal doggy life, who are not spayed or neutered, not trained, and have had little socialization.

So basically, to bite-proof your dog…. Do the opposite! Include your dog in your family, train him, teach him the ways of the world, let him have good experiences, protect him, and learn to read his body language and what he is telling you. Dogs are pack animals. You are his pack.

Family dogs who bite very frequently give you plenty of notice (unless this notice has been punished out of them) but you have to know what you’re looking for and you have to respect it. A dog is growling at you over a toy is communicating important information. And this should be a red flag that you need to contact a trainer ASAP so that you can learn how to change your pup’s reaction to your approaching his toys. A lot of bites could be avoided by learning to recognize stress signs in your dog and by seeking help as soon as you notice the beginnings of the problem, not after somebody gets bitten.

Hopefully this post gave you a basic overview of why dog bites happen and ways to “bite-proof” your dog. But what about bite-proofing your child? Stay tuned. We’ll look at that later in the week.

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