More than 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs each year. Nearly 1 in 5 of those bitten will require medical attention, with children being the most common victims. Any dog, no matter the breed, size, age, or sex, can bite. In fact, it’s very common for young children to be bitten by a dog that they are familiar with. The good news, however, is that most dog bites are preventable.
Why Do Dogs Bite?
There are a number of reasons a dog may bite, but it is most commonly a reaction to something. the dog is feeling scared or anxious and the person interacting with the dog does not recognize their body language. Dogs can also feel defensive about their food, toys, puppies, or territory and bite a person in order to protect these things. Sick or injured dogs are also prone to biting.
Aggressive behavior in dogs can occur for a variety of reasons, including:
- Fear or in response to a frightening situation
- Conflict, i.e., a person attempting to correct a dog’s behavior
- Interacting with another dog (inter-dog aggression)
- Resource guarding, which includes food, territory (such as a home or yard), toys, puppies, or a person
- Pain (especially if a dog anticipates being moved or touched)
- Interacting with perceived prey animals
Rarely, aggression can also be the result of an infection, toxin, or side effect from a medication.
Recognize Signs of Fear or Aggression
Always avoid approaching a dog who is showing signs of fear or aggression. When a dog is nervous or frightened, they typically attempt to make themselves look smaller and may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors:
- Tuck their tail between their legs
- Flatten their ears back
- Turn their head away
- Lick their lips
- Expose their belly
- “Shake off” when their fur is not wet
- Scratch their body when not feeling itchy
- Refuse food
- Move away from an individual/situation
- Refuse to approach an individual/situation
When a dog is upset or aggressive, they will typically attempt to make themselves look bigger and may exhibit one or more of the following behaviors:
- Bare their teeth
- Narrow their eyes
- Stand very still
- Hold their tail straight up
- Wag their tail
- Stare at a perceived threat
- Act possessive over food, objects, territory, or individuals
Tips for Approaching a Dog Safely
While it is particularly important to teach children how to properly approach and treat dogs, this advice applies to everyone:
- Always ask permission before petting someone’s dog. You must respect the owner’s decision if they say “no”. Never approach a dog that you do not know personally.
- Once you have permission to pet a dog, slowly present the back of your hand and allow the dog to approach you. Never run toward a dog! Once the dog has taken a sniff of your hand and appears calm, you may then pet them gently on their side or back. Walk away slowly once you are done.
- Do not tease a dog. For example, do not offer your dog a toy or treat and then take it away. Remind children to not make loud noises that could startle your dog and to not play rough by trying to ride on their back or pulling on their ears, fur, or tail.
- Allow dogs to have their space. If your dog is asleep or wants to be alone, let them be. Don’t bother dogs who are eating or try to take their food away (the same goes for toys). If a dog is eating or playing with something they shouldn’t be, use the command “drop it”.
- Respect service dogs on the job. Service dogs are trained to perform tasks that help people with disabilities. If you see a person with a service dog, do not distract the dog while they are on the job.
Always supervise your child when they are interacting with a dog, even if it’s your family pet. Put a stop to behaviors that could hurt the dog, such as the child tugging on the dog’s ears, fur, or tail. Be on the lookout for signs indicating your dog is feeling anxious or aggressive during an interaction with your child. Never leave young children unsupervised. If you need to leave the room, keep the dog and child in separate areas with a barrier such as a door or baby gate.
If you are ever approached by an unfamiliar dog, stand still and with the side of your body facing the dog. Avoid direct eye contact and clasp your hands in front of you. Using a firm, deep voice, tell the dog “no” or “go home.” If the unfamiliar dog continues to approach, raise your hands to your neck (elbows in) and either wait for the dog to pass or back away slowly.
If you are ever knocked down by a dog, curl into a ball with your head tucked and your hands covering your ears and neck. If you are being actively attacked, “give” the dog your bag, jacket, or other loose item for them to grab instead. Make sure to teach your child these steps as well.
After an Incident
For minor bite wounds or scratches, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. Apply an antibiotic cream to the wound and cover it with a clean bandage. Seek medical attention if your wound becomes red, painful, or swollen, if you develop a fever, or if it has been more than 5 years since your last tetanus shot.
For deep or serious injuries, apply pressure to the area with a clean, dry cloth to stop the bleeding. Seek immediate medical attention afterwards. In an emergency situation, such as uncontrolled bleeding, extreme pain, feeling faint, or loss of function, call 911 or your local emergency medical services immediately.
Report the bite to your local animal control agency or police department if appropriate. In every dog bite incident, try to find out if the dog has been vaccinated against rabies. To verify, ask the owner for their name and contact information, the rabies vaccine license number, and the name and contact information of the veterinarian who administered the vaccine. If you cannot verify, or if the dog has not been vaccinated, seek immediate medical attention and report the incident even if the wound is minor.
It is highly recommended that you check your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance policy to make sure it includes coverage for your pet. Should your dog become involved in a bite incident, you will need to provide the injured party with a copy of your dog’s rabies vaccination certificate as soon as possible. Officials from the health department will monitor your dog’s health and so long as the rabies vaccination is up to date, may put your dog under home quarantine for a specified period of time.
Preventing Aggressive Behavior
- Spay/neuter your dog. Intact male dogs are more often involved in bite incidents and females in heat can attract unwanted attention from male dogs.
- Socialize your dog while they are young by letting them interact with different people, animals, and environments. This allows your dog to feel more comfortable in different situations as they get older. Be sure to use a leash while in public.
- Train your dog. Dogs trained in basic obedience are less likely to bite people and other dogs.
- Make sure your dog’s basic needs are met. Proper nutrition, daily exercise, up-to-date vaccinations, and mental stimulation all contribute to a healthy, happy pet. Also allow your dog to have their own space where they feel safe, whether it’s a crate, a sleeping pad, or a designated room in the home.
- Your dog’s rabies vaccine in particular should be up to date. Rabies is a deadly infection caused by a virus that’s secreted in saliva and attacks a dog’s nervous system. In most cases, the virus is transmitted through a bite from an infected animal. Dogs infected with rabies may exhibit fearfulness and aggression.
- Do not tether your dog to a tree or doghouse as these dogs often bite to defend their territory.
- Leave your sick dog at home. Sick dogs are prone to biting because (just like people) they are upset when they are sick.
Learn common triggers of your dog’s aggression and try to avoid them. For example, if your dog is uncomfortable in crowded or loud areas, do not take them with you to these locations. Pay attention to your dog’s body language in different situations as dogs will often show signs that they are uncomfortable before getting aggressive.
If your dog shows signs of aggressive behavior, it is important to seek help from your veterinarian so that the problem does not worsen. You can also seek professional help from a board-certified veterinary behaviorist (ACVB), Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB), or a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT).
National Dog Bite Prevention Week® takes place during the second full week of April each year and is sponsored by the National Dog Bite Prevention Coalition. The coalition includes the following organizations who have resources on dog bite prevention: