It’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, so I’m taking a short break from my dog and puppy adoption series to discuss this important topic. Meanwhile, keep those questions coming – in June, I’ll answer questions on helping your dog or puppy adjust during the first few weeks in her new home.
When my kids were very small, we adopted Whoopsie Daisy, a Labrador Retriever. I tested her at seven weeks to be sure she was aggression-free, using temperament testing techniques you can learn on my website. To say that Whoopsie is aggression free is something of an understatement. Armed with nothing more than half a peanut butter cracker and a frayed tennis ball, anyone could rob my house.
Recently, however, we added Balder, a German Shepherd Dog, to the mix. Balder is sweet and yielding – he’s training for his Therapy Dog certification – but I know that he would protect us if an unwelcome stranger entered the house. It’s in his DNA; my kids are his flock, I am his shepherd, and while friends are welcome, strangers are not given a free pass in exchange for stale snack foods.
The statistics are alarming: 4.7 million dog bites are reported every year. But it’s important to remember that most dogs don’t bite people, and the ones that do bite, often have – in their own minds, at least – reason to bite. It’s important to understand what makes a dog bite in order to avoid what makes a dog bite. It’s true that there are some dogs that bite without reason, but that is relatively rare.
• Most dogs bite because believe they are defending a person, place or thing. Dogs may protect family members, food bowls, toys or territory.
• Children are bitten more often because they more closely resemble prey animals or sheep. Small, active creatures making high-pitched noises can make some dogs feel threatened or excte their prey drive.
To prevent or avoid dog bites, consider a dog’s worldview. Dogs have the emotional capacity of an 18-month old child. Though a dog can’t speak, you can predict certain reactions simply by observing him.
• A happy dog will have a relaxed tail and overall posture. His eyes will squint in an undeniably affectionate way and his tail will sway.
• An excited dog will dance or jump about, trying to connect with you and share his feelings of joy.
• A threatened or angry dog will grow rigid, still and watchful: in this moment the dog is unsure what will happen next and may use aggression to protect or defend himself.
Dogs need to understand den and pack leadership. A dog’s home is his den and his people are his pack. It’s important that a dog has a respected authority figure – someone to direct him and provide feelings of safety. Without a benevolent leader, a dog will assume this role himself – and that’s where trouble starts. Dogs are not particularly well-qualified for the role of family leader and tend to overcompensate for their lack of know-how. Fearful or aggressive dogs may overcompensate by biting. Even more pliant dogs may become agitated and unsure without proper leadership and bite if pushed or threatened.
Territorial aggression is common in dogs. Perched inside the den, glaring out at passersby, many dogs come to believe that their frantic barking is driving away potential enemies. Unchecked, this behavior can result in a sort of siege mentality and anyone trying to enter this highly fortified den may be at risk for a bite.
The land around the home is also a dog’s territory and will require – if your dog is the territorial type – careful management and protection. Most dogs will defer to the pack leader (hopefully you, a human) if that leader took to time to train and direct outdoor interactions. Untrained and uncontrolled, security-minded dogs may pose a threat to people entering or even passing the yard.
Children are bitten more often than adults because they are small, noisy, unpredictable and prey-like. In addition, children – heartbreakingly trustful – are unable to sense dangerous warning signs.
Other bite triggers? Some dogs will guard resources like toys, bones or food and bite anyone who gets too close to these objects. Hurt or frightened dogs can be dangerous, too.
Next week I’ll offer tips to avoid and prevent dog bites and one on raising and conditioning a well-mannered, trustworthy dog.