In honor of National Dog Bite Prevention Week 2011, (May 15 to 21), we thought we’d dedicate some time to dog bite awareness and highlight the top signs that a dog is feeling anxious and uncomfortable, and the best ways to help ensure your dog won’t bite. Do not assume that the dog will not bite because he hasn’t yet… As dogs get older they can become less tolerant.
The CDC has some interesting information on their site. Last year, nearly 5 million people were bitten by dogs in the United States, and more than 30,000 reconstructive procedures were performed following those bites. Overall, nearly 1 million people, more than half of them children, require medical attention for dog bites every year. Though children are the individuals most at risk for bites, according to the CDC, men are bit more often than women.
People communicate differently then canines do. When humans meet someone we don’t know, we like to make direct eye contact, shake hands, and hug. Dogs don’t!
THE 4 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS TO TEACH KIDS
- Never approach an unfamiliar dog – This is THE KEY lesson to teach children. While the majority of bites to children are from familiar dogs, teaching children to avoid unfamiliar dogs is the best risk management. In addition, children should be taught not to approach even familiar dogs in a loud, aggressive, or excitable manner. This overly excited manner scares pretty much every dog, regardless of how well they know you.
- Do not run away from a dog or scream – Many dogs are already wary of small children, and running away and screaming with high-pitched voices can overstimulate a dog or worse, initiate the “prey drive” to give chase in many dogs, leading to bites and injuries.
- Dogs don’t like hugs & kisses – Teach your kids not to grab a dog around the neck (what we’d think of as a hug) or come at a dog face to face in order to kiss him. Hugging the family dog or face-to-face contact are common causes of bites to the face, even if a family dog is used to this kind of interaction. You never know when a dog is feeling “grouchy,” best to avoid this risk at all costs! Definitely never approach an unknown dog this way (from the front). Dogs see fast approaches from the front as signs of an aggressor ready to attack. Instead, teach kids to scratch the dog on the chest or the side of the neck.
- Be a Tree – Teach kids to stand still, like a tree (see the diagram above). Trees, by virtue of their stationary nature, are not threatening. If your child is completely still, the dog is much more likely to approach of its own volition in a friendly way to investigate, or else leave her alone and eventually go away. This method works for strange dogs (many of whom are scared of, or don’t like children) and anytime the family dog gets too frisky or becomes aggressive. The Doggone Safe program has a whole campaign around teaching children to “Be a Tree.”
THE 3 MOST IMPORTANT THINGS DOG-PARENTS CAN DO
- Supervise! Don’t assume your dog is good with kids. If a toddler must interact with your dog, you should have your hands on the dog too, and watch your dog very closely for any signs of fear or discomfort, which is just a short step away from aggression. Even if your dog is great with kids and has never bitten – why take a chance? The results can be upsetting (the child could get scared) to costly (medical bills you’re responsible for if the dog bit a child) to all-out heartbreaking and bank-breaking (lawsuits ensue; court order to destroy your family dog).
- Train your dog! Take your dog to obedience classes where positive reinforcement methods are used. Never pin, shake, choke, hold the dog down or roll the dog over to teach it a lesson. Dogs “trained” this way (with “fear-based” methods) are likely to turn their aggression on weaker family members. Involve children in training the family dog while supervising and don’t allow children to punish the dog. Train your kids and your dog at the same time! If you don’t have children, have treats on hand when you’re out for walks and outings, and whenever you encounter a child (who will likely ask if they can pet your dog), put your dog in a sit/stay and treat it while you allow the child to lightly scratch your dog on its side, all the while, holding your dog firmly. Accustom your dog to enjoy the presence and actions of children using positive experiences.
- Socialize your dog! Make sure your new dog is exposed to lots of new experiences in the world – take him everywhere with you, all the while with treats on hand. Get him used to many different kinds of people of different ages, genders, sizes, with different sounding voices, and dispositions. Acclimate him to different kinds of noises (traffic, construction, sirens, playground sounds, etc.) and activities by walking him in many different areas and situations, so that he becomes confident and sure of himself (and you as his protector) in any kind of surrounding. Habituate him to different kinds of dogs by training him to greet other dogs in a calm and quiet manner, and also by letting him play off-leash at dog parks. If you’re new to dog parks, use the “small/shy dog areas” first and slowly introduce him to the main off-leash areas, during non-peak times when there are less dogs around. See our primer on “newbies at the dog park” for more tips!
COMMON STRESS SIGNALS IN A DOG
If your dog is displaying the signals below he is letting you know that he is uncomfortable in a given situation, likely just tolerating it, and most definitely not enjoying it. These signals can be displayed alone or combined with others (more than one is often a sign of increasing stress). Remember to always observe what is happening around your dog and take action to improve the situation. By paying attention to our dog’s subtle signals, we can help them feel more secure and confident.
- Lip Licking: A dog that is anxious will quickly stick out its tongue and lick its lip.
- Yawning: A dog that yawns often in random situations (i.e. anything other than when he’s at home, lying down and clearly sleepy) is indicating that he is uncomfortable. Most people aren’t aware that when dogs yawn it’s an externalizing behavior to try to help them relieve their internal anxiety. Take a look around and see if you can identify the anxiety-producing stimuli. For example, there may be a crowd of people near his space, loud noises from cars or construction, or a lot of hubbub happening in the vicinity that is irritating him. When you notice frequent yawning, try to move away from this area, or decrease the anxiety for him.
- Shaking Off: A full-body shake as if the dog were wet is compared to a “re-boot” or reset button and often happens after a stressful situation.
- Half-Moon Eye: Called the “half-moon” eye because more of the white part of the eye is seen when a dog is stressed and trying to hold it in. Calm, relaxed dogs typically don’t show the whites of their eyes. If a dog is showing the whites of his eye, or looks like a cow giving a sidelong glance (“help me!”) at you, he’s internally freaking out.
- Turning Away: When a dog turns away from you or a situation they are trying to avoid the situation and direct eye contact. Definitely do not force the dog into an uncomfortable situation.
- Mouth Closed: Often seen when a person or child is trying very hard to interact with the dog, but the dog wants nothing to do with it. The dog is giving a clear sign that he does not want to be bothered and is doing his best to avoid any interaction.
OTHER BODY LANGUAGE SIGNS OF ANXIETY
- tail between legs
- tail low and only the end is wagging
- tail between legs and wagging
- tail down or straight for curly-tailed dog (husky, malamute, pug, chow chow, spitz-type dogs etc.)
- ears sideways for erect eared dog
- ears back and very rapid panting
All dogs should have a safe place (their “den”), such as a crate or mat that they can go to when they want to be left alone. All family members and guests should be taught not to bother the dog when he is in his safe place – he’s clearly indicating that he wants to be alone!
A word on growling…
Never punish your dog for growling. This may seem counter-intuitive and may even go against the advice of your dog trainer or dog trainers you have seen on TV.
If your dog growls, he is sending a clear warning that he is very uncomfortable with whatever is happening around him. If someone is getting too close, this is a warning sign to “please back off!” Be grateful that your dog chose to warn with a growl rather than going straight to a bite. If you punish the growling, you may inhibit the warning growl the next time and the dog may bite without growling first!
That said, if your dog growls frequently:
- Take your dog to the vet to make sure he is not sick or in pain.
- Seek the advice of a dog behavior specialist who will help to identify the anxiety-producing stimulus and use positive reinforcement to help desensitize the dog to the stimulus and create more confidence.