This week is Dog Bite Prevention Week! The goal is to raise awareness about dog bites, an issue that is much more common than people often think, and a topic which many people often shy away from. Dogs have become an integral part of our daily lives, with an estimated 9 million dogs currently living in the UK alone. Take some time during Dog Bite Prevention Week to familiarise yourself with why dogs bite and how to avoid being bitten.
In 2015 alone, 7227 people were admitted into UK hospitals due to dog-bite injuries. A survey based on research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that 1 in 4 participants had been bitten by a dog in their lifetime. The majority of these people were bitten by a dog that they had never met before. So, even if you don’t have a dog, it’s important that you educate yourself about their behaviour. A better understanding of animal behaviour is crucial to help prevent these incidents from happening.
Why do dogs bite?
Many things can trigger a dog to bite. Some of the most common causes of aggression that may lead to dog biting behaviour are:
* Fear and anxiety motivated aggression – This is the most common cause for aggressive behaviour in dogs. Dogs may feel anxious in unfamiliar, loud or busy situations, and their behaviour can be further complicated when other dogs are present. We may not realise, but the way we interact with dogs may be strange or scary for some of them. For example, reaching your hand out suddenly to an unfamiliar dog may actually be interpreted by the dog as threatening behaviour.
* Pain motivated aggression – Dogs may snap or bite at a person or animal that approaches or touches a painful area. Since they can’t talk, it’s the only way they have of telling us that it hurts! Always ask a dog’s owner before interacting with their dog. If their dog has painful areas, they may ask you to avoid them when stroking the dog.
* Dominance and possession aggression – Dogs often want to keep a person, toy, or food all to themselves. They communicate with other dogs using body language and vocalisations. Some dogs are more likely to bite in these situations because they had little training or interaction with other dogs when they were young, so methods of communicating with other dogs are limited. Additionally, some owners reward aggressive behaviour unknowingly by playing tug-of-war type games, snatching toys and treats away from their dog, or encouraging their dog to be more aggressive while playing.
* Predatory aggression – Although they have been domesticated, dogs are naturally a predatory species and their prey-hunting instincts can be triggered suddenly and unexpectedly. Other smaller animals or even babies and children can be seen as potential prey for them, so it is important to keep them supervised at all times.
* Re-directed aggression – Dogs may often become hyper-excited due to certain stimuli, such as another dog barking at them through a fence, but due to their lack of ability to physically interact with the stimulus, they may instead re-direct their emotions onto a nearby dog or human, causing them to bite.
Recognising and understanding dog body language
Dogs, unlike humans, can’t tell us what they are feeling, and accidents often happen because humans cannot understand the signs that they are showing. Our canine companions will show a variety of signs, some subtle and some more obvious, including changes in their body language depending on how anxious or nervous they are feeling. By learning to recognise these and understand what they mean, many potential accidents can be avoided. Below is a poster highlighting some changes in dog body language to look out for:
How to greet a dog (and what to avoid)
Manners are important, even when talking to dogs! Try and see things from the dog’s perspective, or treat them like you would treat another human. For example, you wouldn’t randomly go up to someone you don’t know on the street and start hugging them, as this would make them feel very uncomfortable. Just like some humans are more extroverted or introverted, some dogs will also naturally be more friendly and willing to interact, while others may be more shy and would prefer you keep your distance.
The steps to greeting a dog:
* Don’t approach or attempt to pat dogs on a yellow lead, wearing yellow bandana, or wearing a yellow ribbon. These dogs, who may also be wearing an “I need space” vest or a muzzle, have a difficult time socialising with others. However, they need walks, too, so their owners are doing the responsible thing by identifying them to protect the public.
* Always ask the owner if you can greet them first.
* Keep a safe distance away from them so the dog does not feel threatened (don’t reach into their safety zone e.g. if they are in their crate or through a car window).
* Approach the dog slowly and side on rather than completely face to face (they may feel scared if you stare too much or approach too suddenly).
* Present your side to the dog and give them some space (avoid leaning over them especially when you get up or squat down).
* Let the dog approach you in their own time (avoid reaching your hand out too close for the dog to sniff).
* If the dog looks comfortable and approaches you on their own or touches you then pet it gently on their shoulder or chest (avoid petting them if they look nervous and avoid hugging or patting them too roughly, especially near their face).
* Stroke the dog a couple of times, then stop and see if the dog tries to seek your attention again by coming towards you (if the dog looks uncomfortable or moves away then don’t continue stroking them).
* If the dog continues to seek your attention, then you can continue to pet them!
Other things to avoid:
* Don’t disturb dogs when they are eating or sleeping, or try to take their bones or toys from them.
* Avoid putting your face right up to theirs.
* Don’t grab their ears or tail – especially children!
* Avoid raising your voice suddenly around dogs as it may startle them.
* If you are trying to break up a dog fight, try to avoid grabbing the dog by the head or neck as you will likely be injured. Instead, try to find something to catch their attention and distract them instead.
What to do if a dog tries to attack you:
* Stay calm – do not scream or try to run away as this may excite them.
* Stand still facing them and don’t swing your arms around.
* Use an object such as your bag to create a shield between you and the dog.
* This should stop the dog from approaching you any more – once the dog begins to back off, slowly walk backwards still facing them until you are at a safe distance to turn around and walk away.
Preventing dog aggression
The best way to prevent accidents is through the proper training and socialisation of dogs, ideally from a young age. Puppy classes are a great way for your puppy to meet other dogs and their owners, and help them understand how to interact with others and develop good manners. Make sure to speak to your vet about proper vaccination before taking your new puppy out in public.
Many behaviours can be eliminated through correct training – one of the most popular approaches is to use desensitisation in combination with classical and operant counterconditioning. Desensitisation means training the dog to cope gradually with their stressor using positive reinforcement, and can be coupled with classical counterconditioning or operant counterconditioning, where owners can use training to change the dog’s behaviour in response to a certain stimulus, or replace an unwanted behaviour with a more desirable one. Older dogs may be harder to break out of their habits, but no dog is untrainable with consistency and persistence! It is also recommended to visit a certified animal behaviourist or to contact your vet for more advice.