Almost every day, a story about a dog bite victim is seen on the evening news. City and state governments struggle with how to enforce aggressive dog laws. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could learn to avoid dog bites altogether?
According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 5 million dog bites are reported every year and more than 800,000 of those bites require medical attention. Estimates from insurance companies and hospitals range as high as $250 million dollars spent annually on the treatment of dog bites. Given that the majority of dogs are euthanized due to behavior issues, this is an issue that not only affects humans, but can, quite obviously, affect dogs in an extremely negative way.
If you read through the Bureau of Labor Statistics website, you might be inclined to believe that working with pets is also a very dangerous proposition. During a six year study, more than 18,000 injuries or illnesses were reported involving dogs or cats and 8 of those occurrences were fatal. An amazing fact though is veterinarians and veterinary staff accounted for less than 5% of the total, despite their obvious closeness with their patients. What secrets can this profession teach us about avoiding these injuries and the associated costs?
According to Dr. Kersti Seksel, a noted animal behaviorist and veterinarian from Australia, dogs will often provide numerous warning signs before attempting to bite. “It is important to look at the whole dog, its body language as well as its facial expression,” says Dr. Seksel. “A dog may growl, bark menacingly, lift its lips and grimace. The body is often tense, the hackles along the back and neck may be raised indicating a heightened state of arousal, and the tail may be slowly wagging.”
Due to the large numbers of dogs seen on a daily basis, veterinary staff members have learned to monitor a dog’s body language, preparing for any potential aggressive movement. And while this is important information to learn, Dr. Seksel cautions everyone to remember that many of these signs can be subtle and there are occasions when a dog may not give the usual signs. A pertinent example might be the dog who has been previously punished for growling. As Pavlov and other behaviorists have shown, dogs will learn avoidance if negative stimuli are applied after certain behaviors. Thus, a dog owner who reprimands his dog for growling may be unknowingly removing the dog’s only outward expression of emotion or displeasure.
Veterinary experts recommend that all puppies undergo an initial “puppy training class” and socialization exercises. Just like kids, some puppies will immediately take to their new friends and some will take a little longer to overcome their shyness. Unless the dog is going to be used for police or military work, no puppy should receive positive reinforcement for any sort of aggressive behavior. Owners should seek veterinary advice when contemplating buying a breed of dog they are unfamiliar with or if the description of the breed discusses “extreme loyalty”, “intolerant of children”, or “prefers single owner household”.
Finally, an important part of avoiding dog bites is the education of our children. The vast majority of dog bites occur in children 4-9 years of age and a larger percentage occurs in young boys. Teaching your children some of the following guidelines could help to avoid a painful lesson and potentially even save his or her life. When faced with an unknown dog, or a dog whose behavior seems to be odd, Dr. Seksel recommends the following:
• do not approach the dog
• look at your feet or the ground – do not make eye contact with the dog
• stand still – do not run if the dog approaches
• keep quiet- do not scream or yell at the dog
• do not attempt pat any dog on the head
Children should be taught to never run up on a dog, especially one who is feeding and that not every dog may be as friendly as their own pet. Teaching a child to ask the dog owner if it is ok to approach the dog and then if it is ok to pet him can help to avoid many of the common mistakes made by dog bite victims.
As dog owners, we love our pets and want the very best for them. Animal shelters and humane societies would like to see the number of dogs euthanized for behavior issues decrease and our society, as a whole, has a strong desire to see a lessening in the number of dog bites each year. Following the recommendations of veterinary behaviorists and other animal experts can be the first great step to achieving these goals.
If you are having difficulty with your dog and aggression, please see your veterinarian immediately. To learn more about avoiding dog bites and keeping yourself and your family safe, visit www.MyVNN.com to watch a video.