Are you at risk of a dog bite?

©Scott Sheaffer, CDBC, CPDT-KA, USA Dog Behavior, LLC

You’ve probably read numerous stories about what breeds of dogs are most frequently involved in bites to people. Let’s flip that around and see who is most likely to turn up at the hospital with a dog bite wound. Before reading any further, remember that any dog can bite anyone at any time.

According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), there are a reported 4.5 million dog bites a year in the US. I can personally assure you that number is grossly understated. Millions of dog bites go unreported each year. However, if a physician sees a dog bite wound, he or she is required to report it to animal control.

  • About half of all dog bite wounds are to children between the ages of 5 and 9. The CDC estimates that about 50% of all children under the age of 12 have been bitten by a dog (the severity of the bites ranging from no injury to those requiring medical care). Why are children overrepresented in the numbers? There are several reasons:
    • Young children are famous for being loud, unpredictable and energetic; many dogs don’t like those things.
    • Children can view dogs as animated stuffed animals and treat them accordingly. Most dogs don’t like being hugged or having someone lie on them.
    • All too often young children will crawl on, or otherwise bother, a sleeping or resting dog. The dog gets startled and bites.
    • Improper parental supervision.
  • Approximately 5% of dog bite injuries are work-related (e.g., mail delivery, package delivery, animal clinic or shelter employee, home repair).
  • The majority of dog bite victims are male.
  • Adults with 2 or more dogs in their household are 5+ times more likely to experience a dog bite.
  • Adults and children with little to no dog bite prevention training are significantly more likely to receive a dog bite.
  •  Lassie and Rin Tin Tin not withstanding, dogs rarely attack home burglars.
  • People who don’t have a healthy respect for unfamiliar dogs are also frequently bitten. I don’t care what the size of the dog is; it just isn’t smart to walk up to an unfamiliar dog and pet it. People who do this are just asking to get bitten on the hand. Can you imagine what it would feel like if every stranger you saw made a beeline to you and patted your head?

Dogs normally bite when they are fearful of something and want it to go away. Dogs can continue to bite over time because they’ve learned that when they bite, people move backwards (rather quickly) and dogs are therefore reinforced for this behavior.

To limit the potential for being bitten by a dog:

  • Don’t hug, hover over, go face-to-face with or disturb a sleeping/resting dog.
  • Never try to take anything away from a dog (e.g., food, treats, toys, water, etc.), especially an unfamiliar one.
  • Let unfamiliar dogs approach you versus you approaching them.
  • Always manage children’s interactions with dogs.
  • Assume that an unfamiliar dog will bite you until you feel more confident with the dog. Dogs on leash are more likely to bite both dogs and humans (see Why is my dog aggressive to dogs when he is on-leash, but not aggressive when he is off-leash?).
  • Take a course or read extensively on how to read dogs’ body language.
  • When unfamiliar dogs growl or display aggressive behaviors, never assume that your love of dogs will make it safe for you to approach them. In short, these dogs may not be on the same page as you.

At the end of the day, dogs are animals and will sometimes react with primal and simple aggression to people and things that scare them. It’s our job to both manage and minimize this behavior in dogs and do everything we reasonably can to avoid being bitten.

If your personal dog is showing signs of aggression to people, please get professional help by contacting an animal behaviorist or behavior consultant.