How to Reduce Your Chances of Being Bitten by a Dog

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

As much as we love dogs, they do sometimes bite humans. I really hate when that happens because it hurts a lot, even when small dogs bite. Know that most dog bites can be avoided, but not all. Here are some quick general tips to help you reduce the chance of being a casualty of the business end of an angry dog.

“We hear all the time to “…put your hand out and let the dog smell you first.””

Maybe not all that friendly after all!

Maybe not all that friendly after all!

  • Never approach and pet a random dog that you know nothing about; I’m including dogs on leash too, not just unleashed dogs. Even the sweetest looking little 10 lb. Shih Tzu can do some pretty serious damage to your hand. I’ve worked with hundreds of human aggressive dogs and I can tell you unequivocally that a dog’s appearance and “cute factor” are not reliable predictors of whether he or she is going to bite.

  • Don’t bother a resting or sleeping dog. Dogs are animals and animals can be primal in their instincts. Startling a resting or sleeping dog can bring out those instincts which frequently include biting the first thing they see.

  • We hear all the time to “…put your hand out and let the dog smell you first.” Nothing could be more incorrect! I don’t know how or where this misconception started. A hand coming toward a dog that might be afraid of this kind of approach causes thousands of dog bites every year in the US. When meeting an unfamiliar dog for the first time, including those owned by family/friends/neighbors, let the dog come to you while not extending your hand. This applies to dogs that are being held by their owners too - don’t extend your hand to dogs while their owners are holding them.

  • Don’t let small children play with dogs without proper adult supervision. If the children are very young, the adult needs to be physically next to the child when a dog is present to prevent dog bites.

  • When dogs are eating or playing with bones and toys, leave them alone. I have no idea why some dog owners feel the need to put their hands in their dog’s food bowl while they are eating. Ironically, this may ultimately teach the dog to bite when someone gets near his or her food bowl or other resource.

  • Never put your face directly in a dog’s face. This is true even if it’s a dog that you are very comfortable with and appears to tolerate this behavior from you. Most dogs do not appreciate this invasion of their space and it is exceedingly easy for them to bite you (in the face) if they want to send a message.

  • Most people really have difficulty accepting that dogs do not like being hugged, or more specifically, entrapped. Only primates (e.g., monkeys, gorillas, humans, etc.) enjoy and practice hugging in the animal kingdom. This is the number one reason small children are bitten by dogs; the child confuses a dog with a stuffed animal which can result in biting.

  • While not widely known by most people who don’t professionally work in canine behavior, dogs don’t like being hovered over. Many dog bites occur when someone is hovering over a frightened or anxious dog. It’s not always obvious why the dog bit to the casual observer, but in many cases this is why.

  • Never, ever, reach in the middle of two dogs fighting in order to separate them. This is probably the best way I know to get a bad dog bite. What you will receive is a redirected bite from a dog that is not necessarily meaning to bite you, but biting the thing that is getting in the way of the altercation with the other dog.

Parents, all of the guidelines above are super important for young children who represent the majority of bad dog bites and the resultant visits to hospital emergency rooms.

I want to wrap up this blog article with a very important cautionary note. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve worked with hundreds of human aggressive dogs over the years. In the majority of cases, owners underestimate, and sometimes grossly so, the bite risk their dog poses to others. Their dog never shows any aggression to them and they can’t understand why anyone would need to be cautious around their dog even if their dog has bitten a few humans in the past. Because of this, good dog bite prevention starts with never assuming an unfamiliar dog is 100% comfortable with you - even if the dog’s owner says the dog is.

To learn more about avoiding dog bites, see my video Understanding Dog Body Language.