Best Friends: Tips and Resources to Prevent Dog Bites

This week, April 11-17, is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and this year there are more reasons than ever to learn about preventing dog bites. From high-profile “nipping incidents” in the news, to the realization that there may be millions of dogs and puppies in new homes since the beginning of the pandemic. And let’s face it, over the past thirteen months, increased household stress, isolation and lack of socialization have been hard on everyone, but they can have an especially detrimental effect on our dogs. 

Each year, more than 4.5 million people in the U.S. are bitten by dogs and more than 800,000 Americans require medical attention; sadly at least half of these are children. According to the AVMA, dogs are more likely to become aggressive when they are unsupervised, unneutered, and not socially conditioned to live closely with people or other dogs. Appropriate socialization and training are critical parts of responsible pet ownership. 

Best Friends offers the following resources and tips about preventing dog bites: 

  • Socialize your dog and make him a part of your family activities early on. Dogs also need to be socialized beyond your family and home; they need to be comfortable in the world. This is more difficult, currently, but no less important.  
  • Work with a certified trainer who can help you teach your dog appropriate behaviors in a humane, effective, and ethical way. Training is available in person and online in most places.
  • Spay or neuter your dog. Over a six-year period, 92 percent of all fatal attacks by dogs were by intact (unneutered) dogs. According to a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association, intact (unneutered) male dogs are also involved in 70 to 76% of reported dog bite incidents. 
  • Read up on positive reinforcement training techniques and get your whole family involved. Make a game for the family of spotting and reinforcing desirable behavior in your dog. 
  • Know your dog’s body language so you can anticipate possible reactions. Each dog is an individual and will express fear, aggression, stress or joy slightly differently.
  • Socialize your puppy or dog to children. Watch your puppy or dog as she plays with children; stop the play if the child or the dog gets too rough. 
  • Provide lots of exercise for your dog through constructive play like fetch and/or frequent walks. Walks or hikes provide great exercise for you and your canine companion. Regular activity not only gets rid of excess energy but reduces frustration levels in your pet 
  • Make sure that your dog has lots of human interaction every day. A happy dog is a good dog. As social animals, dogs thrive on social interaction and love to be a part of the family. 
  • Avoid tethering (chaining or tying up) your dog. Tethering removes a dog’s ability to flee and makes him/her feel vulnerable. According to a study by the CDC, tethered dogs are 2.8 times more likely to bite. 
  • Never let your dog roam free. Besides the dangers to him, a roaming dog may become confused or frightened, leading to aggressive behavior. 
  • Use caution when introducing your dog to new people, new dogs or new situations. Your goal is to provide the dog with a succession of happy experiences to improve social skills. After the past year, many situations will either be entirely new or seem new. 
  • If your dog’s behavior changes (e.g., he becomes irritable), take him to your vet for a checkup. Behavior changes can sometimes be a symptom of a medical problem. 

Marissa Sunny, CPDT-KA and senior dog lifesaving specialist at Best Friends Animal Society explains how the pandemic year has affected our canine companions and how we should help dogs overcome the effects, whether they were with us pre-pandemic, or they are newly adopted or acquired.  

“Isolation may make some dogs more fearful of the outside world, and more likely to react badly in new or unfamiliar situations,” she says. “Dogs operate using simple metrics for the world: Is it safe or unsafe? Dogs are incredibly skilled at picking up on patterns, therefore anything they haven’t been exposed to –like the outside world—ever, or even just for a year, can come off as scary and ‘unsafe.’ It is important that as you begin socializing (or re-socializing) your dog, you take it slow and make it a positive experience. Offer the dog treats, pets, and lots of reassurance to help make positive associations with new things. If your dog seems overwhelmed or anxious, stop, take a break and try again later.”

“Dogs can become more protective or begin to guard their people if they have spent all their time only with them for the past year and haven’t been exposed to people coming in and out of their space or interacting with their humans, Sunny explained. “Dogs are fearful of what they don’t know, or what doesn’t have that pattern of being ‘safe.” Many dogs who were acquired during the pandemic may have never seen new people enter the home or engage with their humans, so this will seem foreign and therefore scary to them.”

“If your dog is not used to meeting new people, introduce them one or two at a time and have them toss treats or a toy to the dog to create a positive association,” Sunny suggests. “Consider having your dog on leash and away from guests when they enter so the dog can approach at their own pace. Ask guests to ignore the dog until the dog approaches them, so the dog feels safe to stay away if they would like to,” she said. “Do small outings with your dog, like walks or hikes around other people to gauge their reaction before taking them to a busy location.  I also recommend learning about canine body language so you can more accurately understand how your dog is feeling.”

“Even though dog training may look different right now, it’s more important than ever to train and socialize new dogs before restrictions are lifted and we are all out and about more,” Sunny said. “Since last year, some trainers have held outdoor, physically-distanced classes while others turned to virtual classes and sessions. In addition to training, I highly recommend safely socializing them with other dogs and people. Dogs who were adopted during the pandemic or dogs who were simply home with you all year are likely to be overwhelmed and/or fearful as they make their way back into crowded public spaces.” 

With an estimated 97 million dogs living in U.S. households, millions of people—most of them children—are bitten by dogs every year. The majority of these bites, if not all, are preventable. 

To keep children safe around dogs, Best Friends offers the following tips:  

  • Teach your children that they should never tease or throw things at a dog.  
  • Help children learn the proper ways to pet a dog and tell them not to pet strange dogs without asking permission.  
  • Tell your children not to run, jump or scream around an unfamiliar dog. 
  • Remind your children not to stare at a dog when interacting with the animal.  
  • Tell your children not to climb on any dog, even the family dog.  
  • Don’t allow children to play rough with your dog, as they can accidentally hurt the dog or encourage him to become mouthy.  
  • Tell your children not to take things out of a dog’s mouth and to leave an eating dog alone.  

National Dog Bite Prevention Week is sponsored by the American Veterinary Medical Association. More information is available here.