Dog bites are a major health problem in this country. The most comprehensive Web site devoted to this topic is www.dogbitelaw.com, produced by California attorney Kenneth Phillips. A leading expert on the topic and a frequent guest on network and cable television on the topic, Phillips cites a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta (CDC) that concludes that nearly 2 percent of U.S. residents, or almost 5 million people a year, will be dog bite victims, 60 percent of them children. Countless more bites, especially from small dogs, go unreported.
Some 61 percent of dog bites happen at home or in a familiar place, and 77 percent of the biters belong to the victim's family or friend. While it is true that the majority of dogs that bite are the larger breeds, any dog is capable of biting.
In a notorious California case in October 2000, a six-week-old baby girl was killed by her family's pet Pomeranian, a breed hardly thought of as dangerous. The baby's uncle had left the infant and the dog on a bed while he prepared her bottle, returning to find the child being mauled by the dog.
Dogbitelaw.com cites several factors that may cause a dog to bite:
Dominance aggression: Aggressive behavior usually directed to family members who take something from the dog, pet it, hold it, pick it up, or disturb it while it is resting.
Defensive or fear aggression: Directed at family or strangers who approach too quickly or too closely when the dog is afraid.
Protective/territorial aggression: Directed at strangers to approach the owner or the home of the owner.
Predatory aggression: Directed at small, quickly moving animals and children, especially where more than one dog is involved.
Pain-elicited aggression: Directed at family or strangers who approach or touch when the dog is in pain or injured.
Punishment-elicited aggression: Directed to family or strangers who hit, kick, or verbally assault the dog.
Redirected aggression: Directed at family, strangers, and animals who approach or touch the dog when it is aggressive in another context.
When a child under four years of age is bitten, half the time the family dog is the attacker, and the attack nearly always happens at home. Sadly, it often occurs when a family gets the wrong breed of dog, when small children are not supervised with the dog, and when adults have not taught the child how to behave safely around dogs. A brochure coproduced by the American Veterinary Medical Association and State Farm Insurance Company offers some helpful tips on how to lessen your chances of being the owner of a dog that bites:
Carefully consider your pet selection: Before and after selection, your veterinarian is the best source for information about behavior and suitability.
Socialize your dog as a young puppy: Early socialization will help your dog feel at ease around other people and animals. Expose your puppy to a variety of situations a little at a time and under controlled circumstances, and continue that exposure on a regular basis as your dog gets older. If you're not sure how your dog will react to a large crowd or a busy street, be cautious. Don't put your dog in a position where it feels threatened or gets teased.
Train your dog: The basic commands “Sit,” “Stay,” “No,” and “Come” can be incorporated into fun activities that build a bond of obedience and trust between dogs and people. Don't play aggressive games like wrestling or tug-of-war with your dog.
Keep your dog healthy: Have it vaccinated against rabies and preventable infectious diseases. Parasite control is important.
Neuter your male dog: Neutered dogs are less likely to bite. Be a responsible pet owner. License your dog with the community as required, and obey leash laws. Dogs are social animals, and spending time with your dog is important. Dogs that are frequently left alone have a greater chance of developing behavior problems.
Be alert: Know your dog. You would naturally be alert to signs of illness, but you must also watch for signs that your dog is uncomfortable or feeling aggressive.
Because children are the most frequent victims of dog bites, children must be taught not to approach strange dogs. They should also be taught to ask permission from a dog's owner before petting any dog. In addition, parents and caregivers should do the following:
Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog.
Be on the lookout for potentially dangerous situations.
Start teaching young children, including toddlers, to be careful around dogs.
If your dog bites someone for any reason, you should do the following:
Restrain and confine the dog immediately.
Check on the victim's condition. Wash wounds with soap and water. Professional medical advice should be sought to evaluate the risk of rabies or other infections. Call 911 if immediate help is required.
Provide important information, including your name and address, and information about your dog's most recent rabies vaccination. If your dog does not have a current rabies vaccination, it may be necessary to quarantine it or even euthanize it for rabies testing. The person bitten may need to undergo rabies treatment.
Report the incident to your local animal control officer.
Report the bite to your insurance company.
Consult your vet to help determine why the dog acted this way and to seek corrective professional help for the dog if needed.
Again, prevention is always the best medicine. Biting is to be expected in a pup, but as the dog matures, such behavior should be discouraged. Again, it helps to mimic dog behavior as a reaction to a painful nip from your pup. When your pup bit a littermate, the nipped sibling yelped and withdrew, abruptly ending the rough play. You can do the same thing. Yell “Ouch!” and stop playing. It also helps to redirect the behavior by providing lots of chew toys to the mouthy little munchkin as well.