Why Do Dogs Bite?

A spaniel sitting between two people.

However hard it may be to imagine your sweet, snuggly best friend turning suddenly aggressive and biting you or someone else, the truth is all dogs are capable of biting.

According to the Centers for Disease Control there are more than 4.5 million dog bite incidents each year in the United States. About 800,000 people require medical attention for dog bites annually, with about half of those being children. Dog bites most often occur in the home with a person familiar to the dog on the receiving end of the unwanted chomp.

Whether your dog demonstrates occasional aggressive behaviors or is unfailingly gentle, it’s important to understand why dogs bite, what to do if a dog bite happens and how to prevent dog bites in the first place.

Understanding Aggression In Dogs

Dog bites usually occur in response to stressful situations that lead your dog to lash out. Unlike humans, dogs can’t resort to words to hash out their differences, defend themselves, tell someone to back off their territory, or express anger, pain, fear and frustration. The language a dog uses when feeling under attack, afraid, or in pain is growling, snarling, snapping and, unfortunately, biting. The likelihood a dog will resort to biting varies greatly depending on the individual dog and the unique situation. However, certain factors are more likely to trigger an aggressive response in dogs:

  • Illness or Injury– Dogs who are in pain may bite, especially when the source of pain is touched or aggravated.
  • Mealtime – Dogs who are overprotective of their food may become aggressive if a person or dog comes too close to them during a meal.
  • Unfamiliar people and situations – Dogs who feel threatened and fearful may protect themselves by snapping or biting. It’s important always to keep your dog well controlled on a leash when entering uncharted territory. If your dog is consistently aggressive towards visitors, consider crate training your dog so you can separate him from them peacefully in another room.
  • Children – Unsupervised kids are at greatest risk of dog bites. Dogs are more likely to feel dominant towards children because of their small size. Because children are more often at eye level with a dog, they are more likely to set off aggressive or fear responses in dogs. Whether or not you own a dog, it’s a good idea to teach your child how to behave around a dog so they don’t unwittingly provoke an attack.
  • Motherhood – If she feels her litter is being threatened, a mother dog will bite to protect her puppies.
  • Play sessions – Dogs can lose their self-control during overzealous play. Learn how to play safely with your dog.
  • Dog fights – Never try to separate dogs in the middle of a fight because there is a high risk of serious injury.

Are Some Dog Breeds More Aggressive than Others?

A 2014 American Veterinary Medical Association review of the scientific literature on aggression by breed concluded that breed alone is not a strong predictor of aggression in dogs. Though strongly stigmatized for perceived ingrained aggressiveness, research has not proven that pit bull-type dogs are more aggressive than other breeds. Indeed, when it comes to aggression towards humans as reported by owners, research indicates some medium and toy-sized breeds have a bit of a Napoleon complex and a higher prevalence of aggressive behaviors. Ultimately, variables such as individual temperament, training, and socialization have far greater influence on an individual dog’s aggression than breed.

Caveat: Large dogs are capable of inflicting greater physical harm than mid- and small-sized dogs and owners should factor this in with other considerations, such as multiple dogs and children at home.

Dog Bite Prevention: Tips & Training

  • If adopting, ask the animal shelter staff about the dog’s personality and background before bringing him home.
  • Socialize your dog so he’s comfortable with a wide variety of people, dogs, places, noises, and situations.
  • Welcome your dog into the family pack so he feels connected. Don’t leave your dog alone unsupervised for long periods of time, particularly tied up outside where he can feel abandoned and frustrated.
  • Watch your dog and familiarize yourself with the situations, people, and animals that appear to trigger anxiety or aggression. Avoid exposing your dog to those situations until he is well-socialized.
  • Train your dog when he’s still a puppy, if possible. Gentle, patient training methods utilizing rewards and positive reinforcement are best. The ASPCA recommends taking your dog to puppy kindergarten, starting just after his first round of vaccines at about eight weeks of age.
  • The moment your dog shows aggressive behavior, even it does not escalate to a bite, enlist the help of a professional dog trainer certified in animal behavior.
  • Be a responsible dog owner. Make sure your dog is up to date on all vaccinations, including rabies. Don’t allow your dog to wander off-leash without close supervision.

Punishment Worsens Aggression

Avoid severely punishing your dog for aggression or biting. Whether the aggression resulted from fear, possessiveness, frustration, or was an attempt to establish dominance, punishment will only aggravate aggression in your dog. Seek help from an animal behavior specialist to train your dog away from aggressive responses.

Signs Of An Aggressive Or Fearful Dog

Dogs always give a warning, however brief, prior to a bite. Animal behavior specialists say owners who claim their always peaceful, affectionate dog transformed from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde without provocation most likely missed early warning signs. Watch for these signals of aggression and/or anxiety in your own dog or an unfamiliar dog:

  • Growling
  • Baring teeth
  • Snarling
  • Snapping
  • Standing stiff, straight-legged and very still
  • Raised hackles (the fur along the shoulders and back standing up)
  • Guttural, threatening bark
  • Crouching
  • Licking lips
  • Tail between legs
  • Flattened ears

Any of these behaviors indicate a dog who may be aggressive or frightened. Do not run or yell, lest you trigger the dog’s natural instinct to give chase. Remain calm, don’t make any sudden movements, and avoid eye contact, which dogs consider threatening. Place your arms firmly across your chest for protection. If the dog is big enough to jump high, ball your fists, and place them before your chin and neck, with your forearms protecting your chest. Stand slightly sideways, without turning your back on the dog, and move slowly away until you reach safety.

What To Do If The Dog Attacks

The directive not to scream or yell ends if the dog attacks, bites, and doesn’t back off. Now is the time to call for help as loudly as you can. Keep your chest and throat covered with your arms and fists, protecting yourself with firm kicks until help arrives. If the dog sinks his teeth into you, don’t pull away, which can lead to tearing. Instead, push firmly into the dog’s jaw until he releases his grip.

How To Treat A Dog Bite

  • If the wound is just a mild scrape and comes from a familiar dog known to be up to date on his rabies vaccinations, you can treat the injury at home. Clean the wound carefully with a clean cloth, water, and a mild soap. Put an anti-bacterial cream on the wound and cover with a bandage. Repeat this procedure daily until the wound heals.
  • If the dog’s teeth punctured the skin, apply pressure with a clean towel to stop any bleeding. Clean the wound, as above. But keep in mind that dog bites involving punctures or tearing should always be seen by a doctor.
  • If the dog is unfamiliar, untagged, or has an unknown vaccination history, visit a doctor immediately to receive rabies shots.
  • Keep a close eye out for signs of infection, which are common with dog bites. If you see redness, swelling, pus, and/or warmth on or around the wound, see your doctor as you might need antibiotics.

While dog bites are not completely preventable, the risk can be greatly reduced by supervising your dog, being attentive to his triggers, and staying vigilant, especially around unfamiliar people and animals. These measures go a long way towards keeping the peace with your dog through the years.

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