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Understanding Dog Bite Risk and Prevention

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This article originally appeared in GPPR’s May Newsletter by Peggy Adams Meyers, BS, CCS of Companion Animal Solutions. Want to receive more articles like this to your inbox? Click here to subscribe!


Dogs are predators with big sharp teeth that we’ve invited to live in our homes as our best friend.  In most cases, we become so comfortable with our dogs we forget they’re armed with these deadly weapons. But whenever there’s a serious dog attack on a human, the media reports make it sound like dogs who bite do so “out of the blue”, because they were a certain breed type, or because they want to “dominate” humans.  Reading these reports, you might think anyone owning a dog is taking a huge risk or that you can predict a bite based on breed type or strength rather than behavior   But there’s a serious disconnect between both the risk of dog bites, what we know about why dogs bite, and what the media may portray to make news more marketable.

In the US, there are 70-80 million dogs.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4.5 million people are reportedly bitten by a dog each year, with 20% requiring medical attention.  Three percent of bites requiring medical attention are severe enough to require reconstructive surgery.  Thirty-two people died as a result of dog attacks in 2013.  What these numbers tell us is that dog bite injuries are actually rather uncommon compared to other hazards.  Regardless, they are also very preventable and more needs to be done to reduce the risk as often canine body language can signal an impending bite.  Simple education on the part of a human can dramatically decrease your personal bite risk!

We hear a lot about how dangerous some types of dogs are because of their breed, size and the strength of their jaws.  Obviously if a large powerful dog bites, the damage will be worse than if a small dog bites. But what’s equally if not more important is whether that dog will bite in the first place.  Airplanes are not more likely to crash than are cars.  It’s just that when a passenger plane crashes, the magnitude of the damage is higher than when a car crashes.  Any dog can bite and do damage.  Public safety is maximized if we focus on dog bite prevention from any dog rather than perceived bite damage potential or bite risk based on proposed breed type.    Let’s stop the bite before it happens!!

Certainly there are cases where dogs bite without being provoked but this is uncommon.  A recent video of a dog attacking a child and being chased off by the family cat shows that clearly. But that type of truly unprovoked attack is exceptionally rare.  Most dog bites occur only after a dog has done it’s best to avoid having to bite.  The best tool we have to combat dog aggression and bites isn’t legislation.  The absolute best tool we have to prevent dog bites is educating PEOPLE to read dog body language.  Ultimately when interacting with an animal, knowledge about their behavior and communication is the key to safety and success.

Dogs communicate with each other, and attempt to communicate with us via body language.  A turn of the head, a flick of the tongue, a wide open eye showing a crescent of white – all of these subtle signs are a dog’s way of saying, “I’m uncomfortable, please don’t push me.” If you want to see examples of all of these signals, take a look at the next compilation of “cute” baby and dog pictures that hit your social media page.  A large number of those pictures are truly scary to people who understand dog body language.

When humans don’t “listen”, dogs are forced to be clear about their feelings.  The curled lip, barred teeth, and low growl are an early warning system to make it clear that a dog is feeling threatened.  Too often, owners react by punishing dogs for these actions, rather than being thankful their dog is patient with them and communicating that there’s a problem before things get out of hand.  Punishing a dog for these warnings is a huge mistake.  If you ignore the subtle signs and punish away the early warning then a dog may react by progressing directly to a bite the next time.

The next step in a dog’s communication system is a snap, muzzle punch (hitting with a closed mouth), and finally teeth on skin. These are pretty clear signals that a dog is feeling threatened or wants you to back off.  Even then, many dogs will give a bite that doesn’t break the skin.  And some dogs will simply place their mouth around an arm as if to say “please don’t make me hurt you.”

Dog bites are highly preventable when you listen with your eyes to what a dog is telling you about how they are feeling.  Educate yourself and your family about dog body language.  Don’t use force to make your dog submit to your will.  Dogs have spent thousands of years perfecting the art of reading and respecting our subtle signals even better than we do.  Let’s do them a favor and take a moment to learn more about theirs instead of putting them in situations that might lead them to feel a bite is all we understand.

For great information on reading dog body language and dog bite prevention, go to

This article was written by peachpuppies