According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than 4.5 million people are bitten by man’s best friend each year in the United States. More than 800,000 of those bitten had to receive medical attention and, of those, at least half were children. It is essential to note that the highest incidence of injuries occurred with children five to nine years of age. Another truism is the majority of these bites were preventable.
Because dogs provide numerous benefits to millions of families, and the bond between people and their dogs is important, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the United States Postal Service (USPS) and State Farm Insurance created National Dog Bite Prevention Week to educate people about preventing dog bites. This year it is April 8 to April 14.
The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, in 2013, published the most complete study of dog bite-related fatalities (DBRFs) since the study was first conducted in the 1970s. It covered a 10-year period of all DBRFs across the entire United States. Based on the investigation completed, the researchers identified multiple controllable factors in these fatalities. For many of us the situations are not surprising. However, to put it in perspective, in the United States during 2017, with a human population of over 326 million, and an owned canine population estimated at over 89 million, there were 39 confirmed DBRFs. Though the fatality numbers are low, the incidence of bites is substantial and not to be taken lightly.
The following, according to the AVMA study, were contributing factors in dog bite scenarios: an able-bodied person was not present to intervene in the situation; the victim did not have a relationship with the dog; the dog’s guardian failed to spay/neuter the animal; the victim, because of age or physical condition, was not able to control the dog; the dog’s guardian kept the animal as a “resident” rather than a family pet; the guardian had previously mishandled the dog or had either abused or neglected the dog.
The National Canine Research Council (NCRC) defines “resident” dogs as those whose guardian isolates them from regular, positive human interaction. This isolation results in behaviors that are different from a family dog. Whereas, when a dog is actively included into the family, that dog is more likely to learn appropriate behavior through regular, positive interaction.
To reiterate, in the US, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year. Of the bites requiring medical attention, approximately one-half involve children. Knowing that children are the most common victims, it is imperative to never consider leaving a young child unsupervised with a dog. Teaching children to be gentle, to respect the dog’s space and rest and not to approach an unfamiliar dog can go far in preventing bites.
We also know that major contributors to bites are under-socialized and improperly trained. Have your dog become an integral part of the family. Dogs are highly social and, when frequently left alone for long periods, have a much greater chance of having behavior problems like aggression. Begin early consistent reward-based training to effectively teach expectations and provide mental stimulation. Gradually expose the dog to a variety of people and places so it can feel at ease. Dogs who are distressed can become aggressive or fear-bite. Therefore, allow the dog to work at its own speed and definitely do not force an uncomfortable situation upon it.
Be a responsible pet owner. Be aware of your pet’s health. Pain resulting from an illness or injury can affect behavior. Spay or neuter your dog as soon as possible. Multiple studies have shown that neutered dogs are less likely to bite. Obey leash laws and do not allow your dog to roam the neighborhood. If the dog is loose in a yard, be sure that the fencing and gates are secure. If interested in learning more, the American Veterinary Medical Association (https://www.avma.org/public/Pages/Dog-Bite-Prevention.aspx) website provides helpful additional information.
Since dogs do not have the ability to talk, understanding their body language can help us know when something is amiss and when to use caution in approaching. When dogs are scared, their body and face will appear tense and rigid and they will try to look small, cowering close to the ground and tucking their tail between their legs. They also might look slightly away, lick their lips and yawn. An aggressive dog will do the opposite. They will try to look bigger. Fur may stand up, especially along the spine. Ears might also be erect and pushed forward. In addition, it is important to realize that a wagging tail does not necessarily mean the dog is feeling friendly.
By educating ourselves and our children, providing a healthy environment and opportunities for socialization for our dogs, and understanding dog behavior and potential problem situations the instances of dog bites can be reduced.
Ronnie Casey is vice president of PETS — Providing Essentials for Tehama Shelter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about PETS, visit petstehama.org.