Many families get new dogs during the holiday season. Whether you are a first-time dog owner or a seasoned puppy parent, following some simple tips for dog safety can help you keep your dog bite-free in the New Year and always.
Respect your dog as a dog
Fatal dog attacks made the news again in December and re-ignited the debate over what makes a dog dangerous. Debate focused on specific dog breeds or types of mixed breed misses an important fact. All dogs have the potential to be dangerous by virtue of their instincts as a predatory species. For this reason, you should never assume that any dog will not bite. Dog breeds involved in fatal dog attacks in the US include those with a positive reputation as excellent family pets.
Although our dogs are beloved family members, it is important to remember that they are not human. Dog parents should respect their dog’s natural tendencies. Aggression is a natural and context-dependent behavior, according to the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (ASVAB). Whether and how a dog expresses aggression is influenced by early environment, genetics, learning, and physical and mental health.
Understand your dog’s breed characteristics
Since 1998, dog bite reports do not not include breed information for many reasons including the difficulty of accurate breed identification. However, this does not mean that breed-specific behaviors are not important. Humans have bred dogs through many generations for specific character traits. Working breeds such as border collies and German shepherds often strongly express such traits. Therefore it is important to know what types of behaviors your dog may express as result of her breed. For instance, herding dogs have a strong tendency to chase moving objects. Bites, especially to the lower legs, can be a result of overzealous herding behavior. Learn more about the tendencies of specific dog breeds at the American Kennel Club (AKC).
Know your dog’s triggers
Dogs are individuals, and you will quickly learn your own dog’s triggers for aggression. Even if your dog does not generally express aggression, it is important to remember that any dog may lash out when pushed too far. There are certain triggers common to most dogs. These include resource guarding (think food bowl, toys, and territory) and response to sudden or fast movements. Consequently, people running, biking, or skating may trigger aggression. Dogs may learn other triggers as a result of adverse experiences. For instance, a dog that has been punished by hitting may learn to snap at an outreached hand.
The key to preventing dog bites is to avoid these triggers. Don’t become too complacent if your dog is very well-behaved. Always be observant and react quickly if a situation arises. For those living in apartments or dense urban housing communities, avoiding triggers may be especially important. Check out our post on dealing with reactive dogs for some helpful tips to keep your dog safe.
Socialize early and often
For those of you lucky enough to have a puppy at home, the importance of proper socialization cannot be overemphasized. Take your puppy to as many places as you can. Find a puppy class near you. Expose her to new situations. Join a social group. In the Kansas City area, the KC Dog Club and the Bar K Dog Bar offer opportunities for socialization.
Most dog bites can be prevented by taking common-sense precautions.
Preventing dog bites doesn’t have to be difficult. In most, but not all, dog-attack incidents, pet parents failed to follow basic, common sense rules for dog safety.
Always supervise your dog when small children are present.
Unfortunately, small children are often the victims of dog aggression. Never leave a baby or small child alone with any dog. Period. However, even a well supervised dog may bite. If your dog stiffens, closes her mouth, or licks her lips, she may not be happy with her situation. Learn how to recognize the signs of stress in your dog at the Association of Professional Dog Trainers.
Always supervise your dog closely in novel situations.
Dogs are creatures of habit, and they like their routines. Exposure to new places, people, or experiences can make dogs fearful. When dogs are fearful, their threshold for aggressive response to triggers may be lower.
Do not chain or tie your dog outside.
Avoid chaining any dog, for many reasons. A chained or tied-up dog can easily become protective of her limited territory. Chained dogs may also become frustrated and irritable. Additionally, a chained dog is usually easily accessible from the street or sidewalk. Therefore, a chained dog can easily become a recipe for disaster when a passer-by approaches the dog and is taken by surprise. One thing is very clear. Dogs that are kept outside (or inside) with minimal human interaction are more likely to express aggression. Simply by making your dog an important member of your household you have taken an important step in minimizing dog bites or attacks.
Do not let your dog run free.
Your dog is your responsibility. A dog left to his own devices can easily become dangerous, either to himself, local wildlife, or other people. Always supervise your dog as you would your child.
Use an appropriate muzzle when needed
Don’t underestimate the value of a muzzle in preventing dog bites, especially if you know your dog may snap in certain situations. You will find a good guide to types of muzzles and when to use them at the AKC. Muzzles are always a temporary solution, and are no substitute for training and desensitization.
Seek professional help if your dog is aggressive
Finally, seek the help of a professional right away if your dog is aggressive. All too often, dogs involved in bites or attacks have a history of aggressive behavior that their pet parents did not address. Don’t simply tolerate aggressive behavior. Treat it before it becomes a problem. Dog aggression is a complex behavior, and professional help is almost always necessary to correct it. Using the wrong techniques can cause the behavior to worsen, or may lead your dog to become aggressive to you.