Dog bites – possible causes

Poor training, socialisation and maintenance of the dog. 
Dogs who do not know how to coexist with us, who do not get to experience and become comfortable with things in our world may be more likely to bite. This includes those who are expected to behave and act just like humans. Dogs are not humans and should not be expected to be just like us. However, dogs need to learn positively how to live with us. Dogs need to be taught that we can take things from them. Many children are bitten when trying to take away a toy or when approaching an eating dog. Dogs are often possessive of things. They need to learn to accept us being near when they are eating or chewing on a toy. This is all part of good training and socialising.

Unneutered males have the highest incidence of biting. However, just being intact is not the cause of biting, there are often other underlying factors including poor training and management.   Hormones can exacerbate some behaviours, especially those with a hormonal basis.  However, neutering will not stop undesired behaviours: it is only one of many steps needed to work to resolve them.

Tethered and yard dogs 
A dog is also more likely to be defensive or territorial if he is isolated, locked up or especially tethered. There are three main problems with tethering. A dog that is tethered is feeling two instinctive responses immediately. One is a natural territorial defensiveness. he is protecting his property from would-be strangers. Another typical response is a personal defensiveness. This occurs because the dog is anchored, so to speak, and has lost the ability to flee in case of danger. The”fight or flight”response is very real and, by tethering a dog, you have inadvertently left it with only one choice, to “fight.”  The final concern is that unless you are out with a dog the entire time it is tethered, it has no protection from outside forces, be they animal or human. there is often miscommunication between dog and person in the best of situations. A tethered pet is the most susceptible to receiving mixed messages from strangers. This can lead to distrust of people. For instance Shy or fearful dogs must be approached in a very submissive manner, and the average person and especially a child being on the same level as the dog has a very dominant approach in dog language,  staring and bending over a pet is seen as threatening behaviour by a dog. According to a study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association:  Dog Bite Related Fatality statistics from 1979 through 1988 showed that 26-28% of dogs involved in fatal attacks were chained at the time.  This also occurs in small fenced yards.

Dogs react to things by either running (Flight) or trying to stop it (Fight). Dogs who are scared or anxious are more likely to bite. They do not have words to express what they are feeling and humans often do not understand dog body language. Often children want to hug a scared dog to try and comfort it, this is very dangerous. The dog may become even more afraid and bite in order to try and stop the fearful event.

Lower tolerance
It is amazing what we humans expect a dog to put up with that is not natural for a dog to accept. We need to build tolerance in our dogs to things like noises, not chasing fast moving objects, having their body handled (tail grabbed, ears touched, mouths opened, etc.).  A dog who will not tolerate things is more likely to bite.

Feeling ill or hurt
A dog who is not feeling well or having a bad day will have a lower tolerance to things. Senior dogs often have more aches and pains that can go along with ageing. A very tolerant young dog may lose tolerance as he ages due to discomfort. Again, dogs have no words and humans often ignore dog body language.  Dogs with lower tolerances to things are more likely to bite.  Sudden loss of tolerance should be brought to the attention of a vet as there could be a medical reason for it.

When overly excited
Many bites occur when play has gone too far.  Often it is directly the fault of the human not stopping play before the dog becomes too highly stimulated or by playing games that can teach biting and wrestling with humans is fun. Or dogs who are not taught proper greeting techniques and get very jumpy and “hyper” (often out of confusion) when people enter the house.  The dogs are not aggressive, just in need of training and better socialising. And the humans need to learn how to properly manage the dog. Over excitement and “hyper” behaviour not only stems from poor training and socialising but also confusion and a dog not getting enough stimulation both physically and mentally.

When they have puppies
Mother dogs can become very protective of their pups this is termed as “Maternal aggression and the mother may appear to react unpredictably even with people they know well when nursing a litter, unfortunately puppies are very appealing to children so handling by children when in the presence of the dam should be carefully supervised.

When sleeping
There is a reason for the old saying, “Let sleeping dogs lie.”  A tired dog is more likely to be less tolerant of things.  Startling a dog awake can lead to a bite.

Redirected Aggression
This type of aggression occurs when an aggressively motivated dog redirects its aggression from one source to another. A common example of this is a dog barking at the door, but then redirects its aggression on its owner who is holding him/her back. This can also be the reason behind some injuries caused when splitting up two fighting dogs. Children tend not to think of the consequences of their actions hence the criminal age for responsibility being ten years old.

Hot Weather 
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’; hot weather coupled with dogs and children spending long periods outdoors, can lead to bite incidents taking place. Dogs can suffer heat exhaustion a symptom of which is irritability, that along with the presence of children racing around or squealing in a paddling pool.

One of the main factors in recent cases are children and dogs left unsupervised, many families applying to rescues are disappointed when turned down as adopters because their children let themselves into the house from school and would be alone with the dog until their parents get home from work, even with all the warnings the safety issues just doesn’t seem to occur to them.

Children are far more likely to get bitten than adults because of the way they interact with dogs. For example, they move faster, are often unpredictable, and are more likely to try to interact with the dog in a way that unexpectedly provokes aggression. Children are more likely to approach a sleeping dog – or one that is eating – and decide to kiss it or cuddle it, they do not see the signs that the dog is uncomfortable or realise that leaning over or putting arms around the dog is seen as a threatening situation by the dog.

Adults themselves do not always understand and address the safety issues. Many children are bitten while adults are present, even in the same room. Sometimes an incident still occurs much too quickly for the adult to intervene. Some dog owners do not see the signs that their dog is uncomfortable, this may be because they are inexperienced owners but sometimes, such as when having friends round for a barbecue, they are focused on other things.

Some also feel that their dog should accept petting by any stranger or child, but this is a practice that can actually be seen as threatening by many dogs depending on the approach. A dog that likes to cuddle from an owner that he trusts may not be as keen when an unfamiliar person attempts to do the same.

An owner needs to be aware of their dogs demeanour at all times and should not leave their dog alone with children even if other adults are present as they may not pick up on the signs that the dog is uncomfortable until its too late, even if they themselves are dog owners, as the number of visual signals available to a dog is very much dependant on breed, There have been a large number of reported attacks by Rottweilers in the UK in recent times, a breed which generally has a docked tail thus losing an important way of signalling, they also have ears that they are unable to erect fully, meaning that someone who owns a German Shepherd whose ears are erect and tail is long may have difficulty in interpreting the behaviour and signals given by a Rottweiler. Also the Devil Dog tag given to rottweilers by the press could in our opinion lead people to act nervously around the breed which could in itself lead to a bite.

Studies of dog bite injuries in the USA have reported that:

  • The median age of patients bitten was 15 years, with children, especially boys aged 5 to 9 years, having the highest incidence rate
  • The odds that a bite victim will be a child are 3.2 to 1.
  • Children seen in emergency departments were more likely than older persons to be bitten on the face, neck, and head. 77% of injuries to children under 10 years old are facial.
  • Severe injuries occur almost exclusively in children less than 10 years of age.
  • The majority of dog attacks (61%) happen at home or in a familiar place.
  • The vast majority of biting dogs (77%) belong to the victim’s family or a friend.
  • When a child less than 4 years old is the victim, the family dog was the attacker half the time (47%), and the attack almost always happened in the family home (90%). (13)

We know of many reasons why dogs might bite children but we need a system for uniform data collection which includes:

  • the circumstances surrounding the dog bite
  • signs of provocation,
  • adequacy of child supervision,
  • breed of dog,
  • sex of animal,
  • spay/neuter status,
  • history of prior aggression of the dog,
  • Was dog restrained time of event, and how
  • patients previous histories of dog bites,
  • length of dog ownership by dogs handler,
  • location where dog bite injury occurred,
  • disposition of dog afterwards,
  • physical factors
  • environmental factors
  • The circumstances should be allowed to be examined along with the dog in question by behaviourists and veterinarians, whose opinions should be recorded.

It is not just those who own dogs who need to be educated, all children should be taught basic dog safety in the same way they are routinely taught road safety. For example

  • Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
  • Do not run from a dog or scream.
  • Remain motionless (e.g., “be still like a tree”) when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
  • If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still (e.g., “be still like a log”).
  • Do not play with a dog unless supervised by an adult.
  • Immediately report stray dogs or dogs displaying unusual behaviour to an adult.
  • Avoid direct eye contact with a dog.
  • Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.
  • Do not pet a dog without allowing it to see and sniff you first.
  • If bitten, immediately report the bite to an adult. (14)

Most dog bite incidents are preventable and most dogs have a reason for biting, However whilst public education is so lacking tragedies will continue to occur.

For more information on the above issues and more, visit Best Behaviour Ltd.

Courtesy of the Bull Breed Advisory Service © 2009