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The Ruff Report: Dogs usually mouth off before they bite

Dogs usually mouth off before they bite

More than half the dog bites that occur in the United States each year involve children who are household members, but some of these incidents are avoidable if pet parents simply learn the way dogs communicate, an animal behavioral expert says.

Pet parents need to understand the subtle ways that dogs communicate their frustrations, dislikes and fears and take remedial action before the behavior escalates into biting, according to Niki Tudge, founder of The DogSmith, a national pet care and training service based in Bonifay, Florida.

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"Dogs cannot write to their congressman or e-mail their family members," Ms. Tudge told "They communicate in dog language. When pushed they will bite."

Pet parents must learn the signals dogs give to let us know when they are in pain or afraid, Tudge said. "This is one of our key roles as dog owners. We must raise socially savvy dogs who are polite family members, and we must do this by exhibiting benevolent leadership so they can live safely in our world."

Approximately 74 million dogs are owned in the United States and about 4.8 million Americans receive dog bites each year, according to Tudge. Around 800,000 of those bites require medical attention, although many need just a band aid. Most bites occur within a dog’s home territory and victims are normally family members, home service workers and delivery persons.

The median age of dog bite patients is 15 years old and boys age 5 to 9 have the highest incident rate, Tudge said. Seventy-seven of the children involved are bitten in the facial area while most adults are bitten in the lower extremities.

One of the most important actions a parent can take to avoid problems is to begin training a dog from when it is a puppy, Tudge said. "Teach the dog to have a soft mouth. So in the event the dog is ever stressed or pushed and an emotional response results in a bite, the damage is minimal."

According to Tudge, some common reasons for dogs to bite are:
  • Resource guarding. A dog lacks training to relinquish something it values - such as a bone, toy or food bowl - and a child or adult attempts to remove it.
  • Fear. A dog will bite to escape or avoid something.
  • Predation. A dog chases, grabs and bites small quickly moving objects such as children to satisfy its predatory instincts.
  • Pain. A dog is approached or touched in a sensitive area.
  • Mistreatment. A dog is punished or threatened and bites to avoid the punishment.
In most cases involving a dog biting a family member, the pet has been given giving signals for months or even years, Tudge said. A dog will try appeasement by keeping distance from the person who is stressing them, and this can escalate into minor signs of aggression such as freezing, snarling or snapping.

Tudge offers these tips to help pet parents can make sure their children and the family dog live in harmony:
  • Enroll a dog in an obedience class when it is brought into the home. This gives a pet parent verbal control and builds a trusting relationship. Involve children in the training. Even small children can quickly gain control of a large dog if they learn proper training methods.
  • Desensitize your dog. Get your pet accustomed to having its collar grabbed, having food taken from its mouth and having people pick up its toys and items it considers valuable.
  • Teach the dog bite inhibition. The mother dog does not have time to fully do this because people take puppies from their "bite school" before they have learned this crucial skill from their mother and their litter puppies.
  • Teach children to respect and treat animals kindly. Do not allow children to grab at the dog or pull it tail and ears.
  • Crate train your dog. Give a pet somewhere quiet to go when it wants to be alone and make sure children respect that crate as the dog's private space.
  • Give your dog adequate exercise and mental stimulation. Make sure they are a part of the family. Do not tether dogs for too long. A dog that is tethered, insufficiently exercised or isolated is more likely to be involved in a bite incident.
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Tudge advises pet parents to contact a professional trainer at the first sign of aggression from a dog. "Do not wait until you are dealing with an actual bite," she said. "A small financial investment in training a dog can ensure a healthy and happy union between dog and human."


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