Hear the bark, Avoid the Bite! - How to Safely Interact with a Dog
National Dog Bite Prevention Week is the second full week of April every year - this year, it’s April 9-15. It’s a whole week dedicated to educating people on preventing dog bites. Shockingly, millions of people, mostly children, are bitten by dogs every year, but the reason behind these bites aren’t what you think.
According to the Center for Disease Control, from 2003-2012 - the 11th leading cause of nonfatal injury to young children, ages 1-4, was dog bites. For ages 5-9 it was the 9th leading cause of nonfatal injury, and the 10th for ages 10-14. In 2013, insurers across the country paid over $483 million in dog bite insurance claims. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons reported they performed 26,935 reconstructive procedures in 2013 to repair injuries caused by dog bites. Interestingly, along with children and elderly, postal carriers are more often victims of dog bites with a total of 5,581 reported by The U.S. Postal Service in 2013.
So, why are children, elderly people and postal carriers the primary victims to dog bites? No, it’s not because dogs have anything against children or mature adults. Despite what childhood cartoons portrayed as the dog targeting the mail man to chase, dogs don’t plan on biting anyone. There is a highly logical explanation behind dog bites and it has nothing to do with the dog, but rather, how the dog is approached. So, in an effort to prevent further dog bite victims, we’ve come up with a list on how to prevent you from getting bit by a dog.
1. Dogs bite out of defense. It’s important to remember a dog isn’t out to get you. More often than not, a dog bites out of defense or if it’s placed in an uncomfortable situation. If a dog is cornered, chased or approached by an unfamiliar person, the Fight or Flight instinct inside a dog’s brain kicks in and he reacts. This is a good thing to be aware of if you’re around a new dog for the first time.
2. Read their body language. Dogs use body language to communicate with one another and expect us to understand their “language.” When a dog is trying to tell us that he is uncomfortable and wants to be left alone, he expect the person to understand. Therefore, after the dog sends us this message but we don’t understand, the dog thinks that we aren’t listening. The pup may then growl, snap or bite to get the message across, which is misinterpreted by people as aggression. Dog’s body language can tell you whether the dog might feel the need to bite. For example: a tensed body, stiff tail, intense stare, and pulled back head and/or ears are a few body language pointers to be aware of that might mean the dog is uncomfortable and will bite if he has to.
3. Don’t stare. Staring can be extremely intimidating. Doesn’t it make you feel uncomfortable when someone you don’t know is staring at you? That’s how dogs feel, too. Gazing in your dog’s direction is fine, but making direct eye contact for longer than 3 seconds may trigger a defensive reaction out of them. Even we get a bit defensive when someone is staring at us, it’s kind of like our dogs saying something like, “what are you staring at?!”
4. Identify a dog’s personal space. Just like people, some dogs don’t like being crowded around or having someone invade their personal space. Respect their territory, by approaching an area the dog claims as their own in a cautious manner. A dog will claim his owner, the house and the proximity of the yard as his/her own, so anyone who enters this marked territory is considered a threat in a dog’s mind. People who “trespass,” such as mail carriers or visitors, are taken very seriously and for those who don’t respect the bark, often get the bite.
5. Let the dog approach you. It’s good to reach out your hand and let the dog approach you. Dogs are nearsighted and they recognize new people by smell, not sight. Let them sniff your hand and get the feel for you, and then they’ll be more comfortable around you. The safest way to offer a dog your hand is to present the top of your hand for the dog to smell, not your palm. If for some reason the dog doesn’t like the smell of your hand (perhaps you touched a different dog earlier) and bites, there are less tissues for him to latch onto.
6. Let your body talk. Postures speak louder than words in a dog’s world. Dogs don’t comprehend a lot of words, so they go off your posture. If you come towards them with a demeaning posture, or a powerful posture, standing over the dog, the pooch might not react to you well. However, if you simply lean over with your hand out, or bend down to the dog’s eye level, the dog will most likely come to you and be more comfortable.
7. Never assume a dog is friendly. It’s hard to not think of every dog as a friendly, cuddly pet. Keep in mind that even a dog that looks friendly, might not be, even if they are wagging their tails. That’s why it’s important to always ask the dog owner permission to approach their dog. Some dogs love being pet by strangers, others, on the other hand, get anxious and aren’t a huge fan.
8. Goody it up. Treats. Treats. Treats. What better way to interact and keep a dog comfortable than providing them treats? Keeping a pocket full of treats will entice a dog to approach you, and less likely for him to get defensive.
9. Move slowly. Never just run off quickly or run away from an approaching dog. It looks suspicious to the dog when you suddenly take off and it is their instinct to run after you. If you’re in a situation with an unfamiliar dog who doesn’t look very happy to see you, take it slow. Move backwards, slowly taking steps away from the dog until you’re out of their sight. NEVER turn your back on the dog that is acting strange or unfriendly because their instinct will be to chase you. People who run around the neighborhood are at the highest risk for being chased by a dog. In a dog’s mind, there are only two needs for running; getting away from something bad or to catch something. Dogs do not usually understand that a person is running for exercise or fun, which is why runners should always be aware of their surroundings.
10. Don’t take it personally. Lastly, don’t take it personally if a dog doesn’t like you. All dogs do not love all people. If you hold out your hand and the dog doesn’t come to you, take a couple steps back and move on. There are plenty of dogs in the world ready to be loved!
Take every precaution when approaching a new dog. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Unfortunately, not every dog is going to be lovable and cuddly. Knowing the proper precautions and steps to take when meeting a new dog could be the difference between meeting a new friend or getting an unfriendly bite.