Take the bite out of dogs’ aggression

It’s easy to find information on the signals dogs give before they bite and ways to prevent dog bites. But a recent study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behaviour found that educating people about canine body language and high-risk situations isn’t enough.

All too often, people believe dog bites won’t happen to them or that their dog won’t bite, and they ignore a dog’s warning signs.

“Nobody wants to believe that their beloved dog would cause harm, but all dogs have the potential to bite, whether it be in aggression or in play,” says Carri Westgarth, Ph.D., a dog behavior expert at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Infection and Global Health.

What are the situations in which bites are most likely to occur, either to people or other animals? Trainer and expert witness in dog bite cases Jill Kessler-Miller of Palos Verdes notes the following:

▪  When dogs are off their leash and off their property.

▪  When people permit dogs on extendible leashes to roam.

▪  When children and dogs are unsupervised.

Dog bite attorney Kenneth M. Phillips of Beverly Hills says other common situations that invite bites involve unsupervised children entering a yard with a dog or dogs in it; dogs who are tethered; and multiple dogs. Mistakes people make include reaching in to break up a dogfight and letting dogs approach other dogs or people without first asking permission.

Most bites are preventable with 10 reasonable precautions.

1. Teach dogs to wait for permission before approaching other animals or people.

2. Use a 4- to 6-foot leash instead of an extendible leash. It’s too easy to let a dog get out of control, and the leashes can injure people as well. “People get tangled in them, thrown off their feet and have had fingers torn off,” Miller says.

3. Be alert to your surroundings so you know if other people or animals are approaching. You need to always be ready to either control your dog if he’s reactive or get him out of harm’s way if an aggressive dog approaches.

4. Teach children to ask permission before approaching any dog.

5. Take your dog to puppy kindergarten followed by obedience class. They are opportunities to work on training and socialization.

6. Stay out of dog parks. They can be breeding grounds for canine bad behavior, such as bullying and aggression.

7. Pay attention to your own actions. Don’t put your face close to a dog’s face, especially if you don’t know him or if he has been injured.

8. To separate fighting dogs, avoid the head, where the teeth are. Each owner should grab his dog’s hind legs and pull the dogs away from each other. “Don’t let go,” Miller says. “They will re-engage.”

9. If you or your pet are bitten, clean the wound thoroughly and seek medical or veterinary attention. Report the bite to animal control.

10. Don’t ignore or downplay aggressive behavior from your dog or someone else’s dog, such as lunging, pulling on the leash or growling when he sees other people or animals. Nipping is a red flag, too.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton.