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No matter how strong your bond with your dog, at some point, you may be unexpectedly bitten. This can be overwhelming and extremely upsetting. If your dog bites you, the most important thing to do is to remain calm. Keep in mind, a dog bite doesn’t mean your dog has become aggressive, and it doesn’t mean that biting will forever be a problem. There are many reasons a dog may bite, and bites can vary in seriousness and intensity. (Note: for a severe bite, seek medical attention first and foremost!)
Let’s take a look at the various reasons a dog bites, along with strategies for dealing with the behavior. When in doubt, consult a reputable trainer.
Is your dog still a puppy? If so, and your puppy ‘bites’ you without breaking the skin, this is known as mouthing and is extremely common. Puppies up to 6-7 months old are often still teething and may ‘mouth’ items, including your hands and feet, to explore and play. This behavior may appear cute at a young age, but as your dog ages, the behavior becomes problematic.
Prey drive is also a common reason for an accidental bite. Were you playing a game with your dog when he bit you? If so, he likely bit accidentally while getting overly excited about the game. At this point, it’s time to adjust the game. For example, tug-of-war isn’t often recommended by canine behaviorists. Fetch, on the other hand, is an excellent activity that both provides exercise and reduces the risk of a bite.
Yet another reason for an essentially ‘accidental’ bite is maternal instinct. If you have a mother dog and you approached her puppies, she may have bitten you in an effort to protect her litter. You can visit her once she is comfortable with you near her young. Be certain to approach slowly and carefully.
Pain is a large contributor to dog bites. If your dog has bitten you, he may be experiencing some type of pain. Dogs are very good at hiding pain. A trip to the vet is necessary if none of the other reasons in this list apply. The vet will be able to tell you about any underlying medical conditions.
Fear is another reason for an unexpected dog bite. If your dog bit you due to fear, trust-building exercises are necessary to enhance the bond between you and your dog. When it comes to a fearful dog, you aren’t the only person at risk of being bitten. Anyone who scares your dog could experience a bite. Exercise caution when you have a fearful dog near other people or pets.
Did your dog have a toy when you were bitten? Did he have a special chew? If so, this could indicate possessive aggression. This happens when your dog believes you’re too close, or attempting to take away something he wants. This type of bite is not accidental. This bite is an indication to you that your dog does not want your near an item. This can become serious if not corrected immediately.
Understanding your dog is key.
Dog bite prevention is crucial. Each year, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs in the United States. The large majority of these bites happen because adults and children aren’t fully aware of how to properly interact with their dog. Understanding your dog is key. Socializing your dog, creating trust between you, and watching your dog’s signals are all important. What signals may you see prior to a dog bite?
Dog Avoids Eye Contact
Avoiding eye contact, or giving the whale eye, is one large indication your dog is about to bite. If your dog is giving you the whale eye, you will see a very large portion of the whites of your dog eye(s).
Stiff Tail Wagging
Tail wagging is not always a sign of happiness. Sometimes, tail wagging is a sign your dog is about to bite. You must look at the rest of your dog’s body language in order to determine if this is a sign of aggression. If your dog’s body is stiff with hair raised, for example, tail wagging in this case is not a sign of happiness.
Growling and/or Showing Teeth
Finally, if your dog is growling and/or showing his teeth, this is a clear indication your dog is getting ready to bite. Don’t punish your dog for growling, because it’s important that they give this signal so you can intervene. If you hear growling, do your best to find a solution and remove the trigger.
If you find yourself unsure of what to do or have any questions regarding dog bites, please consult a canine behaviorist for assistance. The canine behaviorist will be able to help determine the reason for the bite. The behaviorist can also help you make a plan of action, such as behavior modification training, in order to prevent future dog bites.
Each dog’s situation is different and may require a different course of action, but most every dog can be worked with. The simplest way to prevent your dog from biting, if he is doing so ‘accidentally,’ is to quickly exclaim ‘ouch’ or a use high-pitched noise to let him know this action is not acceptable. This method is particularly effective with mouthing behavior in dogs and puppies.
Counter-conditioning and desensitization training are helpful for fearful, reactive, and territorial dogs. This involves a steady, patient practice of teaching your dog to have positive associations with his triggers. You can read more about it here, as well as from the renowned work of behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin.
Once your dog has had a biting incident, even if it wasn’t very severe, use common sense and take necessary precautions. You have a loving relationship with your dog, but that doesn’t mean your dog will respond similarly to strangers, young children, or other dogs. Children, in particular, can provoke a fearful or territorial dog without realizing it. Crate your dog when company comes, never leave your dog unsupervised with kids under 5, and keep working on your training methods.
You can read more from the National Dog Bite Prevention Week site, as well as find good information for teaching kids how to respond when a dog approaches. The “Be a Tree” method is easy to learn.
A dog bite is scary, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster. Basic obedience training, and in some cases, counter-conditioning and desensitization, will help, and there are many professionals out there to give you guidance.