Dog Bite Prevention Week #7: So, what CAN we do to help?
All week long we've been discussing dog bite prevention, and how we can handle dogs who are behaving aggressively or biting. And yes, busting myths is critically important so that we are no longer misinformed about why our dogs are behaving a certain way, and how to change their behavior. But more important than anything else is coming up with concrete solutions moving forward to continue preventing dog bites. With some slight changes to our pet guardianship habits we can help to keep people and dogs safe.
So, where to start?
1) Learn dog body language (especially children!)
I cannot express this enough. Normal dogs have many, MANY signs that they offer before being pushed to a bite (I say normal because a dog who was not socialized properly or who was trained with heavily punitive techniques may have a deficit in this area). They may be as subtle as a head turn or a lip lick, or as noticeable as an air snap, but it's critical that we learn warning signs so that we never get to the point where a dog is actually biting. Additionally, teaching our children how to see the warning signs so that if they're interacting with dogs at neighbor's and friend's houses they might be able to pick up on these signs as well(even though we hope a responsible adult is always supervising!). A great new resource for this is a game created specifically to teach kids how to read dogs.
2) Eliminate the use of tie outs
An overwhelming number of dog bites happen when dogs are on a tie out and left unattended. Speaking from experience, seeing a dog throw himself at the end of a tie out as a pedestrian passes with no physical barrier to be seen is a very frightening experience. Dogs who are on a tie-out often feel that they are trapped; they go into fight or flight mode, and when the dog is stuck on a tie out their only option is fight, which can lead to a bite. If your dog is outside they should be behind a physical fence, or if you do use a tie out you need to be present and supervising at all times.
3) Supervise, supervise, supervise children and dogs (AND ensure safe interactions!)
Most dog bites happen to children. We know this. And yet I still see completely inappropriate interactions happening between children and dogs all the time. The first step in safety is supervising kids. Young children should never, ever be left alone with a dog. This is what baby gates, crates, and exercise pens are for. And just visual supervision isn't always enough (see graphic below). If young children (think toddlers who are still refining their fine motor skills) are interacting with the dog you need to be right next to them, guiding interactions and ensuring safety. Is it difficult to manage time and space this way? Yes. But is it worth it? Yes, for the safety of both your child and dog.
One more thing to note about this. When you see your child interacting with your dog, ask yourself if you are comfortable with your child acting that way with ANY dog she meets? Because that is what will probably happen. Maybe your child hugs the family dog and the dog is "fine" (p.s. usually the dog isn't enjoying the experience, merely tolerating it) but what if she does that to the neighbor's dog? Or your aunt's dog who is nervous around children? When your child is old enough, sit down with them and talk about how they should act around dogs, and help them understand how the dog might feel about their interactions.
4) Spay and neuter of dogs with behavior problems.
This one is for all dog owners, but especially for anyone out there that breeds. I have spoken with several people over the last year who told me that their fearful or reactive dog were purchased from a breeder, and when I asked about their current pet's sire or dam they told me they couldn't even meet the dog because the dog was aggressive or "territorial". If you ever ask to meet the parent of a prospective puppy and are told you can't because of some behavioral reason, do NOT give that breeder your money. They are doing a grave disservice to the breed standard, dog owners, and public safety. I don't care how conformationally beautiful that dog is, every dog eventually has to coexist with humans in some way and continuing to breed dogs with behavior issues when there are millions of animals euthanized every day is idiotic.
Now this brings up the question of whether neutering or spaying a dog will change that dog's behavior. There is no solid research on this as far as I know, and lots of anecdotal evidence, but in my experience neutering a dog will not undo the reinforcement history that the dog may already have for aggressive or reactive behavior. So, it might help, it very well might not, but it's something to discuss with your vet. (For more information, check out this blog post.)
5) Use strictly positive reinforcement dog training.
Whether you are starting out with a brand new puppy, or trying to modify a long ingrained behavior, you must use positive reinforcement to avoid creating or exacerbating behavior problems. When I attended Pat Miller's Level 1 Academy in 2016 she brought up the fact that she believes there's a temperament spectrum that dogs lie on, ranging from very soft to very hard (just like with people!). In order for punitive training to work you have to be working with a dog who lies in the middle of the spectrum. If you try to use punitive methods with a dog that is too soft you will break the dog and create fear in the form of emotional shut down; and if you try to use punitive methods with a hard dog you will have to continually escalate your punishments and often times create aggression. If we expect our dogs to tolerate and respect us, don't they deserve the same from us? There is never any use for fear or pain in training, and if you choose to use aversive methods you are taking a gamble with your dog's mental and emotional health and future behavior.
I'd like to add, if there's one thing that will not help with dog bite prevention it's breed specific legislation. BSL is a very controversial topic in the dog world right now, but we're seeing time and time again that breed specific legislation simply doesn't help this matter. Not only that, but it may give some people a false sense of safety because it ignores the fact that any and every dog CAN bite, so we need to be aware of that when interacting with any dog, regardless of their breed. For more information on Breed Specific Legislation check out links here, here, and here.
And that's it for Dog Bite Prevention Week 2018! Remember, we can ALL help and have an impact in decreasing the number of dog bites, but just like with any other cause it will take a team effort. If we can all educate ourselves on dog body language, how to safely supervise kids and dogs, and the other factors that impact dog bite numbers, even if we prevent just one bite it will be worth it!
Got any more questions about dog bites, aggression, or anything else dog related? Feel free to leave questions in the comment box below!