Dog Bites: Ask the Dog for Permission


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Current dog bite prevention strategies aren’t working – at least not enough.

I debut a talk regarding dog bite prevention, in conjunction with Fear Free, at the Viticus Western Veterinary Conference, in Las Vegas, NV February 21 at 11:35 am.

I will offer various explanations as to why it’s likely dog bites, including serious attacks are on the rise.

The focus will be that for decades we’ve all been taught, before you pet a dog you don’t know, ask “Can I pet your dog?” This is perfectly appropriate, especially for children to learn.

I have a new idea, let’s also ask the dog or S,T.O.P.P

stop – talk – observe – plan – pet

Dr. Marty Becker, Fear Free founder explains further on this podcast.

Dogs are always communicating, just as people are. Sometimes that communication is clear. Few might go ahead and pet a barking, lunging and growling dog, even if the handler says “it’s ok.”

However, what if the handler says, “It’s ok” but the dog is saying it’s not okay? The dog is standing stiffly and refuses to look at the person who wants to pet. Communication might be just that subtle. That dog is junmistakably saying, “I’d rather not interact right now,” as the growling dog.

How can that be?

Think about it. We all communicate differently. If a stranger we don’t wants to have an exchange with approaches, some of us may walk the other way while others may hold their ground and say, “Get the **** Away!”

Individual dogs communicate differently too. What’s more, being on a leash, they don’t have the option to walk away.

And even if a bite doesn’t occur, this is a welfare issue.

Today, we KNOW dogs are sentient beings, the courts have agreed, and science demonstrates this by looking at neurotransmitters and their interactions and pathways in dog brains, which are pretty much identical to ours. For whatever the reason….which can be anything from pain to distraction from a really great smell – if a dog doesn’t want to interact (particularly with a stranger), doesn’t the dog have the right to say “no?”

Here’s a quick review of 10 subtle ways which a dog may be saying “no:”

  • Tail tucked
  • Tail wagging (tail wagging is an expression of excitement, which often equates to joy but not always), particularly pointed downward and wagging fast.
  • Ears pinned down or ears erect
  • Piloerection (Hair literally standing up on the back of a dog’s neck)
  • Eyes dilated or ‘Whale eye’ where the whites of the eyes are prominent
  • Lick lipping
  • Yawning
  • Vocalization, including snarling and/or growling
  • Dog is standing stiffly (tail may also be pointing straight out and frozen)
  • Dog refuses to make eye contact or is staring intensely

New Data

Just released data from California shows increased rates of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and even deaths from dog bites, with new records set after COVID lockdowns. In 2022, there were 48,596 ER visits for dog bites in California, or 125 visits per 100,000 residents, a 70 percent increase in the rate of visits from 2005, according to the state Department of Health Care Access and Information.

The rate of dog bite-related hospitalizations roughly doubled from 2006 through 2022. And although deaths from dog bites are extremely rare, the death rate in California rose an astounding 70 percent during roughly the same period, with 28 deaths in the state from 2018 through 2022. As far as dog bite-related records have been kept, it’s never been this high.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comparing 2011 with 2021, between 2011 and 2018, the number of dog bite related deaths hovered around 20, on average nationally. Unfortunately, 2018 through 2021, national deaths resulting from dog bites more than doubled, the CDC reported. While the number of dogs has significantly risen, that number has not doubled.

Even before the pandemic, more Americans were welcoming dogs into their homes. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that households nationwide owned about 86 million dogs in 2020, up from about 62 million in 2001. Today, estimates vary but hover around 90 million pet dogs in the U.S.

So, why more dog bites and also significant bites?

Animal shelters and rescues, particularly those self-identified as no-kill – will do all they can to adopt an aggressive dog who has been “re-trained,” often using aversive training methods. Because “the job” is done so quickly and using punishment-based techniques, these dogs are ticking time bomb.

California state data and a recent study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association public health researchers show that, in California, like throughout the country, children and young adults are the age groups most likely to make ER visits for dog bites. Nationwide, children under five years of age were more than twice as likely to die from dog bites as members of other age groups, according to CDC data from 2018 to 2022.

Much of the time when there are serious bites to young children, there was no adult supervision when the dog attacked, and the dog might have been provoked (from the dog’s point of view). More deliveries coming to homes may play a role.

Interestingly, according to California data, serious Dog Bite Injuries Are More Common in Rural California . The rate of ER encounters for dog bites in 2022 was almost 50 percent higher in counties with fewer than 200,000 people. Modoc, Inyo, Lake, and Siskiyou counties had the highest rates of ER encounters. One explanation might be that dogs in rural areas are often not as socialized as their urban cousins. Rural residents also tend to have more dogs.

Various other factors, including a lack of socialization in pups adopted in the pandemic, are likely contributing to increasing dog bites, even climate change.

Bottom line – we need to do better regarding dog bite prevention and I suggest the first step is simply “ask the dog.” Even for non-dog owners, as bites continue to rise, so does all homeowners insurance, and places now dog-friendly, may become less so.