In journalism, “Man Bites Dog” is news. Pooches biting fewer people, however, is not. But maybe it should be, considering that dog bites declined a whopping 9% between 2017 and 2018, according to an April 2019 press release from the American Veterinary Medical Association.
The AVMA reported that dog bites fell from 18,522 to 17,297 in a 2-year period. Moreover, 81% of those bites caused no injury or minor injuries that did not require medical care. Dog bites among older children have also dropped, but incidents involving children younger than a 1 year have increased.
There is no official national repository of dog bite data in the United States. The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report was compiled in 2001 and released in July 2003. Analyzing information from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System-All Injury Program, the CDC estimated that 368,245 people were treated in hospitals for dog bites.
The AVMA report used insurance claims statistics from the Insurance Information Institute, American Humane Society, and State Farm Insurance, the largest writer of homeowner insurance in the United States. All are partners with the AVMA in the National Dog Bite Coalition. “The most recent data definitely shows that (dog bites) have been going down,” Douglas Kratt, DVM, president of the AVMA, told Medical Daily. “I attribute that to better education of the public and training for the pets.”
Even the Most Gentle Dog May Lash Out
In 2019, there were an estimated 76 million to 90 million dogs living in American households, according to Woofdog.org. While some types – pit bulls, mixed breeds, German shepherds and rottweilers, as well as dogs that are not neutered – are more likely to snap and bite, the overwhelming majority of our 4-legged friends are good dogs. Unfortunately, Dr. Kratt said that given the right circumstances, even the gentlest, most well-behaved dog may snap or bite. “I would like to tell you there is one answer but these are really complex situations and need to be looked at individually,” he said.
A dog may be more inclined to react aggressively if it is guarding food, a toy, or its pups, he explained. They may be belligerent if they are startled, sick or injured.
“Any bite is unfortunate and too many,” Dr. Kratt said. “So, it requires working with the pet, making sure that it is trained and socialized using positive reinforcement.” That’s the message Dr. Kratt delivers to every pet owner during their first visit, whether they are new or fifth-time dog owners. Bringing a dog into your home, he tells them, means making a commitment and an investment in a family member.
Training Pays Off
A dog may be with you for as many as 12 to 15 years, Dr. Kratt pointed out. “You want to invest up front by having the animal trained. It’s a huge investment but then it brings years of joy.” Behavioral issues, among the most common reasons pets are surrendered, can be averted with a good training and socialization program, he said. A good training class can also help Fido’s owner learn a new trick or two.
“A dog can’t talk to us in words that we can understand so we need to learn their language,” Dr. Kratt explained. “There are cues they are giving us. Take some time paying attention to their body language.”
That is especially true with an unfamiliar dog. The first rule when meeting a new dog is to ask the owner for permission to interact with the pet. Owners know if the pet likes meeting new people or is fearful of strangers. Look for body language cues like the dog seeking your attention. Conversely, an animal that seems stressed or is hiding behind its owner may not be ready to meet you.
Teach Your Children Well
Just as dogs need socialization, young children should be taught how to interact appropriately with a dog. Children should be taught to not startle or tease a dog, play rough or tug its tail. “We wouldn’t act like that with a pet and so I wouldn’t want our children to,” he said.
Another piece of advice Dr. Kratt offers his clients is to never leave infants or young children alone with a pet. It is a hard and fast rule he and his wife, also a veterinarian, lived by with their children, even though the couple considered their dogs gentle and well behaved.
“I’m just not a fan of toddlers and young children being left unattended with pets, no matter how much I trust the pet,” he says. “I just think that accidents happen and I feel it is my responsibility, not as a veterinarian but as a person, as an adult, as an animal owner, to try not to set anyone up for failure.”