Annually, about four and a half million people are bitten by dogs in the U.S. and between 10 and 20 of those are fatal. Most are children who are bitten by their own dogs and more than half are bitten in the face. Without warning a dog may change from friendly to aggressive. Fortunately, according to research, 82% require no medical attention. However, legal action is often taken when a bite has occurred so we need to look at some of the legal concepts that apply.
What is a Bite?
A “bite” is when a dog closes its jaws to grip something but need not necessarily cause damage to skin. It may be a swipe of the teeth or claws that incorrectly can be called a bite. Dogs do not have thumbs. They cannot hold things other than with their jaws. So, in a way, all bogs bite and as such come with risks that dog owners must be very aware of.
Dog Bite Law
The law generally makes dog owners liable for dog bites when a person is bitten, based simply on owning the dog that did the biting. In some cases persons other than the owner can be held liable. Such a person can be one having custody of the dog such as an employee or a dog walker.
The one Bite rule
A dog owner will be liable if he knew, before the biting incident that the dog had a tendency to bite without justification. Dog owners almost always claim that “it is the first time”that the dog has behaved in such a way. It is often very difficult for the victim to prove that the dog actually has an inclination to bite someone.
Generally negligence is when a dog owner (or someone in charge of the dog) fails to act with due care like allowing a dog to run loose in a street or when visitors and children arrive at his home. Proper supervision and control must be exercised at all times. However, if there is no previous history of biting and also no negligence on the part of the owner, a different legal case may arise to be sorted out by lawyers.
Why Dogs Bite?
Dog bites do not happen “out of the blue.” It is a problem that can be fixed in most cases. Genetics, breeding, training and early experiences could all have an influence on the behaviour, but unlikely to be the “cause” of an attack. Dogs will give warning of their intended behviour. Barking usually means “Go away” or is a call for other pack members to come and defend the den. Growling is more serious and means, “If you don’t stop I will bite.” When parents tell me that the dog growled at a child I always stress the seriousness of the warning by telling them that “No dog is worth the face of a child” and preventative action must be taken. Before a dog reacts it will first stare for two seconds during which time preventative action must be taken. Unfortunately most dog owners are not schooled sufficiently in being vigilant of rogue behaviour.
Other signals are more subtle and can easily be missed by people. Parents may think that the dog does not mind being mauled by their child. They often are proud of how tolerant the dog is towards the child and does not mind the child climbing over him.
What they miss is that the dog:
Yawns when the child arrives and often licks his lips (Calming signals)
Tries to get away from the child
Turns his head away from the child
Does not look very happy
Shows the whites of his eyes
Shakes himself like a wet dog shakes
When the dog has been sending these signals for a while he may begin to become intolerant and finally bite because he has no other way of defending himself. Parents and care givers must be aware of the signals from the dog and protect both the child and the dog from what can be a nasty situation. The dog will always be blamed and may end up unloved in a backyard in spite of having tried his best to warn them to please stop.
Types of Aggression that are most often encountered:
Dominance aggressionagainst the family who want to take something from the dog, pet it, pick it upor disturb it from resting. When the first signs of dominance appears and they are not scolded, demoted and taken for obedience training, matters will steadily get worse. These dogs often end at shelters or are put down because their owners did not understand how it came about.
Protective / territorial aggression directed at strangers who approach the owner or the house of the owner. They hate the mailman and meter reader. The owner’s car is guarded fiercely but they are very good at sensing the difference between welcome guests and intruders. They need to be dominated and have to obey strict rules at all times.
Defensive or Fear aggression directed at family or strangers who approach too quickly or too closely when the dog is afraid. They stand with their ears down and tail between the legs while avoiding eye-contact. They do not like to be petted or brushed. At any instant they may snap and bite in fear. To help them to try and overcome this problem obedience training, food reward and praise must be given. They should be taken with you as often as possible to be exposed to new people and places.
Redirected aggression is aimed at family, strangers or animals that approach or touch the dog when it is being aggressive towards someone or something else. When a dog is grabbed around the neck area it is interpreted by him as fighting. He does not think it is my mom or dad. To him it is the enemy and will attack whoever interfered.
Pain aggression directed at family or strangers when the dog is in pain. Use common sense. If the dog is in pain – ill or hit by a car – expect to be bitten. Do not put your face near him. Watch very carefully and be ready for a quick snap or bite. Wear gloves when trying to move him.
Other issues that may influence aggression are:
Pack mentality. Three dogs are worse than two and 4 are worse than 3. Docile dogs often become uncharacteristically violent or vicious when in a pack. When dogs have experienced the “thrill” of a kill, rehabilitation becomes very difficult.
Chained or tethered dogs that have been tied up tend to become aggressive and should not be approached.
Obedience training by as many members in a family will go a long way in solving dog bite problems. The dogs involved in biting tend to be family pets not strays!
The approach I have adopted with workers, delivery individuals and visitors to avoid any form of aggression from the dogs have been, “Please stand still for a moment without looking, touching or speaking to my dog.” Wait for the dog to get to know you before interacting with him. When the dog lowers his head and turns away, is the signal that you can precede with the visit or work. It soon becomes a habit and has been very successful so far.