May 19-25 is Dog Bite Prevention Week. I’ve been bitten several times, as I’m sure most people who work with animals have, but have never seen a specific number put to the risk that veterinarians have of being bitten. The most relevant statistic I could find was in a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) publication that stated, “4.5% dog bite injuries were work-related (e.g., occurred to persons who were delivering mail, packages, or food; working at an animal clinic or shelter; or doing home repair work or installations).”

Being put in the same category as delivery people got me to thinking. I use much the same method of avoiding bites as does the gentleman who drops off packages at my home. When my 82 pound dog greets him at the door, he approaches with non-threatening body language, speaks to him in a calm tone of voice, and bribes him with a treat. This last approach has worked so well that my dog now drools and bounces up and down whenever and wherever he sees a big, brown truck.

Despite efforts at prevention, dog bites unfortunately still come with the territory for some professionals, but my heart really goes out to the kids who are bitten. According to the CDC, every year:

800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites; half of these are children. Of those injured, 386,000 require treatment in an emergency department and about 16 die. The rate of dog bite-related injuries is highest for children ages 5 to 9 years, and the rate decreases as children age. Almost two thirds of injuries among children ages four years and younger are to the head or neck region. Injury rates in children are significantly higher for boys than for girls.

The elderly come in second to children as the group most likely to suffer from dog bites. One report states, “People more than 70 years old comprise 10% of those bitten and 20% of those killed.”

Obviously dog owners bear special responsibility for preventing dog bites. It is important to remember that most bites occur because a dog is afraid and not because he is being overly assertive. The best (only?) way to improve a behavior that is based in fear is to deal with the fear itself. Therefore, punishment of any kind is not an appropriate response. Yelling, hitting, jerking hard on a leash, etc., only confirms the dog’s feeling that he needs to defend himself.

The first step in alleviating fear-based behavior is to avoid the situations that cause the dog to become fearful. Instead, put the dog in an environment where he or she is confident and relaxed, get the dog to focus on his handler, and reward (with praise and a treat) that frame of mind. Then gradually the dog can be exposed to watered-down versions of the stimulus that invokes fear and be rewarded for remaining calm.

Dog bites are potentially too catastrophic of a problem for me to put forward a one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with them here. If you’re worried about the possibility of your dog biting, please do us all a favor and talk to a veterinarian or behaviorist about his state of mind.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Vladescu Bogdan / via Shutterstock