Dog Bite Prevention: Educating Owners on Dog Communication Signals

By Steve Dale, CABC

This just happened, and I wish I had video. Walking down the street, this dude had two dogs with him and so did I. The dogs appeared to be friendly, and the handler volunteered before I could ask, “My dogs are friendly.” I do know at least a little something about dog signaling. And the dogs came up to me, that’s always a good sign. All was well until I noticed, a piloerection out of nowhere. I instantly backed away. That same dog then growled at me and then lunged at one of my dogs.

I said, “I thought you said the dogs are friendly.”

His reply “If you knew dogs, you’d know a growl doesn’t mean the dog isn’t friendly.”

National Dog Bite Prevention Week was this past April.

Along those lines, it’s true, we’ve all been taught – and teach clients to always ask before petting a dog you don’t know.

While I support that approach, it obviously hasn’t done the trick since by all accounts the number of dog bites is around the same as it always has been. Some continue to call dog bites an epidemic.

Data on the number of dogs in the U.S. varies, but one source indicates there are 63.4 million and all estimates concur there have never been so many dogs. Most homes have at least one. Most dog bites happen within families, and since not all bites are reported the real number of dog bites is always squishy.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs annually in the United States. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about one in five of those require medical attention. And all of us pay more for homeowners’ or renters’ insurance because of the money insurance carriers pay out for dog bite claims.

No matter what the real dog bite numbers are, all agree on a few basic facts: Most bites happen to children. And most dog bites are preventable.

I say, what we’re doing now is clearly not enough. Let’s do more than ask the handler, “can I pet your dog?” but ask the dog, “do you want to be approached?”

Dogs are always communicating, just as people are. Sometimes that communication is clear. Few might go ahead and pet a barking and growling dog, even if the handler says, “it’s ok.” However, what if the handler says, “It’s ok,” what if the dog is saying it’s not okay? The dog is standing stiffly and refuses to look at the person who wants to pet. That dog is just as clearly 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 want to have an exchange with approaches, some of us may walk the other way while others may hold their ground and say, “Go away, please.” Still, others may pretty much ignore the stranger.

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

If the pets say no, well, then no should be no.

There’s no doubt that if we pay attention to what dogs tell us and don’t interact with dogs who don’t want to be interacted with, the number of bites would decline.

If your dog – at that moment – doesn’t want to be interacted with, then don’t. And teach this rule of “respect” to children so we can begin teaching young people to “speak dog.”

Of course, certified, registered and licensed technicians and nurses are well aware of basic dog signaling, though sometimes dogs are so subtle it’s hard to pick up or you may be in a hurry.

Certainly, this notion of asking the dog is consistent with Fear Free philosophy.

If this notion and “dog language” is communicated to the public dog bite numbers may, in fact, decline. What’s more it’s only fair. While we’re not dogs, I’m unsure the analogy isn’t applicable: Do you always want strangers touching you? Don’t dogs have the right to their own space? Dogs are emotional beings, and clearly have their own feelings.

Of course, in homes, there may be a reason that pup doesn’t want to be engaged. It might be that the dog has an ear infection, or maybe is feeling achy because of arthritis – which hasn’t been diagnosed. Anytime there’s a change in a dog’s usual temperament, there’s typically an explanation and a reason to contact the veterinarian – another message which should be communicated to clients.

Of course, not all dogs who prefer to be left alone will respond with a bite. Some dogs will tolerate unwanted attention, especially from those they know and love. Other dogs will elevate their warning signals hoping to eventually get the message across, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t.

No matter, why not respect our best friends’ wishes?