Dog Bite | Animal Behavior Expert Witness For Attorneys

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

“Bringing the science of animal behavior to attorneys”


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Dog Bite Prevention & Safety for Children

Annually in the United States, a widely used estimate is that approximately 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs, and expert dog bite preventionmany victims are children.  Hence, educating children and their parents about dog bite safety techniques is needed to reduce the risk of dog bite injury to both children and adults alike.

Information about dog bite prevention is now widely available from many different sites on the internet. For example, from the American Veterinary Medical Association, and not surprisingly from organizations which stand to lose the most financially,  such as insurance carriers. Below I offer a non-exhaustive list of preventative steps that may be taken by parents, landlords, and dog owners. If the selected preemptive steps are employed, either alone or in combination, the number of people attacked and bitten by dogs could well significantly lessen.

Two important caveats must be considered:

• Caveat 1. In any particular situation, considerable differences exist in the extent to which the below mentioned dog bite safeguards need to be employed. Note carefully that the recommendations below are general guidelines for dog bite prevention, and the extent to which they might prove helpful in any given situation must be determined on a case-by-case basis. In some situations because of the nature of the dog, the history of the dog, and other factors relevant to the kind of relationship the owner has with the dog, the employment of any specific dog bite intervention may have little or no effect in decreasing the likelihood a dog bite. On the other hand, for some dogs in certain situations, it would be critical to employ many of the recommendations mentioned below.

• Caveat 2. Despite one’s effort at employing dog bite preventive safeguards, if any particular dog is sufficiently motivated to bite (perhaps because of provocation), then safeguards will not prevent the dog from biting. A dog’s motivation to bite varies according to the individual and according to circumstances present at the time of the incident. Factors affecting dog bite probability are discussed elsewhere on this website.

Dog bite prevention for children

Dog bite expert children

• Parents should instruct children not to approach and interact with dogs they do not know that well, particularly in certain circumstances such as when a dog is feeding, when a dog is in possession of a coveted object such a bone or something that it has stolen, when a strange dog on its own territory or when a dog is resting or sleeping;

• In selected circumstances, parents should instruct children not to charge a dog or place their face directly into the face of a dog they do not know that well. This recommendation also applies to adults;

• Both children and adults should be cautious around a dog who is chained until an indication is received from the dog itself (i.e. through its behavior) or from the owner that the dog will not bite or act aggressively;

• In selected circumstances, children need to be taught to respect a dog’s personal boundaries, including the dog’s territory and “personal” space, and further children (and adults as well) need to recognize a dog’s “body language” (e.g. facial, postural, and vocal behavior);

• Instruct children not to tease neighborhood dogs, or for that matter any dog; Parents should teach their children to treat dogs in a humane and caring manner. There should be zero tolerance for animal abuse;

• Keep children away from a dog who they know could be aggressive, and both children and adults should avoid circumstances that might elicit aggressive responding from a dog. These circumstances have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis – situations obviously differ.

Dog bite prevention for dog owners

dog owner

  • Obtain a dog from an experienced breeder with a track record of breeding for temperament and not just physical appearance. Be wary about obtaining a dog from pet shops, puppy mills, “backyard” breeders, or obtaining a puppy whose background is mysterious (e.g. stray dog found on the street). Spay or neuter the dog, ideally before 9 months of age.
  • Subject your dog to obedience and socialization training, ideally before 6 months of age. Older dogs also benefit from “refresher” obedience training under the instruction of a behaviorist or dog trainer. Be cautious of the trainer your choose: many do more harm than good, and competence varies greatly.
  • Avoid chaining an aggressive dog as a means of restraint and avoid long periods of sustained confinement in one area. A caveat to this is that some dogs (depending on a dog’s temperament and behavioral history) can be confined or chained without negative consequences;
  • Act in a responsible manner: take your dog in for regular veterinary examinations, including blood work, to rule out medical causation for possible aggressive responding;
  • Recognize warning signs of aggression and seek professional help from a properly qualified animal behavior specialist when the first signs of aggression appear. Do not wait until the dog bites someone. Behavioral therapy should be started to reduce a dog’s tendencies to bite. Part of this therapy may include the use of drugs when necessary.
  • Choose a dog which you know you can physically control; Dogs with strong predatory tendencies (e.g. killing cats) should be kept away from toddlers and children and the dog’s predatory tendencies should be addressed with behavioral modification;
  • If you dog lacks a proven track record of 100% acceptable and non-aggressive behavior around children, and to a lesser extent around adults, then keep the dog away from children (or adults) who do not know the dog that well; Post warning signs (e.g.”Beware of Dog”) when necessary and use judgment when it comes to the need of possibly warning people that your dog could become aggressive and bite;
  • If you know you have a dog with aggressive tendencies, make sure the dog can’t escape from your property. Mend broken fences, install locks on gates, make sure gates close automatically and properly, instruct service people to close gates, know the whereabouts of your dog when you open a garage door, etc. Use a muzzle when appropriate;
  • In selected cases, reduce the height of a dog’s canine teeth via veterinary surgical procedure;
  • Lodge complaints to animal control about neighborhood dogs who act aggressively;
  • Be wary of circumstances when a female is in heat and in the proximity of a male dog, particularly a male dog who has not been neutered. Some male dogs may become aggressive in these circumstances. The bottom line: do not let people, particularly small children, interact with a male dog or a bitch, when the male is near a bitch who is actively in heat (the duration of estrus in female dogs is relatively short: 4 – 7 days; behaviorally this can be determined via “flagging” behavior in the bitch). After the period of estrus has ended, owners do not need to be as concerned because intact males quickly lose interest in the female and become less protective.
  • Aggressive dogs should be relocated so that the likelihood of an attack on a person is substantially reduced, or the dog should be placed in a no-kill shelter or sanctuary. If these options are not available, in selected cases, the dog should be destroyed.
  • Comply with local leash laws. Letting your dog run loose in an urban environment or residential area could be dangerous, and imposes a substantial risk to the safety of others. For example:
  • Your dog(s) might approach a person and frighten that person, causing that person to fall or take some other kind of evasive action which in turn results in injury (i.e. jumping on the top of a car);
  • Your dog, albeit non-aggressive, might approach and try to interact with a dog-aggressive-dog (possibly being walked on leash), an altercation starts, and somebody gets injured;
  • Your dog might run into the street in pursuit of a squirrel or cat and get hit by a car or possibly cause a traffic accident;
  • Your dog could pick up a disease through contact with another animal and transmit it to you or your child;
  • Your dog could injure a person if it accidentally collided with a person while in pursuit of some object like a cat (or another dog), or while playing with another dog.

Dog bite prevention for landlords and property owners

Landlord

  • Property owners should have zero tolerance for aggressive dogs residing on their property, particularly groups of dogs behaving as packs. Even a pack of dogs with no documented history of aggression towards humans or animals may pose an extreme danger to humans or other animals in certain circumstances.  Once a property becomes aware of the potentially dangerous nature of a dog or group of dogs on the property, steps need to be immediately taken to reduce the risk to mitigate the danger. Removing the dog(s) from the property, posting warning signs or ensuring that the dog is properly contained on the property are steps to consider.
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