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CHILDREN, DOGS & AGGRESSION: Understand Your Dog's Warning Signs Before It's Too Late

In an earlier article, I wrote about the controversy regarding rescues adopting out dogs with a bite history. Here's the next question. Why did the dog bite and did he give any warning? Usually, the answer is yes, but not everyone knows how to recognize those warnings.

There are several reasons that dogs may bite:

  1. To protect their human family, puppies or property

  2. As a result of a stressful situation

  3. When their personal boundaries have been crossed.

  4. When they are afraid or feel threatened

  5. When they are mishandled or hurt

There are also breeds that are more likely to bite with the Chihuahua taking the number one position. That's the breed mix I rescue most often as fear biters. Chihuahuas are followed by:

  • English Bulldog

  • Pit Bull

  • German Shepherd

  • Australian Shepherd

  • Lhasa Apso

  • Jack Russell Terrier

  • Cocker Spaniel

  • Bull Terrier

  • Pekingese

  • Papillion

The bite force of these breeds varies. Chihuahuas have only 100 psi (pounds per square inch), the Pitbull has 235 psi, the German Shepard 238, and the dog with the most bite force is the Kangal, a mastiff breed, with 743 pounds per square inch. So, while the chihuahua is most likely to bite, a larger dog is more likely to inflict damage or death.

No matter the breed, it is important to recognize the signs before it's too late, particularly if children are involved. Being able to read the body language is the key to preventing a bite and to preventing a dog from developing the reputation as a biter.

One of the first signs that a dog is stressed is surprising. He yawns. Yawning is an appeasement gesture that says "I'm stressed, but I'm not going to bite." The dog will most likely look away, since looking directly in the eyes would be considered a challenge of dominance. He may blink, lick his lips and turn the body away.

If the stress continues, the dog will often walk away and try to escape the situation. This is the moment that teaching a child how to interact with a pet is paramount. Children will often hug the dog, sit on him, or other actions that prevent the dog from walking away. Sometimes parents encourage the behaviors because they think the interaction is cute and endearing. They may not realize, that they may be putting their children in great danger by allowing them to cross the dog's boundaries.

If the dog is unable to escape, he may still try to avoid biting. Most dogs don't want to be in the situation any more than the child or adult wants to be bitten. The problem is, the threat continues as far as the dog is concerned. The dog may change his facial expression, pull his ears back, and crouch with his tail tucked between his legs.

If the dog is still unable to get away, aggression may escalate quickly. He may stiffen up, stare, and growl. He may give warning snaps. The next step is the bite.

It's at that point, that the adult or child may be hurt, depending on the bite force, among other factors. The dog will forever have a bite history.

All could have been prevented if someone had recognized the signs, and deescalated the situation appropriately.

As clear cut as the warning signs sound, the truth is, not all dogs show them before biting. In all my years working with animals I've been bitten or nearly bitten by dogs who never gave any indication that a bite was coming. One was even waging his tail.

While we can't control everything, we need to control what we can. It's important to teach children how to behave and interact around dogs.

Teach them:

  • To approach a new dog slowly and ask permission before petting the dog

  • To pet the dog gently on the neck in the direction of the fur if the owner gives the okay.

  • The signs that the dog is stressed and when its best to leave the dog alone

  • To avoid pulling the tails, ears and feet of dogs

  • That dogs are not horses to be ridden, no matter how large the dog

  • How to pick up and carry a small dog properly

  • To avoid hugging a dog

  • To avoid putting their faces too close to the dog's mouth

  • To avoid screaming and running around the dog.

No child should ever have to go through a dog bite, and no dog should be put in a situation where he feels the need to defend himself from a child. Period. Education is the key.


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