Playing it Safe: Tips to Prevent Dog Bites All Year-Round

Playing it Safe: Tips to Prevent Dog Bites All Year-Round

This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. No matter how long you've had your dog or how comfortable you are with him, taking the right measures to prevent him from biting another person is so important. To help you learn how to create a safe environment for your dog, children, and others, we've invited expert trainer Kat Stevens-Stanley to share her insight with us.

This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week. No matter how long you've had your dog or how comfortable you are with him, taking the right measures to prevent him from biting another person is so important. To help you learn how to create a safe environment for your dog, children, and others, we've invited expert trainer Kat Stevens-Stanley to share her insight with us.

In the United State alone, there are an estimated 70 million dogs. Broken down, that’s about one for every 4.5 people. Additionally, 36.5 percent of homes in the U.S. have at least one dog living there. That’s a lot of dogs! Chances are every person you know either has a dog, has had a dog in the past, or knows and visits someone who has a dog. With dogs touching the lives of so many people, it’s important to take some time to not only better understand what our friends are “saying” and how they communicate, but also how to remain safe when they are sharing our company.

Dog Bites in the United States

Out of the 70 million dogs in the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reports that on average, 800,000 Americans report being bitten by dogs every year. While that number may sound large, that actually leaves a lot of dogs who have no history of bites to humans. Dogs DO have the potential to be dangerous and it is our responsibility to do our best to keep ourselves safe when they are part of our lives.

Children are the population with the highest incident of dog bites, with senior adults next in line. While children are more likely to be injured by playing on a playground, swimming in a pool, or by being in a car, it is important to take steps to ensure their safety (much like how you would buckle your child’s car seat belt). It is important to remember that while dog bite statistics and studies give us important information, the point that is most often missed is that, nearly ALL DOG BITES ARE PREVENTABLE.

Breed Doesn't Matter

There is NO breed or type of dog that has been scientifically proven to be any more safe or dangerous than any other. Myth and folklore is only a Google search away, but there is virtually no scientific basis in breed-specific claims. Granted, a dog with a larger mouth has the potential to do more damage than a smaller dog, but all dogs should be treated as unique individuals regardless of their breed, type, or size. Dogs sometimes get into trouble by being lumped into categories and labeled as “good with kids” or “dangerous for kids.” Even if you think your dog is always friendly, it is important to take a few steps to ensure that a person in the company of your dog is less likely to be bitten or injured.

Dogs Who Are Most Likely to Bite

Dogs who resource guard have a higher incidence of bites. These are dogs who may guard objects (e.g., edible bones and non-edible chew toys), sleeping or resting areas, food dishes, or even human members of the family. If you have a dog who resource guards, working with a professional trainer who understands positive reinforcement techniques can help you manage or solve their guarding problem. A dog who is uncomfortable with an occurring human-dog interaction is also more likely to bite. Additionally, dogs who are sick or in pain may not behave as they would when in optimal health and therefore are more likely to bite. Finally, dogs who are startled or provoked carry a higher bite risk.

Preventing Dog Bites

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The first step to preventing dog bites is taking some time to get familiar with how our dogs communicate. Familiarizing yourself with stress signals -- the often subtle signs that our dogs give, telling us they are uncomfortable with something that is happening -- can make a huge impact. Despite how often I may hear it in my professional work, or what the media may report to us, dogs almost NEVER bite “out of the blue.”

Signs a Dog Is About to Bite

While signs like growling or snapping can be very clear, dogs almost always give subtler signs that they do not like something that is happening before they bite. Signs to watch for include: yawning, scratching, head turning away from person, object, or situation (avoidance), lip licking, tongue flicking, tucked tails, or “whale eye” (when the whites surrounding your dog’s eyes are visible).

I never punish or shush a dog who is growling. If a dog is growling, this is often the final signal that the dog is not okay with a situation. Punishing a growl can cause this warning signal to disappear, and what you have left is a dog who might skip growling next time, and go straight to putting teeth on skin. Humans have all the ability to modify environments -- dogs don’t. If your dog is showing signs of being uncomfortable, meeting with a professional who can talk to you about what do to make him less anxious can be a great help.

Always Supervise Children

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If you have children in the same home, park, or area with dogs, supervision is a MUST. Supervision means an actively awake and present adult person is watching over activity that is happening. If you are reading an iPad or laptop or watching a television show in the same room as your child who is playing near a dog, you cannot also be actively supervising.

Children are unique in that dogs do not understand that children are miniature adults.  From a dog’s perspective, children are often an explosion of rude, unpredictable behavior, and are strange and weird creatures who make weird sounds and move oddly. Because of this, many dogs are not comfortable around children. This is not the fault of dogs.

Additionally, if you’ve ever spent time with a toddler, you know that expectations of getting them to follow complete rules and directions doesn’t always go smoothly. Expecting that toddler-aged children will learn and follow rules when it comes to interacting with dogs is unrealistic. No matter how wonderful you think the relationship between your dog and children is, leaving them unsupervised sets them up for potential dog bites.

Children who are of toddler age are often at direct face level with larger dogs. When interaction between children and dogs is not actively supervised, toddlers and young children are placed at a higher risk for facial (or other areas of the body) injuries or bites. It only takes a split second for an irreversible accident to happen. A large percentage of dog bites to children are caused by a dog who is considered familiar, so supervise, supervise, and supervise!

Just as all dogs are individuals, so are all children. Don't assume that just because your dog is comfortable around your child, that your dog will be as comfortable around a visiting or otherwise unfamiliar child. Giving a dog a separate activity to do while you have visiting children or adults in your home, can prevent an, “Oops I wasn’t looking” accident and give you the space to relax and entertain your human guests.

Guided Touch

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Primate species have a tendency to grasp and grab objects that we love. This is part of who we are. Children love to hug. While it may be tempting for children (or adults) to want to hug their dogs as a sign of affection, most all dogs do not like hugs. Children should also be encouraged to refrain from sitting on or laying on dogs. This is likely uncomfortable for dogs and can set them up for physical injury (more potential for bites). What may seem cute to an untrained eye, can actually be dangerous.

I recommend as a general rule, children under the age of five do not pet dogs without an adult’s hand on top of their hand, guiding them. Guided touch ensures children touch dogs gently and on areas away from the face and keeps dogs fur, ears, tail or other parts of the body from being pulled or gripped too hard. Giving a child a stuffed dog to hug and kiss, lay on or snuggle with, is a great alternative.

Keep Children Away from Chained Dogs

Dogs who are left chained or tethered in yards are more likely to bite. If you see a dog who is chained, please talk to your children about not approaching these dogs, and going to an adult if there is question or concern about seeing a dog like this. Children should never play near a chained dog. The temptation to chase balls that may roll away, or run into a chained dogs area accidently is too risky. Remember, irreversible accidents can happen in a split second.

Many cities are now adopting anti-chaining ordinances, decreasing the likelihood of bites and animal cruelty. Ideal socialization period for dogs ends at approximately 16 weeks of age. Dogs who are poorly socialized and poorly exposed to the world during ideal socialization periods are more likely to bite. If you have a young puppy, talking with a professional trainer about how to successfully socialize your dog now, can help you set yourself up for a successful relationship with a dog who is a full grown adult.

Senior Dogs

Special consideration should be made to senior dogs. If you have a senior dog you may notice your dog tire from activity sooner, take more frequent resting periods during the day, and behaviors that may have one time been “normal” begin to change. For a lot of the families I work with, the couple had a dog first and then had children. I am a big advocate for checking in with dogs to make sure they are enjoying an interaction versus knowing or seeing what they will tolerate. What your senior dog may have enjoyed in her younger years, may now be more of a toleration.

Dogs who are enjoying themselves are much less likely to bite than dogs who are simply tolerating something that is happening. Dogs are only tolerant until they don’t feel like it anymore. If you have taken steps to make sure that your dog is enjoying life interacting with adults or children, should you have an “Oops” moment, your chances of it resulting in a bite are lessened.

What to Do If You're Bitten

If you, your child, or someone you know has been bitten by a dog, first seek any necessary medical treatment. Then, report dog bites to the appropriate authority (police or animal control) and determine whether or not there is concern of being exposed to disease. Know that there are resources available to adults, parents, and children to support dog bite victim recovery.

Other Resources

For more information on setting up dog and child households for success, please visit:!babies-kids--families/c84m

For more information on dog body language, how children should behave around unfamiliar dogs, and dog bite support, please visit my friends at:

For more information on dog bite prevention, statistics and studies, please visit:

About the Author

Kat Stevens-Stanley is an Animal Behavior College certified dog trainer, licensed Family Paws Parent Education presenter, Association of Professional Dog Trainers & Pet Professional Guild member, and mother to a toddler aged daughter and multi-dog household. Kat sees clients for a wide spectrum of dog training and behavioral needs. One of her favorite topics is supporting families with dogs and children. Kat assists individuals and families throughout the Metro Detroit Area and northern Oakland County. She can be reached at:


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