Which Dogs Will Bite?

The statistics on dog bites are not reliable, so no real conclusions can be reached about how dog bites happen. Find out The Dog Trainer's take on the issue.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
June 14, 2012

Which Dogs Will Bite?

A recent installment of the Bucks Blog over at The New York Times discussed financial liability for dog bites and suggested some ways to prevent bites. The post focused on liability insurance claims, which I assume arise mostly when a dog bites someone who’s not a member of the family. Even so, there’s something off when a discussion of dog bites never mentions the fact that dogs are probably most likely to bite someone they already know – someone he lives with, or a familiar visitor. (Accounts of groups of dogs fatally attacking passersby are shocking not only because they’re gruesome, but also because they’re vanishingly rare.)

Notice I said “probably” above? That’s because we don’t really know. “Dog bite statistics are not really statistics, and they do not give an accurate picture of dogs that bite.” That’s straight from an analysis by the American Veterinary Medical Association. The reason for the mess? Almost certainly, most bites aren’t reported and only a small fraction require medical care. Breed identifications are often confused, and mixed-breed dogs are often labeled as “purebreds.”

The upshot is that any assertion of “statistical fact” about dog bites needs as many grains of salt as you’ve got handy. So does the Times blogger’s advice to “Check with a professional, like a veterinarian or breeder, to learn about suitable dog breeds.” News flash: veterinarians are not behavior experts; they’re medical experts. As for breeders, good ones are few and far between, and they will know their own breed well – that’s not the same as having expertise in dog behavior generally. Wait, there’s more: Though there are breed tendencies in behavior, you’re not home free just because you’ve gotten a dog of one given breed. Nor are you automatically in danger from a dog of some other given breed.

It’s not a question of “good dogs” and “bad dogs,” either. Any dog – any dog who isn’t actually dead – can bite, just as any person can lose her temper. And though anybody may blow her stack, serial killers are rare. Likewise, most dog bites seem to be about on a par with shaving cuts and minor kitchen burns. Your best protection from them is to know your dog. What makes her uncomfortable? When is she most at ease? In what situations does she need your help and protection?

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Myths About Dogs

Dog Biting photo from Shutterstock

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