According to the CDC, 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year. About 20 percent of those dog bite victims require medical care. While a lot of theories have been advanced about breeds that may be especially dangerous, the truth is that the vast majority of dog bites aren’t the result of any natural viciousness in the dog. Uninformed or negligent dog owners are much more likely to be the problem.
According to Sharon Crowell-Davis, a professor of veterinary behavior at the University of Georgia, the most common reason dogs bite is fear. Dogs develop fear based mostly on environmental factors, although some dogs may be more prone to it than others.
The best way to prevent dog bites — and in particular injuries to children — is to expose your dog to a variety of people and situations over time — a process known as socialization.
“The onus is on you if you have [a] big, powerful dog. You need to appropriately train it so it acts nice,” says Crowell-Davis.
When Done Right, Socialization Is Easy for Puppies
The first six months of a dog’s life are the best time for him to learn socialization skills. Responsible dog owners should get started right away by introducing puppies to a variety of people in a variety of situations. Puppies typically learn to place nice quickly and easily when given opportunities to meet and learn to trust both children and adults of both genders, people of various races and people in uniforms.
Crowell-Davis cautions against treating a dog like a doll or a child. People need to understand that dogs are dogs, and give them the appropriate training and feedback.
“It’s a good thing we have this animal that is part of the family, and we love it and it loves us back,” she says. “But we have to understand it’s a dog. We may think of it as a 4-year-old child, but 4-year-olds don’t go chasing joggers. Dogs are predators and they can go into hunting behavior, and not just for deer and rabbits.”
Intervention Is Still Possible for Older, Ill-Trained or Nervous Dogs
While it may not be as easy as with a puppy, socialization can — and should — be a part of an older dog’s training. When people adopt shelters dogs and discover they have behavior issues, many just assume there is nothing to be done. In fact, proper socialization can resolve a lot of problems, and help is available.
For example, “Nervous Nelly” courses — dog socialization classes designed for skittish dogs — are widely available, and you can see positive results in as few as six weeks.
For Everyone’s Safety: Tips on Socializing Your Dog
- Take your dog on regular outings where they can meet a variety of people in a range of situations.
- Try to make the outings pleasant. Take your dog to places like parks that are not the “territory” of other dogs. Avoid situations where you can’t prevent children from pulling ears or keep your dog comfortable.
- Don’t overdo it. Remember that your dog is nervous, and his behavior will probably deteriorate if he gets overtired or too stressed. “Don’t play pass the puppy,” says Crowell-Davis.
- Get regular, light exercise. Regular exercise can play a surprisingly big role in good behavior but, without other behavior training, trying to “wear out” an aggressive dog with extreme exercise will probably only get you a stronger dog who is still aggressive.
“Fearsome or fearful dogs benefit from socialization” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 23, 2010)