A dog is man’s best friend, and many owners treat theirs as a part of the family.
That is why it feels scary and unsettling when your usually calm and happy dog suddenly starts being aggressive and biting people.
So what happens when your best friend bites someone?
It often comes as a surprise to the owner when a dog bites someone for the first time and, very often, this surprise is accompanied by the fear that a dog will have to be given up when it bites a human.
However, it doesn’t always have to play out that way.
You need to keep in mind that dogs, cats, ferrets, and other domesticated predators can bite when they feel that the situation warrants the use of teeth – heck, even goats bite sometimes.
Whether your dog is the calmest, smallest, or most docile breed available, there’s always the possibility of a bite happening. As a responsible owner, it is up to you to know the dangers and make sure it doesn’t happen.
So, what do you do when your dog bites someone? Is there a possibility of a second, third, or more attacks?
Here’s what I learned from veterinarians and animal behaviorists.
Why do dogs bite?
Why did your ‘good’ dog bite?
Most owners seem to forget that every dog can bite and given the right circumstance, all dogs will bite – irrespective of the breed or temperament. Humans perceive any bite from a dog as a sign of aggression. However, dogs use biting as a normal and natural means of canine defense and communication.
To know what to do when your dog bites someone, we need to first look at some common reasons dogs bite people:
Protective or self-defense bites.
If a person your dog doesn’t like or feel comfortable around is pushing on the dog’s boundaries or invading its space, your dog will probably bite the person.
That’s because it thinks it’ll get hurt – even if the person was just playing with the dog.
What you see as a friendly pat from a friend seems like as an attack from a stranger. Yes, the person might be your best friend, but not to the dog.
Often, this need to protect themselves from danger extends to other dogs they’re cohabiting, their puppies, or favorite humans. If they notice a perceived threat approaching a member of their ‘pack’ or their puppy, they’ll snap at the threat.
A lot of things can make a dog fearful and, like humans, most are learned fears.
For instance, rescue dog may have learned to expect mistreatment from humans. This will make them always on the defensive and ready to attack one that comes too close – irrespective of how nice they may be.
Certain locations, sounds, and smells can trigger your dog’s fears. It could be visiting the vet, riding an elevator, or the result of poor socialization.
If there’s one thing dogs don’t joke with, it has to be its territory. Dogs are very territorial and, if not neutered, will mark their scent on whatever they deem as a personal belonging.
Infringement on their ‘property’ is met with aggression, especially if the crime is committed by another pet.
If a new delivery man tries interacting with your dog, the dog will likely view them as an attacker. And, as such, try to bite him for infringing on their territory. This makes the bite more about self-defense rather than an offense.
To be honest, it amazes me when people walk up to a leashed dog and stick out their hand in the animal’s face or encroach into its territory and expect not to be bitten.
How many of us would feel comfortable if a stranger walked straight at us and stood barely a foot away?
I wouldn’t, neither does your dog!
Yet, we somehow expect our dogs to be okay with it. Little wonder physicians reportedly treat over 750,000 dog bite injuries each year in the United States.
Startling and surprise
How did you feel the last time you were startled by an unexpected sound?
Fear, adrenaline, flight-or-fight … dogs feel those too!
This might be by hearing a sudden loud sound, being awakened randomly, or being approached from behind.
Most dogs hate surprises and are likely to interpret them as a dangerous situation they need to protect themselves from. And when a dog feels the need to protect itself, it falls back on its natural defensive instinct – biting.
Injury and illness
If your dog is feeling sick or in pain, it might not want to be touched. It might even prefer to nurse the pain alone rather than interact with a human. Since most of their energy and attention is focused on their current ailment, they’d rather you keep to yourself. Failure to get the message and you will get bitten – this always gets the message across.
This is one reason you should really consider if letting your pet sleep in your bed is good for you. You can get bitten if you roll on a sick pet.
A good number of dog lovers will tell you that their dog has bitten them in one or more play sessions that got too exciting.
Puppies and adult dogs that don’t know other ways to express their emotions are likely to nip while playing. Remember, biting is a means of communication for dogs.
What seems ‘cute’ in a 1-pound puppy is far from cute in a 50-pound adult dog. As an owner concerned with safety, the responsibility of teaching your dog good play-habits solely on your shoulders. Especially those that involve the use of teeth rests
Puppies learn bite restraint through training, socialization, and maturity. So when interacting with your dog:
- Avoid jerking or teasing with hands and feet.
- Do not dangle fingers while playing, you are not a chew toy.
- Do not participate in fighting/wrestling games, only teach positive play activities.
- Avoid slapping or hitting a dog on the face, even if it’s just a play.
- Avoid creeping on your dog.
Now we have an idea of why dogs bite, are all bites the same?
Are all dog bites the same?
We’ve all heard at least one story of a loose, aggressive dog attacking school children or a passerby without provocation. However, those are rare occurrences. The majority of dog bites occur in the owner’s home.
Most people bitten by a dog are family members, friends of the owner’s family, and even the owner of the dog.
According to dogbitelaw, 77% of bite victims are related to the family. 61% of bite incidents occur in the dog’s home or a familiar place (see “Dogs bite family and friends”).
A very small percentage of dog bites are from strays.
However, not all dog bites are the same. Whether you can ever trust your dog again depends on the type of bite it inflicts on a human.
Dog Bite Classifications
To make discussions and analyzing dog bites more consistent, Ian Dunbar, a well-known dog trainer, behaviorist, and veterinarian developed a six-level bite classification system. They are:
Level 1 Bite – Air bite.
This is usually harassment without skin contact. Here the dog snaps or air bites but doesn’t make any contact with the intended target.
You shouldn’t kid yourself here thinking that “if I didn’t move away, the dog would have bitten me”. Humans have a really slow reaction time compared to a dog. If it seems like your dog tried to bite you but missed, then don’t praise your reflexes. Instead you need to identify the dog’s stressors and either manage his behavior, desensitize him, or avoid exposing him to the things that stress him.
When you notice this air bite, you should interpret it as an escalation of the dog’s earlier signs of fear or displeasure which didn’t get the necessary attention. Get help before this ‘air bite’ progresses into an actual bite.
Level 2 Bite – Near-bite or inhibited bite.
Now if the dog’s front teeth make contact with your skin or clothing but there is no puncture, then this should tell you that the dog is very serious. Often, the dog lunges or runs towards a person but only makes a near-bite with the skin, or in other cases the dog clamps its teeth on the skin in a sort of inhibited bite that fails to break the skin.
Again, owners have to ask “did we miss any signs that could warn us of that bite?” A near-bite or inhibited bite is often a precursor to a real bite down the road.
Level 3 Bite – Shallow bite.
- Single Bite: here the dog bites just once and successfully punctures the skin, however, the depth of the wound is less than the length of the canine tooth. Most times the bite might not be severe, but it is still an incident that needs to be reported. Reporting is compulsory if the hospital treats the bite victim. Your dog is considered a liability once it has bitten at this level or higher, even with behavioral modification.
- Multiple bites: here the dog makes multiple bites on the skin, each leaving a wound that is shallower than the length of the canine. Multiple bites from a dog usually mean that it is a higher arousal/emotional state and is biting without thinking.
Level 4 Bite – Deep bite with slashes.
This could be one bite or more, however, what sets level 4 bites apart from level 3 is that these bite wounds are usually deeper than the length of the canine, which means the dog clamped down its jaw while delivering the bite, or the bite produces slashes in two directions, which show that the dog shook its head while delivering the bite.
This type of bite should not be taken lightly, not just because of the broken skin or the depth of the puncture, but because it shows that the dog didn’t hold back anything while biting.
Why is this type of bite very serious?
While the previous three levels served as a warning sign that the owner needs to seek help from a qualified dog behavioral specialist, the level 4 bite says, “I’ve had that brewing in me for a long, long time, but you just didn’t notice that I needed help.”
A dog that can deliver this type of bite is a liability to the parents in terms of money and safety of family members because this type of bite can cause serious harm to a child.
Level 5 Bite – Multiple deep bites.
The dog is stuck in a high arousal state, due to a scary event, and as such enters a reactive mode where they continuously deliver multiple attacks with deep punctures. Before a dog bites at this level, they’ve had lots of practice biting at level 3 and level 4.
Level 6 Bite – Bite killed victim or dog consumed flesh.
The dog delivers a bite so fatal that it kills the victim or the dog bites and consumes the victim’s flesh. While this type of bite incident often involves adult dogs, it’s important to understand that even puppies and adolescent dogs can deliver a bite strong enough to kill infants and little children, the same way small knives can. Though dogs only bite this hard when reacting to fear, they can also bite hard during over-arousing play activities.
So, how do you stop a dog from biting for the first time?
Signs a dog will bite someone, at least once
While it seems like a dog bite comes out of nowhere, it is possible to tell when your dog will likely bite someone for the first time or bite again. Here are some tell-tale signs to watch out for that can hint you of a possible bite.
- The dog is cowering in fear and if the stressor is not removed ASAP, the dog might have to fall back on instinctive behavior – biting.
- Their tail is tucked underneath them. This is also a sign that the dog is scared.
- Ears flattened/drooped.
- Growling at the person or source of the disturbance.
- Prolonged eye contact.
What to do when your dog bites someone
Put sentiments aside.
When a dog bites someone, put aside sentiments and memories of the good times to do what’s right for both aggressor and victim.
Stay calm at all times.
Now isn’t the time to panic – it could affect the dog negatively. Keep calm and act fast. Apply pressure to the wound to reduce blood loss and call an ambulance if necessary.
Confine the dog.
Confine your dog in a safe place so they don’t hurt themselves or bite someone again. This is where your calmness will come in handy because if you are shaking from fear or angry at the dog and you move toward the dog to confine it, the dog might read hostility from your face and attack you too.
Apply first aid to the wound.
Washing the wound under a faucet helps to clear the blood and provide a better view for assessing the damage. If you have a sterile solution or antiseptic use it on the wound to avoid infection.
Exchange information with the victim and contact the relevant authorities.
If the victim is not a person from your immediate circle, you should exchange contact information with them, so they can contact you regarding the incident.
The relevant authorities need to know about what happened. If the bite is a domestic incident and the injury doesn’t need serious medical attention, you can get away with not letting them know. However, if the injury needs to be treated at a health center, they’ll report the case. If such happens make sure to be compliant so the process is smooth, productive, and fast so you can put the incident behind you.
Assess the situation
When you’ve handled the immediate concerns, you need to write what happened somewhere – maybe in a journal – and keep it safe.
- Describe the bite: How bad was it? Was it one or multiple bites? Location of the bite? Did it break the skin?
- Where did the incident occur? In the house, on a walk, in the park, a friend’s home?
- Was the victim a human, another dog, or an animal?
- Briefly jot down what went on at the time. How did the sequence of events leading up to the bite unfold?
- Does your dog have a history of medical illness or injury that can cause pain or changes in behavior? Call your vet if unsure.
- How did the victim get away from the dog? Did you have to use a barrier, walk into another room and shut the door, or did your dog back away? Did someone else have to intervene?
These are very important questions that help a dog behavior expert determine the likelihood of future aggressive bite incidents.
If you touched or moved your dog while it was sleeping and got bitten, you can prevent future events by not touching the dog while it is sleeping. This is one of the reasons not to allow a dog to sleep in your bed with you because most humans move around when sleeping and can hurt their dog when doing so.
What NOT to do when your dog bites someone.
You should NEVER punish a dog for biting or growling.
This method only succeeds in forcing the dog into submission but does nothing to minimize the stressors. It even teaches the dog not to give prior warning – growling – next time it wants to bite and the dog now associates punishment with the negative feeling it has concerning the stressor.
For instance, if a dog that isn’t fond of children is tired of playing and a child approaches it. He will growl at the child. This is an attempt to notify whoever is around that the child’s presence is now a nuisance to the dog – this is why you shouldn’t leave a dog and a child without an adult company.
If you jerk the dog’s leash when this happens and say “knock it off” or shout at it. And then proceed to punish the dog into submission when it snaps at you, the result is a dog that isn’t happy being with children, however, it has also learned that growling will get it punished.
This makes the dog more likely to bite a child ‘unprovoked’ or aggressive toward the child that attracted the beating. It has learned to suppress the growling which would have notified us to warn the child that the dog is not in the mood to play.
So you see, a growl is a good thing. It lets you know the dog is very close to biting and offers us the opportunity to identify and remove its stressors. If your dog snaps or growls very often, he is letting you know that there are lots of stressors around him that need to be dealt with ASAP. If you don’t take action, likely, it will bite sometime in the future.
Do not try to treat your dog’s aggressive episodes on your own without the help of a veterinarian, expert animal behaviorist, or experienced dog trainer.
There are people for that. Besides, it is easy to overcomplicate the situation due to our emotional attachment to the dog. a third party with no emotional ties to the dog, and one that does not use force or punitive measures to correct the dog, will set up an appropriate management and treatment plan for your dog.
Once a dog bites will it bite again?
Once your dog bites someone for the first time, it has shown its willingness to use aggression biting as a strategy in a repeat of such a situation. Dogs normally bite out of fear or stress. If your dog bites a child because it is tired of playing with the child, and it sees that the bite is effective in getting the child to go away, then the behavior is likely to be repeated next time since it has seen how effective it was.
After a dog displays aggressive behavior towards one child and it is effective, each successive bite then increases the probability of the next. It often looks similar to this when charted:
- Day 01, dog bites someone for the first time.
- Day 35, second person bitten by the dog (34 days later).
- Day 50, third person gets bitten (15 days later).
- Day 67, fourth aggressive biting (17 days later) Day 73, the fifth person gets bitten (6 days later).
- Day 76, sixth bite (3 days later).
- Day 77, seventh bite (barely 24 hours from the last).
- Day 79, bites eight and nine (2 bites within 24 hours).
You can see why it is necessary to do everything possible to prevent our dogs from biting someone for the first time or stop them from biting again if they’ve already done so.
Early intervention by a dog behavior expert is the only way you can teach a dog not to use its teeth on people again. However, assessing the severity of a bite and the situation that triggered the dog’s biting instinct can help determine whether to keep or rehome a dog that has bitten.
There’s no guaranteed cure that can get rid of a dog’s aggressive behaviors, however, behavior modification and stress management training by a dog expert can teach your dog how to be more tolerant of its stressors or fears.
Can you trust your dog not to bite again, even after the training? I’d say No!
Trust is a very fickle commodity. When a dog bites someone for the first time, it doesn’t just erode the trust by, say 5%, leaving you with 95% assurance there won’t be a repeat. No, I’d have less than 20% trust remaining for a dog that has bitten someone once not to do it again.
Does it mean all is lost and the relationship cannot be repaired?
What it means is that you have to learn to read your dog’s body language so you can tell when it wants to be left alone, when it is very close to biting someone or when it is in pain but being stoical about it, and avoid putting your dog in situations that get on its nerves.
This is the only way you can slowly repair the broken trust between you and your canine companion.