Responsible Ownership and Dog Bite Prevention

Owning a dog is not as easy as picking up a dog at a shelter and feeding her. As mentioned throughout this book, dogs cannot care for themselves. They need good-quality food, regular veterinary care, daily grooming, playtime, exercise, and training. Dogs need to be a part of the family and feel as though they belong. With the help of caring owners, dogs can be a wonderful part of our lives and communities.

Unfortunately, not everyone who has a dog is willing to go to these lengths. As a result, the word dog has developed a negative connotation in many communities. When cities or counties (and even some countries!) outlaw dogs of certain breeds or types, our very ability to own dogs is put into question. The AKC instituted its Canine Good Citizen program to help generate good publicity for dogs and responsible dog owners, and to a certain extent it has been successful. Unfortunately, the problems often overshadow the positives. It is up to individual dog owners everywhere to be responsible—to show the world that dogs can play a positive role in our lives.

Leashing Your Dog

Three and four decades ago, allowing dogs to run loose was much more acceptable than it is today. Although some inevitably would get hit by cars, neighborhoods expected to see dogs running and playing or following the kids as they played. Today, that freedom is rarely allowed. The change most likely began when more women joined the workforce. No longer was someone home to keep an eye on the dog (and the kids). Dogs who ran around the neighborhood with no supervision got into trouble, so dogs were required to be kept at home and leashed when taken out in public.

Today, most communities (and states) have leash laws. The reasoning behind these laws is that being on leash protects both dogs and people. Dogs on leash will not get hit by cars or stray off. People are protected from dogs, as dogs on leash can be prevented from jumping on people, chasing them, or biting them.

Although some people believe that leash laws are too restrictive, there are places where dogs can run and play. Private property is still under the control of the property owner as long as the dog does not stray from the property. Many communities have established dog parks and dog beaches where dogs can run free and play.

Keeping Your Dog Safe

When leash laws came into effect, it became necessary for dog owners to figure out how to keep their dogs at home. A fence around the backyard was the most obvious solution then and still is today. However, fences are not cheap, and many dog owners still chain or tether their dogs to a stake in the ground or a tree.

Leaving a dog chained or tethered, though, is not a good solution. These dogs are vulnerable to teasing by kids or strangers. A dog who has been teased many times will begin to react aggressively whenever anyone approaches his chain limits, and should someone get within his reach, a very bad bite can result. Chained and tethered dogs also are vulnerable to attacks by other dogs or predators, with no way of escaping.

With so many dog bites pointing to chaining and tethering as a potential problem, many communities have made it illegal to confine a dog in this way. Most experts prefer that a dog be behind a fence, either a fence around a yard or a fence creating a dog run. The fence should be secure so that the dog cannot go through it or under it, and high enough (or roofed) so that the dog cannot go over it.

Kindred Spirits does not recommend invisible fencing, either, except in some very specific cases. These fences do not protect your dog from coyotes coming into your property, nor do they stop stray dogs from coming in. Recently, a child walked into the yard of a dog who was behind an invisible fence and the child began chasing the dog until she cornered him. When cornered, the dog bit the child in the face. Now the child will need several surgeries and is mentally scarred, and the dog has been killed. A solid fence would have prevented this entirely.

Protecting Dogs in Vehicles

We’ve all seen dogs riding in cars with their heads out the window, hair blowing in the wind and the nose twitching as they soak up all the scents. A dog may love riding in the car like this, but it sure isn’t good for her. Bugs smacking into her eyes at speed will cause major eye damage, perhaps even blindness. A sharp turn or brake could send the dog flying, either out the window or into the dashboard or windshield. As with so many things in life, the things we love are often not the things that are the best for us.

Dogs must be secure in the car when the vehicle is moving. That means the dog is in her crate, which is fastened down with a seatbelt, or the dog is wearing a specially made harness that the seatbelt clips into. The window can be partway down, if you wish, but the dog should not hang her head out the window.

Dogs riding in the backs of trucks must be restrained, too, so that they can ride safely. The leash restraining the dog must be short enough that the dog cannot jump out of the truck bed. Far too many dogs have been thrown from truck beds. Some were restrained, but not enough, and hung from the truck bed until they died or were rescued.

Dogs should never be left in a car alone while you go into a store or run errands. Even if the windows are open a few inches, the air in the car will heat up very quickly. On a sunny 70-degree day, the air in a car parked in the sun with reach over 100 within ten minutes and over 120 degrees in half an hour.

The Wastes Dogs Leave Behind

Dog urine and feces can be unsightly, cause odor problems, and, in some causes, even be a part of disease transmission. Feces not picked up can attract disease-carrying pests (primarily flies) and can seep into groundwater as they dissolve. When many dogs live in a small area, as in a large city, the amount of feces produced can be mind-boggling. Most cities and counties and many states now have laws stating that the owner of a dog, or the person who has control of the dog (as with a dog walker), must pick up any feces produced by that dog. Fines for not doing so can range from $25 to even $500, depending on the city.

Dog urine is also a problem. A lamppost or fire hydrant that has become a neighborhood marking post will quickly become unbearable to people walking by. In addition, the urine is corrosive, causing problems with the lamppost and the fire hydrant. Male dogs do not need to lift their legs and urinate on every vertical surface; it’s not necessary, and it’s rude.

When Dogs Bark (And Bark and Bark)

Dogs who bark excessively cause more neighbor problems than just about any other single neighborhood issue. A dog barking on and on can disrupt sleep, wake babies, cause other dogs to bark, and create innumerable other headaches. This is very sad because when a dog is barking continually, it is a sign that there is something wrong; either the dog is alone too much, is ignored, or is not getting enough attention, training, or exercise.

Barking dogs usually fall under city or county noise ordinances, although some localities have specific barking-dog laws enforced by the animal control department. Dog owners are normally cited once or twice, with fines escalating each time. If the problem isn’t resolved, more drastic steps can be taken. In some cities, the dog will be confiscated, while in others, the owner may be arrested. If your dog is barking more than you want him to, ask your instructor during class for some help.

When Dogs Bite

The nation reeled when we heard about the horrible mauling and death of a woman in San Francisco by her neighbor’s dogs. Unfortunately, although we would like to think that such incidents are a rarity, they are not. The very next day, the headline in San Diego read, “Boy, 3, Killed by Neighbor’s Pit Bull.” It happens way too often.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, has stated that the United States is in the midst of a dog-bite epidemic. Although dog ownership has increased only 2 percent over the past decade, dog bites have increased by more than 35 percent. More children are hurt by dog bites than by any other single childhood activity, including inline skating or even skateboarding.

What Went Wrong?

Dogs were domesticated to be our friends and companions, so what went wrong? Why are dogs biting, mauling, and even killing people?

      *    Little or no bite inhibition. Most dogs are born with the ability to be aware of using their jaws; they bite too hard on a littermate, the littermate cries, and the puppy doing the biting learns be gentler in play the next time. When a dog has never learned this lesson (such as an orphaned or bottle-raised puppy, or a puppy taken from his mother at too young an age), he may be too rough with people. If the puppy’s parents did not have the inhibition, he may not have inherited it. When people play too rough with a puppy, they teach him to ignore this instinct.

      *    Genetic predisposition to bite. If a dog comes from a parent or parents who were aggressive to people, he, too, may be aggressive to people.

      *    Little or no training. When a dog has not had any training or has had too little training, he may not look upon people as leaders. When someone then tells her to do something, especially if she doesn’t want to do it, she may bite.

      *    Fearful personality. A dog who was born with a fearful personality may bite when pushed too hard to do something she’s worried about. A fearful dog also will bite when cornered.

      *    Lack of Socialization: The best age for socializing a puppy is between twelve and sixteen weeks of age. WEEKS not months. Unfortunately, most veterinarians recommend the puppy stays home until fully vaccinated which may be until the puppy is four to six months of age. The puppy then misses that vital window. There has to be a happy medium; get your puppy out and about – just avoid dogs you don’t know and don’t allow your puppy to sniff other dogs’ urine and feces.   

      *    Illness or injury. A dog who is hurt or sick may bite out of fear or pain, even when well-loved family members are trying to help her.

      *    Hormones. Most bites are made by intact (not neutered) male dogs. Although some intact (unspayed) females and some spayed and neutered males will bite, intact males as a whole seem more willing to bite.

      *    Means of restraint. Dogs who are chained or tethered and vulnerable to people walking by are more apt to bite than dogs protected by a secure and solid fence.

      *    Dog not restrained. Dogs running loose, especially a pack of three or more dogs, have inflicted many bad, and often fatal, bites.

      *    People gone wrong. When people treat a puppy roughly, are aggressive to him, or ignore and neglect him, even the nicest puppy can learn to dislike people.

Dog bites have happened in a variety of ways and for many different reasons. Some people blame breeders, saying that they have produced inferior dogs, while others blame permissive parenting, saying that its philosophies have trickled down into dog training. There is no one reason why dogs are biting more today.

Keep Your Dog from Becoming a Statistic

To prevent your dog from becoming a statistic, here are some suggestions:

      *    If possible, get your dog from a reputable breeder and meet the mother of the litter. If she is shy, fearful, or aggressive, do not buy the puppy.
      *    If adopting a dog, find out as much as you can from the shelter volunteers or rescue group. Do not buy a shy or fearful dog because you feel that you can “save” her.
      *    Spay or neuter your dog.
      *    Socialize your dog well and continue socializing her throughout her life. Do not isolate and ignore your dog.
      *    Do not play aggressive games with your dog, and never encourage her to fight you in any way.
      *    Train your dog. Begin early, keep the training fun, and continue it into your dog’s adulthood.
      *    Keep your dog securely confined, making sure that your fence is escape-proof, and do not allow her to run free.
      *    Be your dog’s leader. Every dog needs a leader. Think and act like your dog’s parent, providing rules and guidance for behavior.

If you ever feel that your dog might bite you, call for help right away. The sooner you act, the better your chances of preventing the behavior. If you wait until your dog has bitten you, it may well be too late.

Protect Yourself

If you feel threatened by a dog and fear that you may be attacked, here are some tips to protect yourself:

      *    Never run from a dog, even a small one.
      *    Stand still and turn slightly so that you aren’t facing the dog directly. Never try to stare down a dog; that’s issuing a challenge. Don’t turn your back on the dog.
      *    Tell the dog to go home; many who run loose know what that phrase means.
      *    If you’re on a bicycle, stop, get off, and use it as a shield between you and the dog.
      *    If you have a backpack, purse, or briefcase or are carrying something, use it as a shield.
      *    If a dog attacks you, try to stuff the purse or briefcase in her mouth. If at all possible, try not to scream. A high-pitched scream is the sound of prey.
      *    If you are knocked down by a dog, curl up in a ball and protect your neck and head with your arms. Play dead if you can.

Always seek medical help after a dog bite. Dogs can have a lot of bacteria in their mouths, and your doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics after scrubbing and soaking the wound. The doctor will also report the bite, even if you don’t, so you will need to able to describe the dog. If you know where the dog lives, report that, too. The doctor will want to make sure that the dog has been vaccinated, especially for rabies. By reporting the bite, animal control or police officials can intervene, especially if the dog is a stray or the owner refuses to take responsibility for the dog.

Rules for Kids

A child of any age should never be left alone with a dog, even for just a few minutes. Too many disasters have occurred when a parent left the dog and child, especially an infant, alone, coming back to find that the dog had attacked the child.

Children are very vulnerable to dog bites. Not only does their small stature make them easier targets, but kids have high-pitched voices that sound like prey, and they often have food or other interesting things with them. Kids also move fast and unpredictably—again, just like prey.
It’s very important, then, to teach kids skills that can help keep them safe, both with a dog at home and with other dogs they meet.

      *    Never run from a dog, even your own.
      *    Never scream at or flail about with a dog, even your own.
      *    Never poke a dog’s eyes or nose, pull ears, stick fingers into a dog’s mouth, or pull a dog’s tail.
      *    Do not step on a dog’s tail, kick her, hit her, poke her with things, or otherwise torment her.
      *    Never pet a strange dog; always ask the dog’s owner’s permission before petting. Not all dogs like kids.
      *    Pet a dog on her back; do not hug her head or neck.
      *    Do not stare into a dog’s eyes, lean into her face, or kiss her on the nose.
      *    If a dog growls at a child, snaps, or barks, tell the parent about the incident—even if a bite doesn’t result. The next time, it could turn into a bite.

Dogs who don’t like kids are not necessarily bad dogs. They may not have been socialized to kids, or perhaps a child has treated the dog wrong. Dogs who don’t like kids should simply be kept away from kids and protected from kids.

Breed-Specific Legislation

The most serious issue facing dog owners today is that of breed-specific legislation, or laws targeting one or more specific breeds. Breed-specific legislation originated with Pit Bulls. Pit Bulls, which were sometimes American Pit Bull Terriers or other breeds, but were as often as not simply mixed Pit Bull–type dogs, often owned by uncaring or ignorant owners. They were badly bred, badly trained, and were involved in incidents where another dog or person was bitten, mauled, or even killed. Although attacks are horrible, the knee-jerk reaction was often, “Let’s make those dogs illegal!” rather than looking at the individual problem that caused the attack, and the number of wonderful Pit Bulls not causing trouble in any given community.

Because of breed-specific legislation, Pit Bulls today (and those breeds related to Pitties or that bear a superficial resemblance to them) are illegal in many localities, including Denver, Colorado, and Ontario, Canada, as well as many places in between.

Breed-specific legislation has quickly moved to outlaw other breeds. Rottweilers, German Shepherds, Doberman Pinschers, and Akitas were quickly targeted, primarily because of the breeds’ reputations and heritages as working guard dogs. Belgium has banned not only Pit Bulls, but also American Staffordshire Terriers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and Bull Terriers, as well as Rottweilers, Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and Akitas.

Obviously, breed-specific legislation is not fair. This type of law punishes a group of dogs when the blame should be put upon the individual dog and owner. Not all dogs of a given breed are dangerous. However, an irresponsible dog owner can make just about any dog dangerous, given the situation. Legislation should target dogs and dog owners, not breeds.

Dog owners—all dog owners, not just the owners of banned breeds—should pay attention to local and state legislation targeting dogs. Let your representatives that you do not agree with breed specific legislation and that you are a voter! The AKC has also been very active in combating breed-specific legislation.