Snarling dog

Why Do Dogs Bite?

The second full week in April—the 7th through the 13th in 2024—is National Dog Bite Prevention Week®. In this post, we consider why dogs bite and what you can do to cut your own and your child’s risk of being bitten. 

A Serious Health Risk—Especially for Children

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States, with 800,000 of them requiring medical attention. 

At least half of those bitten are children, who are more likely than adults to be severely injured as victims of dog bites.

Half of all children have been bitten by a dog by the time they are 12 years old. 

Most young children bitten by dogs were engaged in everyday activities while interacting with familiar dogs. 

Any Dog May Bite

A dog of any breed, size, gender or age may bite if provoked—especially if they’re sick or in pain or just want to be left alone. 

A dog in a stressful situation may bite to defend itself or its territory.

A dog may bite because it feels threatened, scared or startled.

A dog may bite to protect something it values, like its puppies, its food or its toy.

A dog may bite when overly excited during play.

Preventing Dog Bites

Fortunately, most dog bites can be prevented.

To prevent your dog from biting—

  • Starting in puppyhood, socialize your dog by introducing people and other animals in multiple settings so he or she learns to feel at ease in a variety of situations. 
  • Using humane, reward-based training, teach your dog to obey at least a few simple, basic commands. For more information, see our post, “Training the LIMA Way.”  
  • Provide regular exercise.
  • Provide adequate health care, including spaying or neutering.
  • Never leave young children and dogs unattended. 
  • Do not allow your children to ride or sit on your dog or pull its ears or tail.
  • Supervise your dog when outdoors, even in a fenced yard. 
  • Don’t allow your dog to roam free.

To keep from being bitten, the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends avoiding approaching or attempting to pet any dog in these risky situations—

  • The dog is not with its owner
  • The dog is with its owner, but the owner did not give permission to pet the dog
  • The dog is in a car
  • The dog is on the other side of a fence or tethered
  • The dog is running loose
  • The dog is sleeping or eating
  • The dog is sick or injured
  • The mother dog is resting with her puppies, seems protective of her puppies or anxious about your presence
  • The dog is playing with or chewing on a toy
  • The dog is growling or barking
  • The dog appears to be hiding or trying to be alone

Read the Body Language

Learning to read a dog’s body language can also help reduce the risk of being bitten by a dog who’s feeling anxious, fearful, threatened or aggressive. It’s best to withdraw from any dog whose body language indicates potential trouble.

Aggressive dogs often try to make themselves look bigger, with their ears up and forward and the fur on their back and tail standing on end. Their tails may stand straight up and wag. Their stance may be stiff and straight-legged. They may stare at or move toward the perceived threat, baring their teeth, growling, lunging or barking. 

Fearful dogs may try to look smaller by crouching to the ground, lowering their heads and putting their tails between their legs. They may repeatedly lick their lips, flatten their ears back and yawn. They may look away to avoid direct eye contact. They may stay still or roll onto their back to expose their stomach. They may try to move away from the perceived threat. 

Many dogs express confusion and conflict by exhibiting a combination of aggressive and submissive body language. To minimize your risk of being bitten, avoid any dog showing any combination of fearful, anxious or aggressive body language. 

Teach Your Children Well

To reduce the risk to your children of being bitten by a dog—including your family pet—teach them about why dogs bite and the high-risk situations they should avoid. 

Some rules to emphasize—

  • Always ask, “May I pet your dog?” before approaching a dog on a leash.
  • Do not run toward a dog. 
  • Never tease, bark or growl at a dog.
  • Leave sleeping and resting dogs alone.
  • Don’t bother very old dogs.
  • Don’t dress a dog in play clothes.
  • Don’t hug or kiss a dog or pet them on the top of the head. Many of them don’t like it.
  • Don’t hang on to a dog who’s trying to get away.
  • If approached by an unknown, overly friendly or hostile dog, stand still “like a tree,” with your arms close to your body.
  • If a dog jumps on you and knocks you down, “be a rock” and tuck into a crouched position, covering your head with your hands.

Let Us Help

Take any aggressive behavior by your dog seriously, even if no one gets bitten. Our veterinarians will help you address the problem and find the help you need to manage the behavior safely and effectively.