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Doing Your Part in Dog Bite Prevention

As lots of you know, I get to do the dog bite prevention trainings for the Portland division of the U.S. Postal Service. Once a week my formerly-retired pit bull Charlie and I show up at the large downtown branch, weave through the long corridors filled with postal equipment, and then chat for an hour to new mail carriers on how they can keep themselves safe and prevent dog bites.

Dog bites are unfortunately common to mail carriers. And to everybody else. Could your dog possibly be at risk of biting someone?

Before you roll your eyes and think "my dog NEVER" and click forward to the next post, remember that ANY dog can bite. They all have teeth and they all have biting and aggression as an available tool they can use if the situation requires it.

The most common scenario in which a dog bites is that the dog is in a situation it feels uncomfortable with, and all options to leave the situation are cut off. This could be something as obvious as a nervous dog trapped in a corner, while a stranger moves forward, hand outstretched, to pet it. Or it could be something less obvious, such as a shy dog lying under a sidewalk coffee table, attached to your leash, becoming progressively more stressed as multiple strange feet, bikes, skateboards and other dogs come sailing by. Situations like this are extremely common, and can result in bites. Again, ANY dog can bite.

How can you prevent bites?

1) Monitor your dogs comfort level with situations. Any situation. If I have a friend who brings her kids over, and my dogs aren't supremely comfortable with kids, you bet I'm going to be monitoring my dog very closely. Acceptable: relaxed, calm body; moving forward in a relaxed way to meet the child; relaxed jaw, relaxed tail. Not acceptable: Frozen, stiff, trying to get out of the situation, actively avoiding the child. The more intensive and closed-in the situation (for example, a small room vs a large backyard) the more you should monitor.

2) If you determine that your dog is uncomfortable with the situation, HELP HER. You can later go back and figure out a training plan to help get your dog comfortable. But for now? Your dog needs to know that you are watching, that you are in charge of the situation, that you will not press it to handle more than it is capable of. Simply remove her from the situation. If you do not, the lesson the dog will learn is that you are unhelpful during stressful times, and the dog will be more likely to take matters into its own hands (possibly by biting.)

3) Take stock of your dogs socialization history. Is your dog a rescue dog, and you don't know its socialization history? If that's the case, then assume it doesn't have one until you are proven otherwise. In the case of rescue dogs, simply sticking them into a scene to "see what they do" is asking for trouble. Set your rescue dog up so that it will succeed, which means easy scenarios first, gradually increasing difficulty as the dog proves itself. An example might be a brief walk near a playground, vs suddenly letting a swarm of kids run up to pet the dog. Is your dog stiffening and looking warily at the kids on the playground? If so, that's where you start your training -- swarming kids is temporarily going to be out of the question. If your dog is happy or curious towards them, with relaxed body language and eyes, then you might walk in nearer. But one baby step at a time.

4) Be responsible for your dog. Don't let your dog shoot out through the front door or the car door to run around and potentially bite. Remember to keep the gate closed. Only well-trained dogs who are known to be safe should be off-leash under most circumstances. Don't blame the person ("he reached straight for my dog and he was wearing a hat!") -- not all people are savvy or knowledgeable with dogs. It's truly your responsibility to keep your dog bite-free!

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