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We tell you how to assess the seriousness of a bite and create a plan for preventing them in the future.
Getting a new puppy or dog is exciting, but a bite can put a damper on things. If your new pet has bitten a family member or friend, try not to panic, but instead figure out what is going on.
First, how serious is the bite? Dr. Ian Dunbar put together a Bite Assessment Scale (PDF) that most dog professionals consider the standard for determining the seriousness of the situation. Levels 1 and 2 are the most common and are when the dog either air snaps at you (Level 1) or puts his teeth on you put doesn’t break the skin (Level 2). Level 2 could include a skin scrape but no puncture wounds.
Even Level 3 includes a bite, but not more than half a tooth deep, and is most likely from you pulling your hand away or the dog jumping and biting. Levels 4 and 5 are deeper bites that have bruising, and there is usually more than one (what would happen if a dog attacked and held on or shook his head).
Levels 1 and 2 are the easiest to work with, while Level 3 becomes a gray area, and Levels 4 and up can be a serious problem and make your dog a potential liability. I am going to focus on Levels 1 and 2 for the purposes of this article, but I recommend that you get a positive reinforcement trainer involved regardless of what level of bite happened. We are also not talking about a puppy getting overstimulated and nipping. Although that can hurt (a lot!), that’s a different story.
The good news about a Level 1 or 2 bite is that your dog has bite inhibition (in other words, he knows that he shouldn’t bite hard and purposely didn’t bite hard). Dogs move much faster than we do, so if he wanted to bite you, he would have. Consider what happened as a warning that you didn’t pay attention to the earlier warning signs, so your new dog felt threatened and like he needed to take action.
This isn’t to say you purposely pushed your dog to the point of biting, because it’s hard to know the trigger(s) of a new dog, especially a rescue with a history that you might know very little about. If you continued to ignore the warning signs, he may ramp up his intensity and actually bite/break skin in the future, but fortunately for you, you’re reading this article.
Now, think about the situation and what happened. We hear it often, but dogs truly don’t “bite out of the blue.” Especially with a new dog, you may not know that he guards his toys or his food, or that he gets really uncomfortable if you reach for something near him. Ask yourself: “What warning signs did we miss?” Do you remember any details about what happened directly before your dog snapped? Did he freeze? Put his ears back? Show his teeth (even if for just a couple seconds)?
In my opinion, learning about dog body language is the most important skill for pet parents to learn. Being able to figure out what is making your dog uncomfortable will transform your relationship (for the better!).
Once you determine what triggered your new dog or made him uncomfortable in the first place (usually with the help of a positive reinforcement trainer), you can work on that particular issue or just avoid it in general. For example, if your dog has resource-guarding issues but is never around children, sometimes it’s easier to just manage it and not go around the dog when he is eating.
Most of the time, if the bite was a complete surprise to you, your dog has some fear or anxiety that needs to be addressed. For more information about helping your rescue dog with fear or anxiety, check out these helpful tips.
If you have a dog who gets snappy or even may bite, and you also have children, teach your children how to properly greet and act around dogs. Doggone Safe also has some great resources for parents! A positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist also can help you assess when your home might not be the best fit for the dog.
Top image: Miniature Pinscher by Shutterstock.
Abbie lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a dog trainer and freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues. Find out more about her at abbiemood.com and lifediscoveryproject.com. Follow her on Twitter @abbiemood and Instagram @abbiemood.
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