If your dog bites someone, it’s a scary situation that can be difficult to handle. This article offers tips and advice on what to do if your dog bites someone.
First, it’s important to note that if your dog bites someone, you could be held legally liable for the incident. (Check out “When Dog Bites Man: Legal Liability for Dog Bites” for more info.)
Tips And Guide When Your Dogs Bites Someone
Your dog can bite someone anywhere at any time. Even if your dog has never shown signs of aggression, something can happen that can trigger your dog to react with his teeth.
My friend Becky had a very sweet American Eskimo dog named Pebbles who loved people and never showed signs of aggression.
One day, during a picnic at a local park, Pebbles was dozing on a blanket when a small child who had wandered away from his family ran up to him from behind and grabbed his fur. Startled, Pebbles turned around and bit the child on the arm. Because of that one moment, my friend found herself at risk of a lawsuit, and Pebbles at risk for his life.
The child’s parents could have sued for damages, and law enforcement could have chosen to euthanize Pebbles as a dangerous dog.
Fortunately for Becky, the child’s parents did not go after her legally, and did not report the bite to law enforcement. The child was not seriously injured, and the parents understood the circumstances of the bite.
Should you ever find yourself in a similar situation, you need to act responsibly. Taking the right steps will help minimize the legal risks to both you and your dog.
Phillips recommends making sure the victim gets medical attention. Offer to take the person to the hospital and to pay for the victim’s medical bills.
In the meantime, take steps to protect others from your dog by confining him.
“If you pay the victim’s medical bills or insurance deductible and/or co-payment, you probably will favorably impress the victim and therefore will reduce the chances of a claim or lawsuit against you,” Phillips says.
In many states, it is illegal to leave the scene if your dog bites someone. Instead, act responsibly and communicate with the victim.
“If your dog bites someone, be sure to exchange information and open a clear line of communication,” says John Bisnar, founding partner of Bisnar Chase Personal Injury Attorneys in Los Angeles.
“Often the biggest issue, if a lawsuit is filed, is miscommunication.”
Next, Bisnar suggests notifying your homeowner’s or renter’s insurance company or broker about the incident. Typically, it is this insurance that will cover you in the event of a lawsuit.
“Taking responsibility for your dog’s actions is necessary,” he says. “Make it clear you are in this with the victim. Immediately quarantine your dog at home if you can.”
Bisnar warns that if the bite is serious, the victim may report your dog to animal services.
“Should this happen, be sure to cooperate with the investigation,” he says.
What Will Happen To Your Dog And You After A Dog Bite
In some states, law enforcement is authorized to remove your dog from your premises after he bites someone.
He will likely be quarantined at a local shelter or veterinarian’s office. If you can provide proof of a current rabies vaccine, you will save the victim having to endure treatment for rabies, and may reduce the amount of time your dog is held in quarantine.
Depending on the state where you live, laws vary on how dog bites are handled. California, for example, has a “strict liability statute” when it comes to dog attacks, according to Bisnar.
“This means dog owners are responsible for the actions of their dogs, no ifs or buts,” he says. “There are very few exceptions to this rule. If your dog bites someone, whether on your property or not, you are liable.”
If the attack happened because of an intruder, different rules could apply, Bisnar says, but generally speaking, any dog bite in California is considered the dog owner’s fault.
States that do not have a strict liability statute when it comes to dog attacks usually have a “one bite rule,” according to Bisnar.
“You have to be on notice that your dog might have a propensity to bite people before you are liable for the damages caused by that dog’s bite,” he says.
“You might also be liable if you are a ‘keeper’ of the dog — someone who does not own the dog but houses the dog on behalf of the owner — and you know about the tendency of that dog to attack or bite people.”
Why Dogs Bite Stranger?
Most often dogs bite people when they feel threatened in some way. It's a natural instinct that is still present in domesticated dogs, no matter how nice they are.
That is why it's important for everyone who interacts with dogs to understand what may provoke this aggressive behavior.
- Dogs may bite in defense of themselves, their territory, or a member of their pack. Mother dogs will fiercely protect their puppies as well.
- Startling a dog, such as waking one up or a child suddenly approaching from behind, can provoke a dog bite. Hurting a dog even if by accident like pushing on sore hips in an older dog can provoke a bite as well.
- Even if it's during play, running away from a dog can provoke it to bite. They may think it's part of the fun at first, but even that can turn to aggression quickly.
- Dogs who are in a fearful situation may bite whoever approaches them. This may be something as severe as being abused or abandoned, or it may be something you perceive as ordinary, such as a loud noise.
- Injury and illness are a common reason as well. If a dog is not feeling well, they may not even want to be approached or touched by their favorite people.
Take Your Dog Out of the Situation
First, you need to remove your dog from the situation immediately. Let the victim know you’re going to put your dog away and come right back.
If you’re out and about, find somewhere secure to put your dog such as your car (make sure the temperatures are comfortable).
If you can’t find somewhere to safely leave your dog unattended, securely hitch him to a tree, a post, or any other solid, immovable thing you can find.
Stand close enough to your dog that you can warn people to stay away, but not close enough that the person who was bitten is at risk to be bitten again.
Check How Severe the Bite Is
Once your dog is no longer a concern, you and the victim have to evaluate the severity of the bite. A helpful tool for this is Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Dog Bite Scale:
Level 1: Mouthy, obnoxious, or aggressive behavior without teeth-to-skin contact. This can look like a dog jumping up, pawing or punching, nipping or tugging at clothing, etc.
Level 2: Teeth-to-skin contact, but no puncture. This includes tooth scrapes, and may entail “slight bleeding caused by forward or lateral movement of teeth against skin.”
Level 3: One to four punctures caused by a single bite that are shallow — no deeper than half the length of the dog’s canines. There may also be scrapes or lacerations from the victim pulling their hand away.
Level 4: One to four punctures caused by a single bite that are deep — more than half the length of the dog’s canines. There may be bruising or lacerations from the dog holding on and shaking its head.
Level 5: Either a multiple bite incident with two or more Level 4 bites, or a multiple attack incident with at least one Level 4 bite per victim.
Level 6: The dog killed the victim.
In most cases, a Level 6 bite is administered to a prey animal — rabbits, birds, and even domestic cats. Luckily, a Level 6 bite administered to a human is pretty rare; in 2018, only 36 dog bite-related deaths were reported.
According to Dunbar’s Bite Scale, Level 1 and 2 bites are the most common and the most easily solved. Professional training will probably be enough to prevent future bites.
If your dog nips someone and you’re able to smooth things over with them, look for trainers who can help with dogs who nip when fearful or excited.
Level 3 bites have a decent outlook as long as the victim is willing to work with you and you’re willing to start a rigorous training program.
The victim might need medical attention, and despite the moderacy of the bite a lawsuit is quite possible.
Levels 4 bites are extremely serious. A dog who administers a Level 4 bite has little to no “bite inhibition,” which is the ability to stop himself from biting.
Training this behavior away is not only difficult and time consuming, it can be dangerous. The victim will require medical attention and there’s a higher likelihood that you could be sued.
Level 5 and 6 bites are typically inflicted by dangerous dogs with little to no chance of rehabilitation. Unfortunately, dogs who inflict bites of this level of severity may need to be euthanized, and the owner may face criminal charges.
Make Sure To Do First Aid if Necessary
Now that you know how severe the bite is, you should help administer the proper first aid if possible.
Always make sure the victim thoroughly washes out the wound — use mild soap (nothing with fragrances) and plenty of water.
Pat the wound dry with paper towels or a clean cloth use pressure stop further bleeding.
If the bite is a Level 3 or above, the victim should seek medical attention — this goes especially for people who are high risk for infection, such as elderly people or young children.
Though untreated dog bites only get infected about 16 percent of the time, the treating physician may recommend a course of prophylactic antibiotics — antibiotics that you take to prevent an infection from growing.
Dont's When Dogs Bites Someone
The most dangerous course of action – for the dog and the human – is also the one taken by most uninformed owners of dogs who bite. Many people react to their dog’s bite by physically and sometimes severely punishing the dog into submission. Some dog trainers even recommend this method, to be employed at the dog’s first sign of aggression.
A warning growl or snarl is met with a harsh verbal correction and a leash jerk, followed by more serious measures such as hanging or helicoptering if the dog continued to resist.
While this method does manage to “whip” some dogs “into shape,” others will escalate their resistance, fighting back until dog, human, or both, are seriously injured or even dead. You should NOT punish a dog for biting.
This method may also teach the dog not to give a warning prior to the bite. It certainly doesn’t do anything to minimize the dog’s stressors.
If anything, it increases the stress, since the dog now associates a severe beating along with whatever other negative feelings he has about the stressor.
Let’s say, for example, a dog is not fond of children. A child approaches and the dog growls – his attempt to let us (and the child) know that her presence is stressful to him. We jerk on his leash and tell him to knock it off. He snaps at us in response to the jerk, so we punish him harder, until he stops fighting and submits. The end result is a dog who isn’t any happier about being around small children, who has now learned that it isn’t safe to growl.
This dog is now more likely to bite a child next time he sees one, rather than growling to warn her away, since he has learned that his growling makes us unreasonably aggressive. We may have suppressed the growl, but we haven’t helped him feel any better about being around kids!
A growl is a good thing. It tells us that our dog is nearing his bite threshold, and gives us the opportunity to identify and remove the stressor.
Snarls and air-snaps are two steps closer to the threshold – our dog’s last ditch attempts to warn off the stressor before he is forced to commit the ultimate offense: The actual bite.
If your dog growls or snaps frequently, you need to take notice. He is telling you that there are lots of stressors pushing him toward his bite threshold.
If you don’t take action, chances are good that he will eventually bite. And if your dog bites a child – then what? Let’s just say dogs who bite tend to have short lifespans.
4 Steps to Change Aggressive Dog Behavior
Aggression is a classically conditioned response. Your dog does not generally take a seat and ponder whether he is going to bite the next time you try to clip his nails or remove him from the bed. When a stressor occurs, it triggers an involuntary reaction – the dog’s brain screams, “Nail clipping – BAD!” and the dog bites.
If you want the dog to stop from biting when you clip his nails, you have to change his brain’s reaction to “Nail clipping – GOOD!” See how disciplining a dog for biting is counterproductive yet?
You will use food, a very powerful positive reinforcer, to change the way your dog’s brain responds to a stressor, using “desensitization and counter-conditioning” (D&CC).
Here is one possible program for a dog who bites during nail trimming, as an example. You can change the steps to fit any situation that typically causes your dog to bite.
NOTE: Because the risks associated with a failed program for aggression are high, I strongly recommend that you work with a competent positive behavior professional to implement a D&CC program. The following program is not intended to take the place of professional guidance.
1. Write down every step of the process.
Record every single step you normally take for nail trimming, (or whatever situation your dog has problems with). Your list may look something like this:
a.) Set the nail clippers on coffee table
b.) Grab dog
c.) Drag dog to coffee table; keep stranglehold of dog’s collar
d.) Grip dog in unbreakable headlock
e.) Pick up clippers
f.) Pick up dog’s right front paw with left hand while maintaining headlock
g.) Move clippers toward paw
h.) Touch paw with clippers
i.) Clip first nail
j.) Clip second nail, etc., all the way through all the dog’s nails.
2. Determine how to separate different elements of this procedure into separate goals for Desensitization and Counter-conditioning.
Separate goals might look like this:
a.) Develop positive association with clippers
b.) Teach dog to sit quietly and accept paws being held
c.) Convince dog to allow nail clipping
3. Create a mini-D&CC program for each separate element.
Work on each program separately but concurrently so you can put them all together later.
a.) Positive association with clippers. Purchase several nail clippers. Leave them around the house next to his dinner bowl, on the coffee table, etc. Carry them in your hand as you go about your daily routine. Feed the dog treats while you are holding the clippers.
Teach him to touch the clippers with his nose for a high-value reward. (This training technique is called targeting.) Pet him with the clippers in your hand and feed him treats.
b.) Teach your dog to accept paw-holding. Have dog sit quietly with you. Touch him at a point that does not elicit tension – perhaps the top of his head. Feed him a high-value treat. Repeat several times, giving him a treat each time, then move your hand slightly down his neck and feed him a treat.
Repeat this process, giving him treats all the while, very gradually moving down to his elbow, his knee, his paw. It may take several sessions just to get to his elbow.
If at any time you elicit signs of aggression – a growl, snarl, or snap – you have moved too quickly. An ideal D&CC program never elicits the behavior you are trying to eliminate. Continue this gradual process until you can lift each paw and hold it longer and longer without resistance.
c.) Convince the dog to allow nail clipping. Your dog now thinks that nail clippers are GOOD and paw holding is GOOD. You must now convince him that the actual clipping is GOOD as well.
Do this gradually. Hold the clippers in one hand while you repeat the paw desensitization step (step 3b) with the other, to show him that paw touching in the presence of clippers is also good. Be generous with your high-value treats.
Then use the hand with the clipper to repeat step 3b until he is happy about having you touch his paws with the clipper. Continue by closing the clippers near his toenail, then against his toenail, then by actually clipping the very tip off one nail.
4. NOW STOP!
If he handled this much well, it is tempting to go on to the next nail, but it is important that you stop here. One nail clipped without resistance is a huge success.
Don’t spoil it by pushing him into feeling stressed, and undoing your work.
Repeat the process the next day, and if all goes well, clip the next nail. The third day, if he still does well, try clipping the next two nails.
Eventually, when he is comfortable with the whole process, you can sit down and clip all his nails in one session, without risk of being bitten.
To minimize your dog’s other stressors, make a complete list of all you can identify, then create and apply a program such as the one above to desensitize and counter condition him to each.
There may be some stressors for which this is impossible, but remember that the more stressors you desensitize him to, the more likely it is that he will spend the rest of his life bite-free.
If your dog bites someone, you have to stop the bleeding, reduce the swelling and, if necessary, provide medical care. Once you’ve done that, you can call animal control to investigate the incident, and you may have to pay a fine. The good news is that the dog probably isn’t going to be put down, and your homeowner’s insurance policy may cover any medical bills.