My Dog Just Bit Me — Now What Do I Do?

When Signs Are Missed

Many bite situations occur simply because signals get crossed. Here are some of the more common situations in which owners have reported being bitten and they are often due to owners misreading their dog’s signals. Simply think of how you would respond in some of these cases:

  • Disturbing your dog when lying down or sleeping
  • Disturbing your dog while eating
  • Trying to take an item away from your dog
  • Reprimanding your dog using punitive measures
  • Redirected behavior
  • Touching a painful area
  • Kissing your dog on the face or hugging him
  • Breaking up a dog fight
  • Partaking in vigorous or excited play

Determining Why

Going forward, part of the assessment of the bite incident must include having your dog examined by your veterinarian to rule out an underlying physical problem, such as pain caused by an infection, injury, arthritis or a medical condition that can make your dog more irritable, such as Cushing’s disease (also called hyperadrenocorticism). It's possible to overlook the fact that your dog is in pain because he may bear it stoically until touched in an affected area.

Also talk to your veterinarian, certified animal behaviorist and/or trainer about whether you can safely attempt to handle the situation yourself with their help, or if you need to take more drastic steps, such as removing your pet from your home. They should be able to advise you on how to deal with your dog’s behavior using techniques that do not involve harsh verbal reprimands or corrections. Punitive or coercive methods increase anxiety and fear; they may potentially cause an escalation in your dog’s aggressive behavior.

The prognosis for treating a dog that has bitten a human is better if there are known, avoidable triggers and if the severity of the bite is minor. An inhibited bite, in which your dog did not break the skin, is obviously less intense than an uninhibited bite, in which the skin is broken or there are multiple bites. The prognosis also tends to be better if your dog is smaller in size. The prognosis is guarded for a larger dog with uninhibited bites. Family composition also plays a big role in determining the severity of the problem. A family with small children may have a more difficult time keeping the children and dog separated and closely monitored. (As a rule, I always recommend that owners never leave a dog alone with young children, even if the dog has never shown signs of aggression.)

The Bottom Line

There is no guaranteed cure for a dog that exhibits aggressive behavior. With management and behavior modification, however, many dogs can learn to be more tolerant and not exhibit such behavior. But remember that not only do you need to alter your dog’s behavior, you need to work on your own behavior,as well. You need to learn to read your dog’s signaling and avoid placing your dog in situations in which he feels challenged.

Never attempt to treat your dog’s aggressive behavior without the professional help of a veterinarian, certified animal behaviorist or experienced dog trainer. You need a third party with no emotional ties to professionally assess the safety of the situation and set up an appropriate management and treatment plan— one that does not involve the use of force or punitive measures. You will need to rebuild trust and repair the broken bond with your beloved canine companion.

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