I had a new client yesterday that was very upset because their 5-year-old dog bit their one-year-old baby in the face. My client felt terrible because in hindsight she understands that the situation could have been avoided.
The dog is a little shy to begin with, and he got cornered in the bathroom by the energetic baby. The baby ignored the signals of discomfort exhibited by the dog and approached anyway. The dog bit the baby in the face causing bruising, but no blood, tearing or puncture wounds.
Most adults would know better and would have stopped approaching, but children often don't understand dog signals and that is why they get bitten more than adults. If you want to learn more about dog bites, you can read a fascinating book by Janis Bradley, one of my instructors at the Academy for Dog Trainers. Called "Dogs Bite: But Slippers and Balloons are More Dangerous" this book tackles the fascinating topic of how overblown the hype is about dog bites. In the summary, it talks about the relative infrequency of dog bites versus other injuries.
When I interviewed my client about the facial bite I knew that the severity of the bite, while scary, was on the lower end of the severity spectrum. How did I know this? I follow Dr. Ian Dunbar's bite assessment criteria when assessing a dog bite.
- Level 1- Dog growls, lunges, snarls-no teeth touch skin. Mostly intimidation behavior.
- Level 2- Teeth touch skin but no puncture. May have red mark/minor bruise from dogâ€™s head or snout, may have minor scratches from paws/nails. Minor surface abrasions acceptable.
- Level 3- Punctures 1â„2 the length of a canine tooth, one to four holes, single bite.No tearing or slashes.Victim not shaken side to side. Bruising.
- Level 4- One to four holes from a single bite, one hole deeper than 1â„2 the length of a canine tooth, typically contact/punctures from more than canines only. Black bruising, tears and/or slashing wounds. Dog clamped down and shook or slashed victim.
- Level 5- Multiple bites at Level 4 or above. A concerted, repeated attack.
- Level 6- Any bite resulting in death of a human.
So, let's look at my new client's dog bite and assess the severity. Since there was bruising, but no puncture wounds, the bite can be categorized as a Level 2 bite. You might find it interesting that a growl or "air snap" with no contact is actually considered an act of aggression in Dr. Dunbar's chart. One reason for this being included in the bite chart is that, if left untreated, this behavior often escalates into more obvious aggression. So, it appears on the aggression radar screen because it means that something in the environment is causing the dog to react defensively and has to be addressed.
There are many reasons why I took the case and was very optimistic about the chances for success:
- This was the first and only bite to the child
- It was a Level 2 bite
- My clients are very willing to work to address the situation
- My clients realize that they need to be more proactive to keep their dog and baby comfortable and this situation could have been avoided
Thankfully most of my client calls fall into the Level 2 or 3 categories. I have worked with Level 4 dogs, but the chances for rehabilitation get lower as the severity climbs.
I make my decision whether to take a case based on the willingness of the client to be rock-solid with management and positive reinforcement treatment, the history and number of dog bites, and the history of the dog's socialization and background. The worst situation is an older dog that doesn't show signals such as growling or snarling, newly adopted from the shelter without any history that has put multiple people in the hospital. The chances of success working with that dog are very low.