Dog bites are a very common occurrence during the holidays. One key reason is that everyone—including your dog—is stressed.
The disruption of routines, new people coming into the home, different or unfamiliar interactions, more noise, and often, less exercise cause stress in dogs. Stressed dogs are less tolerant dogs. Stressed dogs are more likely to growl and bite.
Unfortunately, most people are not aware of just how stressed dogs can be, or how this stress can sometimes lead to disastrous consequences, even for the most mild-mannered dog. Almost all dog bites do not happen “out of the blue”.
Dogs Need More Space Than We Think
One of the big challenges for us around the holiday season is making sure your dog gets the space he or she needs when they need it. We are hardwired to pay attention to animals (whether you like them or not). (1) There is an evolutionary basis for this – we either needed to hunt, or we were prey. Either way, people who like animals often want to look at them, be close to them, touch them and your dog may be a target for unwanted love.
While we know that dogs benefit from human interaction (2), like us, dogs can be particular to who, when and how they are touched. Common physical interactions can be unpleasant to some dogs (3) and dogs are sensitive to subtleties around how it’s done (4).Other research additionally suggests that the degree to which contact is enjoyed may also depend on how familiar the dog is with the person (5). So while your dog lovers are loving your dog, your dog might need space.
Teach kids (and adults!) what they should know about petting dogs.
Invasion of space, on the other hand, can make many dogs unsettled. We like to think all that excitement at the door means the dog wants people to come in. Some times this is the case, but other times we misinterpret anxiety for excitement. Unfamiliar people in the home can put some dogs on edge. People coming too close too frequently, occupying their favourite resting spots, children playing in their beds, or putting fingers into bowls can all cause problems.
If people ignore their warning signs, dogs may feel it’s necessary to growl or even bite.
Dog Aggression Risks During the Holidays
Not recognizing signs of stress
We assume that we know when our dogs are unhappy, but we often only know when the signs are really obvious (and in the case of dog biting, it’s usually too late). Not recognizing the subtle signs that our dog is uncomfortable makes the risk of dog bites higher. But it may be that we simply don’t know what to look for. Licking lips, panting, turning their heads away, stiffened body posture, lowered or “pinned back” ears are just some of the signs you should watch out for. When you know your dog is uncomfortable move them away. This might avoid a confrontation.
Distraction is a risk. Even if you know the signs of stress in dogs, it requires us to pay attention to them. Unfortunately during the holiday season we are have a lot of things calling for our attention. If you can, assign someone who knows how to read signs of stress to be the guardian of your dog, or take turns when your dog is “mingling” with your guests.
Young children, especially under the age of nine are frequent targets of dog bites and most are bitten by a dog they know. You might be interested in learned more with these seven facts on young victims of dog bites.
But it’s unfair to children to expect that they will follow your rules around your dog, no matter how well-behaved you or their parents think they are. By nature children have a desire to explore and experiment. Their abilities to assess risk and their abilities to empathize are not as well-developed as they are in an adult. Even the most well-behaved child is likely to say what he or she knows will please an adult, but will behave differently when no one is watching and this includes older children as well.
You can teach older children whether or not your dog wants to be petted and how to watch for the signs of stress in your dog. Kids often love to be “dog-detectives” and this is a great way to get them involved in a safer way with your dog.
If you have young children around your dog, be very careful to monitor their behavior and your dogs comfort level. Have a plan if your dog to create space for your dog if he or she starts to become uncomfortable. Be aware that toddlers in particular can seem very threatening to some dogs because of how they move, and the way in which they are exploring their worlds (often with climbing, tasting, slapping, poking and hair pulling).
Better yet, before the party starts, take your dog for a walk, do some training with them so their social, physical and mental needs are met, then put them in a room away from the children and let them enjoy a food toy and a nap instead.
Multiple Dogs Increase Risk
If you have more than one dog, there may be additional dynamics to consider. The dogs may be less tolerant with one another than usual over the holiday season. They may want to compete for people’s attention, treats, even resting places. If there has ever been any tension between the dogs, you may see more of it now. This is particularly the case if you have one dog that is anxious, aggressive or aging. Dogs are inherently social and therefore are sensitive to tensions. If one dog is not behaving “normally”, this will cause more stress for any other dog even if the behavior is not direct.
Planning Ahead to Avoid Dog Growling and Bites
Planning a head of time can go a long way towards keeping things running smoothly.
Allow your dog to have a break away from guests (or even others in the home) and have a quite place to chew on a food-stuff kong. In fact, starting to do this before the holiday season starts is a good idea to get them used to the routine.
Plan how you will communicate to guests about how they should or should not touch your dog. Give children boundaries and activities they can do to interact with your dog safely. For example, some dogs might not like to be petted, but might not mind a child reading them a book. Teaching a child how to ask your dog to sit for a treat is a wonderful way for a child to interact.
Try to keep your schedules and routines as close to what they usually are as much as possible. Dogs become stressed when they can’t predict what will happen.
If you can, try to exercise your dog just a little more. Exercise is often one of the first things to go during the busy season. Aerobic exercise can be helpful in combatting some of the stress. For both of you! In addition, dogs can really enjoy getting out of the house to explore the worlds with their noses.
Below, there are some common signs to look out for that indicate your dog is getting stressed. It is not a comprehensive list, but you can teach the children in your home to be “dog-detectives” and look out for some of these signs of stress and be sure to let you know. When you see the signs, it’s time to move your dog to a place where your dog can be more relaxed.
Teach others in your home how to tell if your dog wants to be petted.
Please share to keep people and dogs safe!
Bites happen more often during holidays
(1) Mormann F, Dubois J, Kornblith S, Milosavljevic M, Cerf M, Ison M, Tsuchiya N, Kraskov A, Quiroga RQ, Adolphs R, Fried I, Koch C , “A category-specific response to animals in the right human amygdala.” Nature Neuroscience, Published online
(2) Crista L. Coppola, Temple Grandin, R. Mark Enns, Human interaction and cortisol: Can human contact reduce stress for shelter dogs?, Physiology & Behavior, Volume 87, Issue 3, 30 March 2006, Pages 537-541, ISSN 0031-9384, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2005.12.001.
(3) Franziska Kuhne, Johanna C. Hößler, Rainer Struwe, “Behavioral and cardiac responses by dogs to physical human–dog contact”, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, Volume 9, Issue 3, Pages 93-97 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2014.02.006
(4) Michael B Hennessy, Michael T. Williams, Deborah D Miller, Chet W Douglas, Victoria L Voith, Influence of male and female petters on plasma cortisol and behaviour: can human interaction reduce the stress of dogs in a public animal shelter?, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, Volume 61, Issue 1, 14 December 1998, Pages 63-77, ISSN 0168-1591, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0168-1591(98)00179-8.(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168159198001798)
(5) Kuhne, Franziska et al. “Effects of human–dog familiarity on dogs’ behavioural responses to petting” Applied Animal Behaviour Science , Volume 142 , Issue 3 , 176 – 181, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.applanim.2012.10.003