Dog bites are a very common occurrence during the holidays. One key reason is that everyone—including your dog—is stressed. Here are just some of the risk factors to keep an eye on.
Stress is a precursor to aggression
We all experience stress from time to time and a certain amount of it (called Eustress) is actually good for us in that is can lead to increased satisfaction in life.
However, too much stress, and the wrong kind of stress can cause changes in the body that lead to worsening mood and behavior, particularly when we don’t have down time to properly relax and let our bodies and minds recover and get back into a healthy balance.
It’s important to remember that all dogs have the potential to behave aggressively, just as all people do. Unfortunately dogs are unable to tell us what’s bothering them, and humans are not always very good at understanding what they need or reading the communication that they do give us.
During the holidays, disruption of routines, new people coming into the home, different or unfamiliar interactions, more noise, and often, less exercise cause stress in dogs. The more often we and our dogs are exposed o unexpected situations or stress the more likely that inappropriate behavior will occur (1). Stressed dogs are less tolerant dogs.
Unfortunately, most people are not aware of just how stressed dogs can be. People are also not aware of how stress can build up. One particular stressful situation may not be enough to cause problem, but the build up of it can. The accumulation of stress lead to disastrous consequences, even for the most mild-mannered dog. Almost all dog bites do not happen “out of the blue”.
Dog Aggression Risk Factors During the Holidays
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 away from people he or she needs when they need it. Having guests or additional people in the home can cause stress for your dog for a number of reasons.
Risk factor: Unwanted love (or the wrong kind of attention)
Humans are hardwired to pay attention to animals (whether you like them or not). (2) There is an evolutionary basis for this – we either needed to hunt, or we were prey. People who like (or love) animals often want to look at them, be close to them, touch them and it can be difficult for them to resist doing so making your dog may be a target for unwanted love.
While we know that dogs benefit from human interaction (3), like us, dogs can be particular to who, when and how they are touched.
Common physical interactions can be unpleasant to some dogs (4) and dogs are sensitive to subtleties around how it’s done (5).
Other research additionally suggests that the degree to which contact is enjoyed may also depend on how familiar the dog is with the person (6).
Some people like to get dogs wound up, especially small dogs, finding their warning signs amusing. Many people, uncomfortable with showing more gentle signs of affection towards dogs, or perhaps wanting to show they are not afraid of the dog, ruffle dog’s fur a little too roughly, or pat them more forcibly than dogs like. Others may smother the dog with too much affection. Children may be too curious and poke, prod or pull instead of using gentle hands or just keeping their distance from the dog all together.
While your dog lovers are loving your dog, your dog might actually be saying no. In an era emphasising the importance of consensual touching of other people, we rarely think to do it with dogs or even know how to get consent. Teach others how to get consent from a dog to pet them (assuming your dog likes being touched) and what everyone should know about petting dogs.
Risk factor: Invasion of space
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. Sometimes this is the case, but other times we misinterpret anxiety for excitement.
Dogs are naturally territorial and have evolved to be connected to a relatively small number in a group. 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 an increase in stress,
If people ignore their warning signs, dogs may feel it’s necessary to growl or even bite. People should away from dog’s dishes, water bowls and resting areas and keep a safe distance from the dog in general. If you need to move a dog from a seating area such as a sofa or chair for a guest teach the dog to move to a new place such as a mat or dog bed for a reward rather than use physical force to get them off.
Risk factor: Ignoring signs of stress in dogs
We assume that we know when our dogs are unhappy. When our dogs lose their appetite or the energy levels change, we know to take them to the vet. But the truth is we often miss the signs of stress unless the signs are really obvious (and in the case of dog biting, it’s usually too late). Not recognizing the more subtle communication that our dog is giving us telling us they are uncomfortable makes the risk of dog bites much higher.
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. You don’t need to know for sure if they are stressed, and the dog doesn’t need to be reassured that the person is not a threat. You just need to create space for your dog so your dog can relax.
Recognizing the signs of stress and responding appropriately is the first step in avoiding a confrontation.
Risk factor: Increased Distraction
Unfortunately during the holiday season we often have a lot of things competing for our attention. There are things to prepare, food to make, gifts to wrap, homes to decorate, people to visit with. In fact, we often find the holidays stressful because of all of the things we need to do. It’s hard to not become distracted by everything that needs to get done.
In other cases, certain holidays can be difficult for people who have suffered loss, struggling in difficult relationships, or may not have that close social network they wish to have, all of which may become all the more painful during holidays. Emotional challenges can cause us to turn inward and become distracted by our own inner turmoil.
Unfortunately distraction is a risk. Even when you know the signs of stress in dogs, it requires us to pay attention to them in order to evaluate them properly. We may not know who is interacting with our dog, or we may just not see that our dog is not happy with it.
If you can, assign someone who knows how to read signs of stress to be the guardian of your dog when you are otherwise occupied, take turns when your dog is “mingling” with your guests or find your dog a safe resting area when you unable to pay full attention.
Risk factor: Children
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 guardians think they are.
By nature children are learning about the world and have a need to explore and experiment. But their abilities to assess risk and ability to empathize are not as well-developed as they are in an adult. Even the most well-behaved young person is likely to say what he or she knows will please an adult, but will behave differently when no one is watching.
Good with some children does not mean good with all
Additionally while some dogs are less threatened by children because they are smaller than adults, some dogs may be more stressed by children than adults because children are less predictable, sound and move differently. Never assume that is your dog is good with one child, or your own children that they will be good with another. Dogs discriminate even more than humans meaning each situation is a brand new situation and not all the things they have learned in one situation will carry over to the next.
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 dog’s 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 comfortable room away from the children and let them enjoy a food toy and a nap instead.
Risk factor: Multiple Dogs
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.
Risk factor: Change in routine
Dogs thrive on routine even more than we do. When routines change, dogs are no longer able to predict what will happen next. A dog that doesn’t get his morning breakfast at 7:30 in morning has no idea when he is going to get fed next or how long he will have to ensure feeling hungry or have any way of lessening the hunger. Same with needing to go out to relieve themselves or a walk they look forward to alleviate boredom.
So while we might enjoy sleeping in for a few days, going out to visit friends for dinner, or have people over, the change in routine might be causing any number or all of these things for our dogs that can lead to more stress:
- Increased boredom
- Increased frustration
- Increased concern, worry or anxiety over the unknown
- A loss of control which makes coping with stress more difficult
Risk factor: Change in environment.
A change in environment can add stress in dog’s lives for the same reasons a change in routine can add stress. But the inability to predict what will happen next may not be the only stressors. Their senses may also become overwhelmed. Here are some just a few things to consider:
- Adding a christmas tree, an air freshener or scents in the air or on furniture might be overwhelming to a dog’s sense of smell or even signal upcoming upheaval.
- A dog that has been spending the majority of its days in a quiet home while everyone is at work or school might become overwhelmed with a house full of visitors that never seem to go away or television that’s always on or music always playing.
- A dog that not be the most comfortable with strangers or children may have to deal with the stress of how to deal with them.
- Dogs being fed new food by guests, or getting into food or garbage by accident can cause them to feel unwell which is a risk factor for aggression.
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 quiet place to chew on a food-stuff kong. In fact, starting a routine to include this before the holiday season starts is a good idea.
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 assuming that your dog is comfortable being in the proximity of children.
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 combating 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. Let them engage in plenty of sniffing during walks.
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) Overall, K (2013) Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats, Karen Overall, Mosby (and Imprint of Elevier) Retrieved from https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=HHoK9PKpqn4C&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=karen+overall+dog+stress&ots=7u4mxSuKWn&sig=uIezw8NMURnbeevABGSI6Tinws4#v=onepage&q=stress&f=false
(2) 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
(3) 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.
(4) 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
(5) 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)
(6) 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