Can You Trust a Dog Who Has Bitten?

It can be difficult to decide what to do with an aggressive dog. An important question to consider: Can you trust a dog who has already bitten?

Can you trust a dog who has bitten before? Photo: Donnie Ray Jones

I am always amazed by people who charge up to a leashed dog and plunge their hand into the animal’s face. Would you tolerate that kind of invasion of your personal space from a stranger? I wouldn’t.

Yet we expect our dogs to be submissive and permit a stranger’s violation without incident. No wonder there are more than 800,000 physician-treated dog bites reported each year in the United States.

Playful Bites

Few dog lovers have escaped the occasional nip as the result of a play session that got too rambunctious. Puppies are especially prone to being overly expressive by biting — it is a source of communication for them. What is “cute” for a 1-pound baby can become deadly in a 60-pound adult dog.

It is your responsibility to teach good habits, especially those involving biting.

  • Avoid dangling fingers in play; your body is not a chew toy.
  • Teach positive play activities. Never participate in wrestling/fighting games.
  • Avoid jerking or teasing with hands and feet.
  • Never slap or hit a dog’s face — even playing.

Puppies learn bite inhibition through socialization, maturity and training. Trust becomes a learned response.

Accidental Bites

At my home, we have 5 gentle dogs. I have been bitten twice by the same dog – Juno — and she is the sweetest of the 5.

There is no doubt both bites were accidental. I was trying to clip one of the younger dog’s nails for the first time. She did not like the process and was squirming and whining. I believe Juno thought the younger dog was hurting me, and she sprang into action. My arm was caught in the fray.

Luckily, I came away with only a minor bruise. Emergency physicians report that the highest incidence of dog bites treated in hospitals result from humans intervening in dog fights. Strange dogs, family dogs, friendly dogs — reasons rarely matter.

Few humans are physically able to break up a dog fight without getting hurt. The best thing to do is not try. Instincts provoke us to protect our own.

To avoid serious harm in a dog fight situation:

  • Prepare: Have a procedure in your mind.
  • Stay calm and protect yourself first.
  • Do not yell or scream unless you are calling for assistance; the dogs will not hear you.
  • Use props for distraction (brooms, rakes, cans, boxes, water — spraying the dogs with a hose will break up a fight nearly every time); grab anything within reach and toss it toward the fighting animals.
  • Do not reach for your dog immediately after a fight; the adrenaline is still pumping and he may mistake you as a continuation of the battle.

As with most accidents, some dog bites are the result of careless mistakes on the human’s part.

Protective Bites

Protective bites are those inflicted by a dog intent on keeping his people/pack, food or territory safe. Dogs injured or in pain are also extremely likely to resort to protective biting.

To avoid a protective bite by a dog:

  • Never approach an animal you do not know.
  • Never enter a premises if a dog is on patrol.
  • Never run from a dog.
  • Assume a guard dog will bite.
  • Never roughhouse or “play fight” with a person — especially a child — when that person’s dog is present.
  • Never approach a dog feeding.
  • Remember that a female dog with puppies will protect her babies at all costs.
  • Approach a dog that is in pain with extreme caution.

Breaking the dog rules pertaining to protection is a good chance for a dog bite. Trust in this case is about common sense.

Aggressive Bites

The only other time I was bitten by a dog involved a stranger’s pet.

A college internship provided field work opportunities with a social worker. We had an appointment scheduled at a client’s home. Arriving at the expected time, we saw a large dog chained (bad sign) on the front porch. The dog demonstrated no interest in us. He lay lazily on the porch.

Suddenly, without warning, the dog stood and lunged at my face, breaking the chain as he came at me. I was able to knock him down with my arm, but he nearly tore my finger off in the attack. He got several more less traumatic bites in before he ran and hid under a bush.

The dog was not provoked — he just attacked. A host of sutures and two reconstruction surgeries reattached my finger, but I still suffer nightmares of that attack.

Some dogs are simply aggressive. Perhaps it is nurture rather than nature, but it happens. An attack by a strange dog is terrifying, but what do you do if you’re attacked by your own pet? An assault by someone you love is the worst kind of betrayal. It is difficult to understand and even harder to determine the appropriate path for resolution.

I recently read a post submitted to Vet Insights. The article shared some detail about someone who was attacked by her dog. This person made the painful decision to euthanize her pet. It is a moving, intelligent story about the anguish of an attack and the agony of the penalty.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, a fellow Petful writer, provides another compelling article regarding the issue of aggressive dogs from a professional point of view. Dr. Deb empathizes with her clients who face “the mixture of responsibility and guilt, love and affection, of fear and heartbreak” when dealing with the fate of their pet.

People with aggressive dogs assume a huge liability. It is critical to be proactive and obtain professional evaluations and understand risks, limitations and options for control. Trust in this case can be fatal.

Once Bitten

So back to that initial question. Can you trust a dog who has bitten? I would say no. Any dog will bite. The numbers do not count. As a responsible caretaker for your dog, you must respect provocation from the dog’s perspective.

Most crimes in the human world require due process. Our legal system tries to understand who, what, when, where, how and so on before handing down a penalty. Judging the reason for a dog bite, the consequences and the potential for a repeat should use equal measures.