Dog bites have tripled in the last 20 years - pet body language explained by experts

Monday, 25th January 2021, 11:12 am
Updated Monday, 25th January 2021, 11:12 am
Do you know how to red your dogs body language? (Photo: Kelly Barnes/Getty Images)
Do you know how to red your dogs body language? (Photo: Kelly Barnes/Getty Images)

In England, adult hospital admissions for dog bites have tripled in the last 20 years.

A new study by scientists at the University of Liverpool has shown that annual hospital admission rates across all ages have risen from six per 100,000 people in 1998, to 15 per 100,000 people in 2018. This equates to more than 8,000 admissions.

Lead author, Dr John Tolloch, is an epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool. He said: “Despite sustained education and preventative campaigns across large parts of society, the issue of dog bites continues to grow and is a huge public health issue.”

‘Ladder to aggression’

Mat Ward, a cat and dog behaviour specialist, says: “There is often a “ladder to aggression” starting with subtle warnings and progressing to more obvious warnings, and then escalating to a bite.”

According to Ward, bites that “come out of the blue” are actually a result of humans not being able to properly understand what dogs are trying to communicate to us.

So how can we identify when a dog might be working its way up to biting you? This is what you need to know, from the experts.

‘There are loads of different ways dogs communicate with us’

There are a number of different methods that dogs use to communicate with us, so it’s important that we know how to interpret their movements and body language, and are not caught off guard by a bite.

Blue Cross Animal Behaviourist, Claire Haynes, says: “Generally, a dog will try and let you know if they’re uncomfortable with something.

“There are lots of different ways they can do that, so for example, they might do something really, really subtle, like turning their head away, licking their lips, their ears might go back. They might frown, they might hold their mouth tightly shut, crouching or cowering, or tucking their tails under them, making themselves really small.”

She added that a dog might also give you something called “whale eye” - when the animal looks at a person with its head turned away.

‘Some dogs might be harder to read’

Some signs that a dog might be feeling uncomfortable, and therefore more inclined to bite, might not be as obvious in comparison to other dogs.

“Another thing to bear in mind is the breed of a dog. So the way that we’ve bred certain types of dogs to look actually can make it more difficult for them to communicate,” Haynes says.

“So, for example, a dog that got a really squashed face, like a pug, is not going to be able to use their facial features in the same way a dog that’s got lots of loose skin that can change their faces with.

“Similarly, dogs that are born with no tails, or very, very small tails, such as a Frenchie, again, might find it harder to communicate with us.”

‘We need to be able to spot the signs’

“There are also more obvious behaviours [that a dog can exhibit], such as growling, showing their teeth, or snapping,” Haynes explains.

While a dog acting this way isn’t necessarily going to bite, these are still warning sign behaviours, and something that we should be aware of.

“Quite commonly, I think aggression is seen as, especially in social situations, embarrassing, or people might think your dog is not very friendly,” says Haynes.

“Often people will tell their dogs off for growling or for showing aggression. I’m not saying that we should necessarily reward [this behaviour], but a growl is actually a warning, a snap is a warning.

“They’re letting us know that they’re uncomfortable, and it’s a form of communication. We don’t want to be telling them not to [communicate], it’s a bit like taking the batteries out your smoke alarm, we actually need that warning.”

Don’t let your dog think that showing aggression is the only way to get space

It’s important that we are able to identify the more subtle signs that a dog might be giving you that it is feeling uncomfortable or worried, otherwise they might feel that being aggressive is the only way to get some space.

“Once a dog has learned that a style of communication is successful, especially if it aggression, they may get to a point where they think that that is what they have to resort to,” Haynes advises.

“Then you might not get as many of those lower level warning signals, they might just start growling because that’s what they’re learning.”

How do I stop my dog from biting?

If you notice the signs that a dog is feeling uncomfortable, and might bite, then Haynes says: “Get the dog out of the situation, or remove yourself, and give the dog the space that it needs.”

The way that dogs have been raised can inform the way they react to uncomfortable situations.

“What’s important is early socialisation, obviously a dog needs to meet different dogs and different people, just like a child does, to learn the different ways to communicate,” Haynes explains.

“They need to learn about how to use their bodies.”

Owners should get in touch with an accredited behaviourist if they need support with changing a dogs behaviour in certain situations.

A Dogs Trust spokesperson added: “If you notice any changes in your dog’s behaviour, it’s worth visiting your vet you can check for any underlying causes, and help with referring you to a qualified behaviourist.”