Dog bites are stressful. Knowing what to do after a bite can reduce the damage.
Immediately following the dog bite, calmly remove your dog from the situation. Separate the dog from the person who was bitten. Ensure your dog cannot physically reapproach them by using a leash, crate, or a baby gate or closing the dog behind a door.
Avoid creating more distress by yelling or becoming aggressive. Take a deep breath. Do not yell or punish the dog – this will increase the likelihood of another bite and increase already toxic stress levels, in addition to creating and strengthening negative associations for the dog.
Once physical safety has been created, assess injuries. Most dog bites do not break the skin. Clean the area well and seek medical treatment as appropriate. Dog bites get infected quickly!
It can be helpful to know up front that in many areas, medical professionals are required to report dog bites to Animal Control. Where I live, the owner may receive a home visit or a phone call from Animal Control, and the dog is quarantined to their home property for ten days.
Dogs who bite are most often very stressed out. The vast majority bite due to fear and pain. Toxic stress levels are harmful not only for emotional health but also for physical, behavioral, and mental health. Getting those stress levels down faster is better for your dog’s well-being.
So here’s what to do:
1. If your dog isn’t home, get them there. Now is not the time to push through or to try to “end on a positive.” Take your dog straight home.
2. If your dog is prescribed medication for stressful events, this is likely an appropriate time to administer it. Consult with your veterinarian if unsure.
3. Set up your dog in a place they feel secure. For some dogs, this might be home itself. Others may prefer a special room or spot in the house.
a. Your dog’s social needs may vary at this time. Many dogs may benefit from social support. Some of those dogs may want someone near them. Others may enjoy cuddling or a calming massage.
b. Sometimes, social support means separation. This is especially important if your dog has a history of aggression with other household members. If some relationships require much cognitive work, emotional regulation, and decision-making, avoid those interactions for the next several days.
c. And finally, be aware that up to 80% of dog bites involve pain directly or indirectly. If you are unsure why your dog has bitten, if the bite came directly after being handled or touched, or if you are aware or suspicious of pain, proceed with touching cautiously. Always use consent testing (it’s just polite).
4. You can enhance your dog’s special spot with calming music (like “Through a Dog’s Ear”), white noise, or a box fan. Calming smells can promote a calmer state of mind. Make available a comfortable space for your dog to rest.
5. Offer your dog calming enrichment activities. Chewing, licking, and sniffing are three easy, species-typical behaviors that will help your dog’s nervous system come back down.
a. Don’t worry; your dog didn’t bite someone so they could get a lickimat. You won’t reinforce the biting behavior with food.
6. Make an appointment with your veterinarian. As I mentioned but will always repeat, up to 80% of aggressive incidents involve pain either indirectly or directly. The most likely culprit is orthopedic, and the second most likely is gastrointestinal. It is not uncommon for low and moderate pain to be undetectable upon veterinary exam.
In the days following the bite:
1. Avoid stressful situations for the next three days. For some dogs, this might mean taking a short hiatus from walks, training, and other outings. Your dog has just had a significant stress event. They need rest. Their window of tolerance is smaller now than usual, so they may struggle to handle stressors they can usually navigate well.
2. Seek the support of a behavior professional. You might contact a Veterinary Behaviorist and/or Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. You can learn more about these terms and how to find appropriate help here, here, here, and here.
3. If you're unsure what prompted your dog to bite, review the days, hours, minutes, and seconds before the bite. Stressors from earlier in the week can narrow your dog's window of stress tolerance even days later. Most dogs exhibit signs of distress before the bite. They may try to move away, avert their eyes, or turn their body away. They may be panting and have a scooped tongue, or they may have a very tightly closed mouth. You might see their eyes become very big or stare very hard. The dog's tail might be wagging - which can confuse people, but a wagging tail doesn't mean a happy dog. You can learn more about body language here, here, here, and here.
a. Avoid putting your dog in distressing situations until you have a plan to help them cope. Exposing them to the stressor without sufficient coping skills will worsen the problem.
Most dogs who bite go on to live happy and safe lives. Most bites come after many warning signals that were missed or ignored.
In many situations, evidence-based behavior therapy that does not use fear or pain can support dogs in developing coping skills or creating emotional change that reduces the likelihood of an aggressive incident in the future.
Additionally, many aggressive incidents are influenced by pain, which, once addressed, can not only reduce the likelihood of a future bite but also improve the dog's quality of life - drastically in some cases. You can learn more about pain in dogs here, here, here, and here.
If your dog bites someone, take a deep breath and focus on creating physical and emotional safety. Get back into your thinking brain before trying to make big decisions. Reach out for help.
PS. Many dog bites are to young children from their own dog. To learn more about being dog-aware around babies and toddlers, check out Family Paws. You might also save their support line number, which you can call when you need immediate support.