The Surprising Truth Behind Dog Bite Statistics

92 percent of dog owners in America consider their dogs to be family members. And with any good family, there are ups and downs. Kids can get angry, lash out, and even bite others. However, when your pup is the offender, it can feel more like a betrayal. Aggressive behavior can be a dog owner’s greatest fear. Therefore, it’s logical to wonder which dogs might be more predisposed to biting than others and what you can do as an owner to nip any unwarranted aggression in the bud. DogFriendly.com has compiled this handy guide to help you make sense of all the dog bite statistics and facts.

How often do dog bites occur?

Dog bites happen every day. This is the unfortunate reality of pet ownership. Thankfully, dog bites have been trending down over the years. While dog bites remain a public health concern, there is now an increased awareness about the potential dangers of pet ownership.

Each year, about 4.5 million individuals in the U.S. suffer dog bites. Researchers for Applied Animal Behavior Science cite that in the United States, there are 15.8 dog bites per 1000 people. For comparison, they found the Netherlands had a rate of 8.3 per 1,000 people. 

Rather than counting just any dog bite, most studies count the number of people who seek Emergency Room care for a dog bite injury. There is an average of 337,103 Emergency Room visits each year for dog bites. This makes dog bites the 13th leading cause of injury, at 1.1 percent of Emergency Room visits for all injuries.

Data is often limited. Researchers may make estimates, but we have an incomplete picture of how common dog bites really are. Most dog bites (somewhere between 80 to 97 percent) are not reported to healthcare authorities. But there is also a silver lining to this statistic. The discrepancy shows that the majority of dog bites do not require medical attention. Dog bites are scary no matter the situation, but the chance of them being injurious or life-threatening is relatively low.

Which dogs are most likely to bite people?

Dog bite statistics are often sorted by breed. This can paint a misleading picture. Researchers consistently find that breed plays little role in a dog’s behavior compared to other factors like a dog’s size or, most importantly, how it was raised. According to the National Canine Research Council, “There is no individual characteristic, or combination of characteristics, that reliably explain why a dog responds with a bite.”  In essence, doggy aggression is more nurture than nature

Therefore, DogFriendly.com does not support categorizing dog bites by breed, as this leads to confusion and does little to address the root causes of aggression.

Why do dogs bite?

To understand these bite statistics, we should get a sense of why dog bites occur. There is never any one reason why a dog behaves aggressively. Rather, it is a confluence of factors that lead a dog to aggression.

First, aggression is a learned behavior to specific stimuli. People often believe that aggressiveness is innate—some dogs are violent, and others are not. This is incorrect. Researchers have found that dogs do “not tend to show aggression in multiple contexts…. Dogs usually learn to show aggression in response to specific perceived threats occurring in particular contexts,” says Casey et al. This is why an otherwise perfect dog might, for instance, exhibit food aggression during mealtime. The dog is not inherently aggressive but has learned aggression as a defense.

Lack of training or improper training is a primary cause of aggression. A good dog needs help to know how it should behave. Untrained dogs are more likely to bite both dogs and people.

The type of training also matters. There are two types of training: positive reinforcement/negative punishment and positive punishment/negative reinforcement. The first category, positive reinforcement/negative punishment, includes training methods like verbal praise, treats, play, ignoring your dog, time-outs, or withholding treats. By contrast, positive punishment/negative reinforcement are methods like verbal punishment, physical punishment (smacking), electric collars, or jerking on a dog’s leash. Dog owners who reported using the second category of training found a 2.9 times greater risk of aggression in their dogs than owners who only used the first category.

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Proper training is essential to raising a well-behaved pup.

Many dogs who bite or show aggression have not been spayed/neutered. The probability of an unfixed dog biting is not exactly clear, but it has been found that neighborhoods with a much lower proportion of fixed dogs also had a greater incidence of dog bites.

Finally, abuse and neglect can lead to aggression and dog bites. Many abused dogs are used as guard dogs or attack dogs and trained to be violent. And dogs can act out if they feel lonely or abandoned. Your furry friend needs lots of attention, regular activity, outdoor time, and frequent walks to feel content. 

Can a dog bite be deadly?

Like any injury, a dog bite can be potentially deadly. But death by dog bite is quite rare. A study for Injury Prevention found a death rate from dog bites of 0.004-0.07 per 100,000 population in developed countries. Of the 4.5 million dog bites every year in the U.S., about 16 result in fatality on average. This would mean about 0.0003 percent of dog bites result in death. Per weather.gov, lightning strikes kill about 20 people a year. You’re more likely to die by lightning than by a dog bite.

Where do dog bites occur?

To prevent dog bites, you should know where they are most common.

Most dog bites occur at home.  A 2020 study for Injury Epidemiology found that 80.2 percent happened at home. The second most common location was on the street, at 7.1 percent of dog bites. And three of five dog bite victims are bitten “by the family dog or one living in the neighborhood.”

Dog bites are also more common in less densely populated areas. This is probably why you’ve got an anecdote about some mean farm dog.

Who is most at risk?

There is no way to determine which dogs will bite in a stressful situation or which humans will fall victim to a dog attack. But this does not mean dog bites affect everyone equally.

Unfortunately, children are at the greatest risk for dog bite injuries. Randall T. Loder, an orthopedic surgeon, found that of dog bites treated in the emergency room, the 5 to 9-year age group had the highest incidence rate of dog bites, at 203 bites per 100,000 people. The second highest incidence was in the 0-4 age group, at 184 bites per 100,000. And since this data only covers dog bite injuries that require medical attention, the actual incidence rate for all dog bites is higher. 

A study in 1985 found that the actual rate of dog bites was “36 times more than the rate reported to health authorities.” They also estimated that “half of children aged 12 and younger have been bitten by a dog.” This figure has probably decreased in the decades since, as dog bites rates have been declining. Nevertheless, children’s safety should be a key concern for any dog owner.

So why are children at greater risk? Researchers cite children’s inability to read a dog’s cues: “Children may lack the maturity to understand the ‘signaling behavior’ of dogs, misinterpreting the cues dogs emit when in an agitated state. Children may also make sudden body movements or high-pitched sounds which can frighten dogs and precipitate an aggressive response,” say Peter S. Tuckel and William Milczarski. And of children under 10, over 90 percent of bite injuries occur in the home. Therefore, it’s crucial that your dog is well-trained and your child is supervised until they can fully understand a dog’s social cues.

Besides age, there is a gender disparity in dog bite injuries. Men are about 15 percent more likely than women to seek emergency care for a dog bite, with an incidence rate of 1.18 per 1,000 men, compared to 1.02 per 1,000 women. The average age of male dog bite victims was also lower, at 26.9 years, compared to 31.1 years for female victims. 

Are pit bulls a dangerous breed?

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Pit bulls get mislabeled as inherently violent dogs.

Pit bulls are often victims of misinformation. The negative stereotypes about pit bulls lead to real-world consequences, as pit bulls are overrepresented in shelters, stay longer, and are euthanized at a disproportionate rate.

The biggest misconception is that pit bulls are a breed at all. Pit bulls are not a breed. Rather, they’re a “collection of breeds that share physical traits.” American Pit Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, American Bullies, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, and others are all breeds included in the label “pit bull.” News pieces and even scientific studies will frequently group pit bulls all into one category, while no other breeds get such treatment. 

The name “pit bull” is a remnant of history, when Old English Bulldogs were pitted against bulls, then rats, and eventually each other. People would be in the ring with the dogs, so the most important quality of a pit bull was that it would not bite humans.

A dog’s appearance is not an accurate measure of its “pit bull-ness.” The majority of dogs with “pit bull genes” have 50 percent or less. And 98 percent of pit bull dogs in the study were identified as mixed, not purebred.

Pit bulls are often misidentified. A 2015 study in The Veterinary Journal found that shelter staff inconsistently identified dogs as pit bulls. One in five dogs with genetic pit bull heritage were missed by shelter staff, and one in three dogs labeled as pit bulls were found not to have any pit bull DNA. Not even doggie experts can reliably identify pit bulls based on looks, so it stands to reason that the general public is unprepared to determine whether or not a dog shares pit bull heritage.

None of this is to say pit bulls are harmless. Pit bulls and other large dogs have a greater potential for harm than smaller dogs. But the data on pit bulls are often greatly exaggerated. Reports of pit bull bites rarely consider the size of the pit bull population in a given area. This means we cannot know if pit bulls are more likely to cause injurious bites or if they simply comprise a greater proportion of the population.

Furthermore, almost all the data we have is on dog bites that require medical treatment. Because pit bulls are bigger, they might be less likely to bite than other dogs but more likely to cause serious harm when they do bite. And since not even shelter staff can reliably identify pit bulls on looks alone, it is very likely that bite victims in the ER might misidentify the aggressor as a pit bull.

The science says that breed plays very little role in determining a dog’s behavior. “Only 5 percent of the breed-behavior combinations were significantly linked, compared to about 40 percent for breed-appearance linkages.” Rather, we should look to other factors, like in what environment a dog grew up.

How do you train a dog not to bite?

Thankfully, there are a number of steps you can take to help prevent your dog from acting out. Building and maintaining your pup’s trust is the key to a well-behaved dog.

As mentioned earlier, the type of training you do matters a lot. There are two types of training: positive reinforcement/negative punishment and positive punishment/negative reinforcement. The second category includes things like electric collars, tugging on your dog’s leash, or verbal and physical punishment. These all increase the chance of a dog reacting aggressively.

You should train with positive reinforcement/negative punishment methods. Positive reinforcement is giving your dogs treats, petting them, or giving verbal praise. Negative punishments include ignoring your dog, giving them a time out, or withholding treats. Be patient with your dog and try not to react emotionally when they inevitably break the rules.

If your dog is already a big nibbler, there are still steps you can take. Your dog should have toys that are easily distinguishable from items they shouldn’t be chewing on. If your dog wants to chew your hand, give them a toy instead. If your dog is doing something it shouldn’t, distract them with a treat instead of chasing or scolding them.

Conclusion

Dog bites can be scary. Thankfully, the vast majority of dog bites are minor and do not require medical attention. Fatal dog bites are extremely rare—rarer than fatal lightning strikes. While we often fear dog bites from stranger dogs, a family dog or neighbor’s dog is more often than not the perpetrator. We may harbor stereotypes about which dogs are aggressive, but the truth is that any dog, even a very friendly one, may act out in a stressful situation, and its breed plays little to no role in the matter.

Canine safety education is essential. Kids are most at risk for dog bite injuries as they are not yet mature enough to fully understand a dog’s emotional cues. Make sure you supervise your children and teach them how to interact with pets safely.

It can be challenging to remain calm when what should be man’s best friend is no longer so friendly. Luckily, the next time you encounter a dog acting out, you’ll have a toolbox of facts to help you.

Tyler Kupcho
Author: Tyler Kupcho

Animal lover, proud husky parent. Writing Intern at DogFriendly.com

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