Some things never change; sadly, one of those things is people being bitten by dogs. It’s such a perennial problem that the American Veterinary Medical Association devotes a week each and every year to educating people on how to prevent dog bites. It’s a topic that intrigues me, because I’m observing dog/owner interactions day in and day out at my job. Unfortunately, some of the people who’d consider themselves most knowledgeable about dogs are unaware of their potential for genuine harm.

What impact do dog bites really have? Well, it’s a rather heavy burden on the person who is bitten. Most bite injuries are inflicted to the face and hands, where even brief contact can cause permanent disfigurement, loss of vision, or impairment of fine motor skills. The monetary cost and need for specialist input is also quite high for repairing these delicate parts of the body. A majority of bite victims are children, who are more vulnerable to permanent psychological impact. Many of those kids grow up to be adults who suffer from a fear of (all) dogs and reluctance to interact with or own one.

Dog bites are traumatic for the animal, too! These injuries are not inflicted by roving packs of feral canines, but by a beloved—and often sensitive—family pet. Faced with a situation that has caused him to momentarily lose his composure, the dog lashes out. Suddenly, all hell breaks loose. At the very least there will be crying, yelling, some version of confinement and/or corporal punishment. It’s even possible to be moved to a backyard kennel or, worse still, rehomed for such an infraction. Humans are really pretty good at holding grudges.

A third party to suffer after these events unfold is the owner of the pet. This person is held responsible for the actions of their dog, even though that is not entirely reasonable. The sad fact is that very few friendships can withstand a dog bite: tensions mount, hard feelings abound, and grudges are settled into place. Lawsuits and guilt trips may be deployed. Furthermore, the dog owner has just witnessed a side of their pet they’d never previously seen or suspected, a tiny violent streak in their heretofore totally trustworthy companion. That in itself is injurious to the human/animal bond.

“Any Dog Can Bite” is the theme of the 2024 dog-bite education campaign, because this scenario plays out over 4.5 million times each year (in the United States alone), and the perpetrators are virtually all regular family dogs that come from good homes. Pets don’t bite people because they enjoy doing that; they do it because they are confused, insecure, or frightened, misinterpreting body language, or growing overenthusiastic with their play. It is most often not a faulty dog that bites but a poorly planned situation that has set the stage for a split-second lapse in judgment. The consequences, however, can last a lifetime. Many dog owners seem to think this is someone else’s problem, but it is truly the responsibility of each and every one of us.

Dr M.S. Regan