How to assess the severity of a dog bite

I had a new client yesterday that was very upset because their 5-year-old dog bit their one-year-old baby in the face. My client felt terrible because in hindsight she understands that the situation could have been avoided. The dog is a little shy to begin with, and he got cornered in the bathroom by the energetic baby. The baby ignored the signals of discomfort exhibited by the dog and approached anyway. The dog bit the baby in the face causing bruising, but no blood, tearing or puncture wounds.

Most adults would know better and would have stopped approaching, but children often don't understand dog signals and that is why they get bitten more than adults.

If you want to learn more about dog bites, you can read a fascinating book by Janis Bradley, one of my instructors at the Academy for Dog Trainers. Called Dogs Bite: But Slippers and Balloons are More Dangerous, this book tackles the fascinating topic of how overblown the hype is about dog bites. In the summary, it talks about the relative infrequency of dog bites versus other injuries: "A child is more likely to die choking on a marble or a balloon, and an adult is more likely to die in a bedroom slipper related accident."

When I interviewed my client about the facial bite I knew that the severity of the bite, while scary, was on the lower end of the severity spectrum. How did I know this? I follow Dr. Ian Dunbar's bite assessment criteria when assessing a dog bite.

  1. Level 1- Dog growls, lunges, snarls-no teeth touch skin. Mostly intimidation behavior.
  2. Level 2- Teeth touch skin but no puncture. May have red mark/minor bruise from dog’s head or snout, may have minor scratches from paws/nails. Minor surface abrasions acceptable.
  3. Level 3- Punctures ½ the length of a canine tooth, one to four holes, single bite.No tearing or slashes.Victim not shaken side to side. Bruising.
  4. Level 4- One to four holes from a single bite, one hole deeper than ½ the length of a canine tooth, typically contact/punctures from more than canines only. Black bruising, tears and/or slashing wounds. Dog clamped down and shook or slashed victim.
  5. Level 5- Multiple bites at Level 4 or above. A concerted, repeated attack.
  6. Level 6- Any bite resulting in death of a human.

So, let's look at my new client's dog bite and assess the severity. Since there was bruising, but no puncture wounds, the bite can be categorized as a Level 2 bite. You might find it interesting that a growl or "air snap" with no contact is actually considered an act of aggression in Dr. Dunbar's chart. One reason for this being included in the bite chart is that, if left untreated, this behavior often escalates into more obvious aggression. So, it appears on the aggression radar screen because it means that something in the environment is causing the dog to react defensively and has to be addressed.

There are many reasons why I took the case and was very optimistic about the chances for success:

  1. This was the first and only bite to the child
  2. It was a Level 2 bite
  3. My clients are very willing to work to address the situation
  4. My clients realize that they need to be more proactive to keep their dog and baby comfortable and this situation could have been avoided

Thankfully most of my client calls fall into the Level 2 or 3 categories. I have worked with Level 4 dogs, but the chances for rehabiliation get lower as the severity climbs.

I make my decision whether to take a case based on the willingness of the client to be rock-solid with management and positive reinforcement treatment, the history and number of dog bites, and the history of the dog's socialization and background. The worst situation is an older dog that doesn't show signals such as growling or snarling, newly adopted from the shelter without any history that has put multiple people in the hospital. The chances of success working with that dog are very low.
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Comments 4

Super User on Sunday, 17 February 2013 09:24

i just bought 1year old dog while playint with him i got a level 2 bite from him...it had no bleeding but a little blood clouting afer some time like a scratch ..little swelling as usual with very light pain...my dog is healthy now after 20 days of bite i avoided treatment for that but now i am fearing of infection please help me here...

i just bought 1year old dog while playint with him i got a level 2 bite from him...it had no bleeding but a little blood clouting afer some time like a scratch ..little swelling as usual with very light pain...my dog is healthy now after 20 days of bite i avoided treatment for that but now i am fearing of infection please help me here...
Jeff Millman on Saturday, 02 March 2013 06:00

I am not sure what you are asking. If you are asking about your health, that is a question for a medical doctor. If you are asking about your dog's behavior, please provide more specifics, and a question. Thanks, and good luck with your wound.

I am not sure what you are asking. If you are asking about your health, that is a question for a medical doctor. If you are asking about your dog's behavior, please provide more specifics, and a question. Thanks, and good luck with your wound.
Ron Husband on Tuesday, 05 August 2014 17:29

We have a 2 year old Lab mix who is very affectionate and sometimes demanding for attention. We adopted him at about 10 or 11 months as a stray that was kept at the horse stable we use. Recently, he snapped and bit with one small puncture mark my 2-1/2 granddaughter who was playing with him near the dinner where he was foraging for anything that fell from the table. We were shocked and broken-hearted. We called the dog trainer whose obedience classes we had taken him to and she said that we needed to strictly enforce boundaries for at least 5 weeks such as no getting on the couch and no sleeping in the bedroom, etc. Things were going very well until a friend of the family stopped by our vacation home and got out of the car. The dog then proceeded bit him on the knee causing a shallow brushburn like wound. We are now confronted with what to do with him. He's great with us, but with strangers and small children not so good. We are going to get the trainer 9nvolved again and continue our efforts at setting boundaries. Does anyone have any suggestions?

We have a 2 year old Lab mix who is very affectionate and sometimes demanding for attention. We adopted him at about 10 or 11 months as a stray that was kept at the horse stable we use. Recently, he snapped and bit with one small puncture mark my 2-1/2 granddaughter who was playing with him near the dinner where he was foraging for anything that fell from the table. We were shocked and broken-hearted. We called the dog trainer whose obedience classes we had taken him to and she said that we needed to strictly enforce boundaries for at least 5 weeks such as no getting on the couch and no sleeping in the bedroom, etc. Things were going very well until a friend of the family stopped by our vacation home and got out of the car. The dog then proceeded bit him on the knee causing a shallow brushburn like wound. We are now confronted with what to do with him. He's great with us, but with strangers and small children not so good. We are going to get the trainer 9nvolved again and continue our efforts at setting boundaries. Does anyone have any suggestions?
Jeff Millman on Thursday, 07 August 2014 04:58

Hi Ron, sorry this happened. Boundaries can help manage the situation, but will not help with the root cause of the anxiety which led to the aggression. You need to practice three strategies:

Identify triggers and desensitize your dog to each trigger.

Manage your dog when you can’t train.

Provide adequate mental and physical exercise.

I recommend finding a skilled positive reinforcement trainer well versed in desensitization and counter conditioning and stay away from anyone that recommends choke chains, shock collars or prong collars or talks about dominance or pack theory.

The trainer you are working with might be this trainer, but do your research.

It might be a workable situation with the proper work and managing him much better to prevent another incident.

Good luck.

Hi Ron, sorry this happened. Boundaries can help manage the situation, but will not help with the root cause of the anxiety which led to the aggression. You need to practice three strategies: Identify triggers and desensitize your dog to each trigger. Manage your dog when you can’t train. Provide adequate mental and physical exercise. I recommend finding a skilled positive reinforcement trainer well versed in desensitization and counter conditioning and stay away from anyone that recommends choke chains, shock collars or prong collars or talks about dominance or pack theory. The trainer you are working with might be this trainer, but do your research. It might be a workable situation with the proper work and managing him much better to prevent another incident. Good luck.
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