Dog bites: It may not be them, it could be you

It's possible that dogs are more likely to bite people who have nervous or anxious personalities, a new study suggests.

A person's personality or response could influence canine behaviour

New research suggests that a person's personality can influence the likelihood of being bitten by a dog. (Shutterstock)

Having a nervous personality could boost your chances of being bitten by a dog.

Results from a recent survey compiled by the University of Liverpool show that those who scored as being more "emotionally stable" on a personality test were less likely to be bitten by a dog.

The research could have consequences for anyone who has ever cowered in the presence of a dog, even if they may not be able to control their emotional responses enough to avoid being bitten. 

Experts say that although a dog's reason for becoming excited or upset may be hard to pinpoint, the actions that follow will most likely depend on how a person responds to the animal.

While a nervous person would be bitten, a confident person wouldn't. 

"So why's that?" said Julie Speyer, a certified dog behaviour consultant in Toronto. "Well, the nervous one probably gave cues causing the dog to escalate."

Sudden body movements, high-pitched voices and even the hormones people release can distress a dog. (Shutterstock)

Cues can be all sorts of things an anxious person might do in an uncomfortable situation. Sudden body movements, high-pitched voices and even the hormones we release when we're nervous can distress dogs. Speyer says they can hear a human's heart change pace, causing them to think something is wrong simply because something has changed.

People who are prone to emotionally unstable tendencies are more likely to give off these triggers.

"There are different reasons why dogs can get into that state, but once they become highly agitated, any sudden movement and sound can cause them to go from the defensive to the offensive. And we find that those personality types tend to make those movements [that] cause dogs to make that switch," Speyer said.

Social cues

Dog owners have long stood by the theory that the animals pick up on social cues and human emotion.

She could sense I was nervous.- Tanner Young-Shultz

Tanner Young-Shultz of Toronto owns a golden retriever/Great Pyrenees named Riley whom he says is extremely sweet-tempered.

But two months ago, when he took her to the vet to get fixed, she became aggressive with other dogs in the waiting area.

Young-Shultz recalled being quite anxious before Riley's procedure and attributes her out-of-character behaviour to his own feelings.

"She could sense I was nervous. She didn't know what was going on, but she definitely knew something was up," Young-Shultz said.

Tanner Young-Schultz says his dog Riley is almost always good-tempered, but he has seen her act out with aggression that he attributes to his own feelings. (Tanner Young-Shultz)

Past studies on dog bites are mostly limited to hospital records, which only track serious incidents. This new study aimed to get a better understanding of dog bite incidents, whether those who were bitten were admitted to hospital or not. The study surveyed 694 people in northern England. 

The survey included dog ownership and bite history, demographics, health and a personality test.

Dr. Carri Westgarth, the lead author of the study, believes this data could lead to fewer dog bites.

"The link to personality could be useful here. It may be a good use of resources, if found to be true, to target dog bite prevention programs towards people that are more likely to be bitten," says Westgarth, a researcher at the Institute of Infection and Global Health at the University of Liverpool..

The study is published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.