This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and the issue of dog bites is no joke: Experts note that children are the most common bite victims, followed by the elderly and postal workers. "Approximately half of the 800,000 Americans who receive medical attention for dog bites each year are children," said Dr. James Cook, president of the American Veterinary Medical Association. "And when a dog bites a child, the victim's small size makes the bite more likely to result in a severe injury." The following tips can help you keep yourself, your kids and your four-legged friends out of harm's way.
1 A dog's space should be treated with respect. Don't bother or surprise dogs while they're eating, sleeping or caring for puppies. Train children to leave dogs alone in such situations, and also to avoid running past unfamiliar dogs.
2Don't leave a baby or young child alone with any dog, ever. Pediatricians and hospital workers treat far too many children whose parents never imagined that their trusted pet would bite. Little kids can provoke dogs in unexpected ways, and as Marti Ryan of Hillsborough County Animal Services pointed out, you can't interview dogs after the fact to find out what made them snap.
3Shun aggressive play with dogs. Forceful tug-of-war games and other rough play can get dogs far more riled up than you might expect, and in an instant they could cross the line and bite you or a family member. Teasing dogs or making them feel threatened also can lead to trouble.
4Give dogs the training and socialization they need. Puppies and older dogs should be exposed to lots of different people, experiences and sounds so they'll feel secure in myriad situations. By the time a puppy turns 4 months old, he or she should have met at least 100 different people. And the importance of obedience training that emphasizes positive reinforcement can't be emphasized enough.
5Spay or neuter your dog. This step can make your pet less aggressive, less likely to roam and less likely to develop certain kinds of cancer. If money is tight, be aware that your local Humane Society and SPCA offices and animal-control agencies offer discounts on this surgery to people who need the help. To name just one example: Hillsborough County offers a spay/neuter voucher program that helps residents arrange the surgery for just $10.
6Keep your dog healthy, happy and well-loved. A sick, scared, cold, hungry or lost dog will be more likely to bite. If you're going to take on the massive responsibility of having a dog, make sure you can load that animal up with lots of affection and all the health care and food he or she needs.
7Chaining up a dog is a bad idea. Dogs who are chained up for hours on end can become frustrated, scared and aggressive. Their impulse will be to guard the limited territory around them, and this could prompt them to bite. When taking dogs on walks, though, a leash is hugely important for keeping them under control.
8Don't stare a dog down. A dog may view extended, direct eye contact as menacing. Recognize — and teach children — about dog body language that spells trouble: a twitchy tail that may be mistaken for a happy, wagging tail; a shy dog who looks away before lashing out and biting in fear; and a dog whose fur stands up and who emits a low growl that gets louder and louder the closer you get.
9Approach unfamiliar dogs with care. Train children to ask dog owners' permission before approaching any dog. Move toward the dog slowly and allow the dog to sniff you or your child first before any contact occurs. Pet the dog gently and avoid touching the dog's face or tail. Don't let your kids approach or pet stray dogs under any circumstances.
10Know what to do if everything goes wrong. If an aggressive dog challenges you, remember these tricks: Stay still or back away very slowly; avoid direct eye contact; don't attempt to outrun the dog; put a purse, backpack or bike between yourself and the dog; and try to let the dog calm down. If a dog knocks you down, roll up into a ball and cover your face with your arms and fists. If you get bitten, get contact information for the dog's owner and veterinarian so you can check vaccination records later. Clean the bite area with water and soap as fast as you can, and consult a medical professional right away.
Laura T. Coffey can be reached at laura@ tentips.org.
Sources: Hillsborough County Animal Services; American Veterinary Medical Association; U.S. Postal Service; Humane Society of the United States; American Academy of Pediatrics