More than 30 people died from dog bite injuries last year in the United States. Although fatalities are rare, more than a half-million people a year, mostly children, require hospital treatment for dog bites, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. And thousands were less serious and unreported. "It's very important for parents to teach children how to behave around dogs without frightening them," says Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the Animal Behavior Center for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "Part of it is teaching the child appropriate behaviors around dogs, and also teaching the child what to look for, what to watch for, interpreting the body language. That's a little more difficult."
Reading a dog
Most dogs will give a warning signal, or signals, before biting. But they can be very subtle. Sometimes they're obvious, like a snarl, bared teeth and growl. Sometimes it's just a tenseness in the face or a sideways glance that indicates a dog is stressed. And a stressed dog can bite just like a vicious one.
Some indicators of trouble are a dog's eyes (larger- or smaller-than-normal eyes can indicate stress, excitement, fear or a feeling of being threatened); its mouth (a closed mouth may indicate stress; a dog's lips can telegraph its intentions); ears (erect, forward-pointing ears can mean a dog is being attentive or contemplating an attack, while ears back, flattened, may indicate fear or submissiveness); and tail (wagging doesn't always mean it is happy).
The ASPCA offers a lengthy lesson in dogs' body language, complete with helpful photographs, at aspca.org (type "canine body language" in the search field).
Things to remember
• Avoid making eye contact with a dog.
• Never disturb a dog that's sleeping or eating, or a dog that has puppies.
• Don't pet a dog unless it sniffs you first; present a closed hand, and let the dog check you out.
• When you do pet it, gently rub the shoulder or chest, not the top of the head.
• If approached by a strange dog, stand still and let it sniff you. When the dog is satisfied and loses interest, slowly walk away — don't run or scream.
• If the dog is aggressive and begins chasing you, put something between you and the dog — a backpack or a jacket, for example. Let the dog have it while you carefully escape.
• Children should never approach a strange dog or play with any dog unless an adult is present. If knocked over by a dog, a child should pull himself into a ball and remain motionless.
If you're bitten
Wash a wound with soap and water. If it's a serious bite, get medical attention. Report the incident to animal control. Don't try to catch the dog. Because the vast majority of victims are bitten by dogs they know, dogs are usually easy to track down. If it is a strange dog, call in the report immediately. (Report any strange dog roaming in a neighborhood before they have a chance to bite somebody.)