Every fall as kids go back to school, we like to remind everyone of the importance of teaching youngsters how to be safe around dogs. And while children are 10 times more likely to be hurt in organized sports than be bitten by a dog, you can minimize the risk of the latter.
The experts say the signs are usually there long before a dog attacks. The dog is typically young, male and unneutered. He is usually unsocialized – a backyard dog with little to no interaction with the family. He is often inadvertently conditioned to be vicious by being kept full-time on a chain or in a small kennel run. While people are wary – unfairly so, in many cases – of breeds with bad reputations, it's important to remember that all breeds and mixes can and do bite.
That's why you have to make sure your children know how to behave around dogs to protect themselves. Here's what everyone should know, and what parents need to teach their children:
Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs who are confined in yards, and especially dogs on chains, should also be avoided. Many are very serious about protecting their turf. If the dog is with his owner, children should always ask permission before petting him and then begin by offering him the back of a hand for a sniff. Further, they should pat the dog on the neck or chest. The dog may interpret a pat on the head as a challenging gesture. Teach your children to avoid fast or jerky movements around dogs, since these may trigger predatory behavior.
"Be a tree" when a dog approaches, standing straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest. Teach your children to make no eye contact, since some dogs view eye contact as a challenge. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible thing to do around a dog, because it can trigger the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs will just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then back away slowly out of the area.
"Feed" the dog a jacket or backpack if attacked, or use a bike to block the dog. These strategies may keep an attacking dog's teeth from connecting with flesh.
Act like a log if knocked down: face down, legs together, curled into a ball with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal. Role-play these lessons with your child until they are ingrained. They may save your child's life.
Discuss safe behavior with your children and role-play how to approach dogs, when not to approach, and what to do if confronted or attacked. You don't need to scare your children, but you do need to make sure they're ready, just in case. And going over the "what-ifs" isn't a bad idea for you as well, especially if you enjoy outdoor activities such as jogging or biking.
What if the dog you're worried about is in your own home? Ask your veterinarian for a referral to a veterinary behaviorist sooner rather than later. Aggression doesn't go away on its own: Someone will get hurt, and your dog will likely end up euthanized as a result. Don't take a chance: Get help before someone gets hurt.