On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

National Dog Bite Prevention Week: Avoiding the Attack

A child with a Shiloh Shepherd Dog. By Tina Barber.

Image via Wikipedia

In our Monday post on National Dog Bite Prevention Week we looked at some harrowing statistics on how frequently serious attacks by dogs occur in the United States. What, then, can be done to prevent such attacks?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider dog bites to be a major public health issue, especially for small children, the most frequent victims of serious injuries inflicted by dogs. They offer the following tips to reduce the likelihood of such attacks occurring.

For parents or other adults considering bringing a dog into their home:

  • Do the research and pick a dog suitable to your household. Each dog is an individual just like each human is an individual, and it should not be assumed that all dogs coming from a so-called “aggressive” breed will have issues with aggression. However, dog breeds have been developed by man over thousands of years to fill certain roles and fulfill specific functions. If you have a house or neighborhood full of kids, find out which breeds or mixes have been shown to get along well with children. It is also important to choose a dog whose exercise and intellectual requirements you can easily meet; a dog that is pent-up and bored stuck at home all day is more likely to become unhappy and potentially aggressive. The more you learn about the dog going in, the happier you, your family, your neighbors, and your dog will be.
  • No matter how much you’ve studied about the breed or mix, get to know the dog as an individual before you bring him or her into your home. Spend as much time with the dog as possible, and ask his or her caretakers about the dog’s individual personality.
  • Likewise, get to know your child as an individual, and be sensitive to cues that s/he may be apprehensive or fearful around dogs. A child that is afraid of dogs is more likely to be skittish and make sudden movements around the dog, which in turn may frighten the dog and lead to an attack. If your child does not seem ready for a dog, wait until s/he is before you bring one into your home.
  • Get your dog spayed or neutered. A dog whose brain is not controlled by hormones and the drive to find a mate will be calmer, more sociable, easier to train, and all-around better behaved.
  • Never leave your child and dog unattended together, no matter how much you trust both of them.
  • Don’t encourage your dog – or your children – to play aggressively. Avoid games like wrestling or tug-of-war.
  • Do teach your dog submissive behaviors. Learn how to train and properly socialize your dog, or get an expert to do it for you.

For children:

  • Never approach an unfamiliar dog. If one approaches you, stand as still as possible with your arms held close to your body. Avoid direct eye contact.
  • Do not scream or run away. This may trigger the dog’s natural instincts as a predator and cause the dog to chase after you.
  • If you’re knocked down by a dog, roll into a ball with your hands covering your ears. Remain still.
  • Never touch a dog that is eating, sleeping, or guarding something precious, like a toy or a puppy.
  • Never sneak up on a dog. Let the dog see and smell you before touching him. This is a way of asking the dog’s permission. If a dog tries to run away or evade your touch, respect the dog and do not pursue him.

The nonprofit organization Prevent the Bite (PTB) seeks to prevent dog bites to children through classroom education. They advocate the W.A.I.T. approach:

  • WAIT to see if the dog is with her guardian, and if she appears friendly.
  • ASK the guardian if you may pet the dog.
  • INVITE the dog to sniff you.
  • TOUCH the dog gently on the back, never near the face, head, or tail.

PTB also provides coloring pages for children to get to know the differences in body language between a happy dog, an angry dog, and a fearful dog. A happy dog has a soft, relaxed face; the mouth may be open but the upper teeth don’t show; and the tail is low and wagging. An angry dog tries to look bigger: the body is tense and leaned forward, and the hair on the back and neck may be raised; the eyes look directly at you; the face is tense and the teeth may be showing; and the ears are forward and alert. A fearful dog tries to look smaller: the body is tense and low to the ground; the back end is hunched and the tail may be tucked between the legs; the face is tense but the eyes avoid your gaze; and the ears are back. Other signs of a dog which may bite are less obvious: he may lick his lips or yawn when you approach, or he may turn his head away to avoid you. While many dog bites may seem to come “out of nowhere,” all of these signs and signals are a dog’s way of warning you that a bite may be coming. Just because a dog can’t say with words that he doesn’t want to be touched doesn’t mean his own method of communication shouldn’t be observed and respected.

Coming on Friday: a case study. We’ll take a look at one famous dog bite incident caught on tape, and examine the cues and warning signs that the dog exhibited prior to the attack – as well as showing what the victim did wrong.


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