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Some tips on ways to avoid dog bites
Summer is here and the weather is great. What a great time to take a walk with or without our dogs. Of course while we are out many people will wish to pet our dogs. Or, we may see someone else out on a walk with their dog. When is it OK to pet other dogs and when should we be cautious?
I recently returned from a veterinary conference and while I was there decided to attend a lecture by a prominent veterinary behaviorist (pet psychologist) on dog bites and how to avoid them.
The veterinarian started the lecture with some stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on dog bites. These stats shocked me. According to the CDC there are approximately 4.7 million dog bites that occur every year, or approximately one bite per 40 seconds. Fifty percent of the bites occur in persons less than 20 years of age and 65 percent of facial bites occur in children under the age of 10 years of age. How can we avoid these bites? Or, more accurately, how can we teach our younger children and neighbors to avoid situations that can lead to bites?
Along with these statistics the lecturer went on to report that many, or even most of these bites, are the result of fear aggression and not other types of aggression. Other types of aggression include territorial aggression, food aggression and dominance aggression.
Territorial aggression is pretty straight forward in the concept that certain dogs have an instinctive need to protect their territory — not only from all four-legged intruders, but also two-legged ones. Dominance aggression is a little trickier and many times dominance aggression and fear aggression can be confused by the untrained observer. Unfortunately, the untrained observer could also get a serious bite because of this confusion or miscalculation. Fear aggression is when a dog misinterprets a friendly or benign gesture as an act of aggression and feels the need to protect itself. This is what we most commonly see.
The most important point of this article is to avoid a dog bite from an unknown dog or newly encountered dog. Here are some hints to help. As a disclaimer, these hints or tips are very general in nature and do not cover every situation but I hope to give some general knowledge to make every encounter a little safer.
• Asking if you can pet the dog sounds pretty much like common sense but many times our emotions take over and we want to run up and hug every cute dog. Unfortunately, not every cute dog has the same personality to go with its looks. So, ask the owner first. This is especially good advice for children.
• Use a higher-pitched voice when speaking to the animal. Although a high-pitched voice sounds a little goofy when talking to each other, it actually puts dogs at ease. When dogs communicate with each other they will use a higher-pitched growl or whine than when they are giving a warning. It will put the dog more at ease.
• Approach from the side of the animal. Approaching directly from the front or back is a potential challenge to a dog. When dogs are approaching each other in a nonthreatening manner they do it from the side. So if the dog does not approach you first approach from the side or slightly off-angle. This is also good advice for children.
• Hold out an open hand or closed fist under the dog's chin. Although once a dog gets to know you I'm sure he or she would love a gentle tap on the head or scratch behind the ears, when you first meet a dog this is not a good idea. To do this is an act of aggression or challenge and, if the dog does not know you, you could get an unexpected (and unwanted) response. Therefore, let the dog sniff your hand and start by scratching under the chin gently before attempting to pet on top of the head. If the dog backs away when you try to pet the head, they don't trust you enough just yet. Back off and start over.
These are a few tips to keep our walks safe and friendly. No one wants to end up in the emergency room.
Dr. Kearns has been in practice for 14 years and is pictured with his son, Matthew, his dog, Jasmine, and his cat, The One Eyed Guy.