Thursday, August 20, 2009

Husbandry: Man’s Best Friend Can Bite

Most people are much more concerned about the potential for wildlife attacks than for dog bites. From Kansas to California, folks worry about mountain lions while the number of attacks in North America only amount to about five per year, with perhaps one fatality. In contrast, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates U.S. dog bites totaled about 4.7 million human victims last year. More than 800,000 of the victims required medical attention, about 30,000 needed reconstructive surgery and at least a dozen died.

“If you know much about animals, you could guess some of the CDC’s other statistics,” says Kansas state wildlife specialist Charlie Lee “The most likely victims are fairly small, curious and lacking in judgment – in other words, children up to 9 years old. Biting victims also are more likely to be male than female. And, their attacker is likely to be a family dog that’s out in its own yard.”

Lee believes the number of dog bites cloud be sharply reduced if people did a more thorough job of preparing children for being around dogs, as well as selecting and training their household pet.

Little children have to learn that a living pet is not the same as a stuffed animal or cartoon dog. They must learn what “be nice” means, while also discovering they can hit, poke, scream, pull, kick, bite and squeeze. So, leaving a baby or toddler alone with a dog is asking for trouble, no matter how gentle the pet may seem.

Parents have to judge when children are ready and mature enough to learn how to interact with dogs. Children who are apprehensive or afraid of dogs may need more time

On some level, even well-trained dogs are always judging human actions in terms of fight or flight (predator or prey). A dog may feel threatened if a child suddenly runs up and tries to pet it. The same dog may give chase if a child yells and runs away.

“Parents need to spend time with their child in interactions with an array of dogs. Their goal should be to build the child’s skills and comfort level, letting the child set the pace,” Lee said.

He recommends starting by taking the child for a stroll where owners will be walking their dogs on a leash. Then, coach the child through three steps: Ask the owner’s permission to pet the dog. If allowed, approach the dog slowly, with hands at sides. Then ask the dog’s permission by holding out one hand to be sniffed.

A fully accepting dog will respond by licking the hand. Fast tail-wagging can be a positive sign, too.

All canines tend to use the same hostile signals: Intent stare. Tense body, perhaps with neck raised and/or head lowered. Grimace or lifted lip to show sharp teeth. Raised hackles (upright hair on neck and back). Growls or fierce barking. Tense tail – which may actually wag, but slowly.

If a dog attacks, the best response is often a calm, stern “NO!” while offering anything else the dog could bite and shake –sweater, backpack, shoe. If knocked down, however, people should roll into a ball, cover their ears with their hands (which also provides elbow protection for the face), and lie as still as a rock. Then, when the dog has wandered off, they should report it immediately.

“Ideally, children will be self-confident, comfortable around dogs before parents get to the lesson about ‘What if the worst happens?’” Lee says. “With lots of positive exposures to dogs under their belt, they’ll be better able to understand that people cause most dog attacks, and they’re not going to be one of those people. But, they’ll be prepared, just in case.”

Avoiding Dog Bites

Dogs tend to guard things they “own.” And, they don’t like to be caught off-guard -- surprised. To avoid bites...
  • Don’t reach through a fence to pet a dog.
  • Leave dogs alone if they’re tied, chained, penned or solo in a car. Even if their situation isn’t a sign that they’re wild or aggressive, the dogs are quite likely to feel protective of their space.
  • Don’t sneak up to or disturb a dog that’s eating, sleeping, chewing on a toy, or caring for puppies. Avoid causing pain, even in play.
  • Avoid any free-roaming dog that you don’t know. If one approaches you, stand very still and avoid direct eye contact by looking at your shoes. Then, when it loses interest, slowly back away, never turning your back on the dog until you’re safely away.
Sources: Centers for Disease Control
Kansas Research and Extension

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