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Dog Tip: Avoiding Dog Bites

By Robin Tierney

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Any dog can bite. And there are more than 4.7 million dog bite victims a year to prove it. To raise awareness of this serious problem, May 16-22 has been designated National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

Most bite incidents stem from irresponsibility and ignorance on the part of dog owners. The owners haven't properly socialized the dogs to other people...don't adequately supervise the dogs...let dogs off leash...fail to sterilize their dogs... neglect their dogs...and some even abuse the dogs. Many dogs bite because their current or former owners encouraged aggression behavior--unwittingly or deliberately.

From 500,000 to 1 million dog bite victims require medical attention each year in the U.S. Countless more go unreported. On average, a dozen people die each year from dog bites.

Children make up more than 60 percent of all dog bite victims. The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates half of all children 12 and younger have been bitten by a dog. The elderly, mail carriers and meter readers also are high on the list of frequent dog bite victims.

Owners of dogs who attack can be subject to civil and criminal liability for their pet's behavior. Insurance companies paid an estimated $250 million in dog bite liability claims in 1996, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Most dog bites can be prevented through responsible dog ownership and practicing safe behavior around dogs.

Steps you can take to prevent your dog from biting:

Neuter/spay your dog. Studies show an unneutered dog is more than three times as likely to be involved in an attack.

Socialize your dog. Start when he is a young puppy, so he feels at ease with other people and animals. Expose your dog to a variety of situations gradually and under controlled circumstances. Be cautious; don't put your dog in a position where he feels threatened. Teach him to not be nervous in these situations.

Train your dog. Teach the basic commands "sit," "stay," "no" and "come" to build a bond of obedience and trust. Plus obedience class is a good way to socialize your dog. Make sure every member of your household learns and then practices the same training techniques -- and participate in the dog's education. Only you can help your dog learn to behave.

Don't play aggressive games. No wrestling or tug-of-war with your dog.

Keep your dog healthy. Have your dog vaccinated against rabies and other diseases. Also, parasite control is key to how your dog feels and behaves.

Be alert. Know your dog. Watch for signs your dog is uncomfortable or feeling aggressive.

Keep your dog on-leash.

Spend time with your dog. Dogs are social animals. Those frequently left alone have a greater tendency to develop behavior problems.

Realize that any dog can bite. Although genetics play some part in determining whether a dog will bite, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) emphasizes that factors such as whether the dog is neutered or spayed, properly socialized, supervised, humanely trained and safely confined play a significantly greater role. The HSUS notes that the most effective dangerous dog laws are those that place the legal responsibility for a dog's actions on the dog's owner rather than on the dog.

Tips to avoid getting bitten:

* Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog. * Teach children - including toddlers - to be careful around pets. Children must be taught NOT to approach strange dogs - and to ask permission from a dog's owner before petting a dog. * Never disturb a dog that's caring for puppies, sleeping or eating. * Keep watch for potentially dangerous situations. * Don't run past a dog. Dogs naturally love to chase and catch things. Don't give them a reason to become excited or aggressive. * If a dog approaches to sniff you, stay still. In most cases, the dog will go away when it determines you're not a threat. * If you're threatened by a dog, remain calm. If you say anything, speak calmly and firmly. Avoid eye contact. Try to stay still until the dog leaves, or back away slowly until the dog is out of sight. Don't turn and run. * If you fall or are knocked to the ground, curl into a ball with your hands over your head and neck. Protect your face. * If someone else's dog bit you, contact authorities and tell them everything you can about the dog and the owner. These details may help animal control locate the dog.

What to do if your dog bites someone: Even if the bite was provoked, take responsibility for your dog's actions by taking these steps:

* Restrain the dog immediately. Separate him from the scene of the attack, then confine him.

* Check on the victim's condition. Wash wounds with soap and water. Get the victim to a doctor; call 911 if needed.

* Provide important information: your name, address, information about your dog's most recent rabies vaccination. (Dogs lacking current rabies vaccinations must be quarantined.)

* Comply with local ordinances and insurance requirements regarding the reporting of dog bites.

* Consult your veterinarian and trainer to help prevent problems in the future.

Suggestion: Have a veterinarian or animal behaviorist give a presentation to the community at a local school, library or workplace.

For Dog Bite Prevention materials for children and adult, contact: * Humane Society of the U.S. 202-452-1100 or www.hsus.org * AVMA (847) 925-8070, extension 275 or www.avma.org * For free dog bite brochures, posters and the activity/coloring book, "Fido! Friend or Foe?" contact State Farm Insurance Companies at (309) 766-8188 or via the web: http://www.statefarm.com/kidstuf/dogbite.htm

Sources include: Humane Society of the United States, State Farm Insurance and the AVMA.