Though Dog Bite Prevention Week is wrapping up, the idea of preventing bites should not end on a given day.
Each year, more than 800,000 people receive medical attention for dog bites. At least half of them are children, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. While that sounds like a lot of people, it’s small when you consider that there are 70 million dogs in America.
What’s more, according to Dr. Douglas Aspros, past president of the AVMA, most dog bites can be avoided; it’s all about education. To that end, the AVMA continues to partner with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the U.S. Postal Service and the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery to support Dog Bite Prevention Week, May 18 to 24.
“We can significantly reduce the number of dog bites,” says Aspros, based in Pound Ridge, N.Y. (outside New York City). “So many times, people leave young children unsupervised around (what they think are) trustworthy animals.”
This can be asking for trouble. For example, something as innocuous and natural as a hug might prompt a dog or cat to bite, says veterinary behaviorist Dr. Ilana Reisner, of Media, Penn. Dogs and cats don’t naturally express their affection with hugs. While some dogs (or even cats) learn to tolerate or even enjoy hugs as a way to garner human attention, others dislike them. A young child can hurt a small dog or cat by hugging too hard. Of course, very young children might also pull at a pet’s tail or fall over a pet.
“An adult must be supervising,” Reisner stresses. If an animal is, in fact, being hurt, the only way to stop the pain may be to bite.
“Often times, the pet has tried to warn us, and either we don’t understand canine (or feline) body language, or we’re not supervising to see what’s about to happen and put a stop to it,” Aspros says.
The most common explanations for dog bites are related either to fear (perhaps as a result of a lack of socialization) or resource guarding, such as dogs guarding their toys, food or property, Reisner explains.
Prevention is key. If there’s no chance for a child to take away a pet’s food, clearly the pet can’t respond aggressively. Tip: Feed pets behind closed doors. Similarly, if you know your postal carrier comes to the door at a set time, and you’re worried about your dog’s reaction, make sure the pet is indoors at this time. Fortunately, positive reinforcement can help to solve these issues.
“Postal carriers do exactly what it takes to provoke dogs,” says Aspros. “The carrier approaches, and the dog barks and postures on one side of the fence.” Whether it’s a fear-based or guarding behavior doesn’t matter. From the dog’s perspective, all that barking works because soon the postal carrier leaves. Many postal carriers counter this reaction by carrying dog treats. Once they expect a treat, many dogs adjust their attitudes — and now that barking is about excitement!
Just as positive exposure can sway dogs who don’t like postal carriers, it can do the same to boost pets’ opinions of children. Many families get a dog or cat as their first ‘child.’ When the real thing comes along, with no previous positive experience with babies, many pets don’t know what to make of them, Aspros notes.
“They’re loud, smelly and take attention away from them,” says Aspros. “Once they become toddlers, they move fast and unpredictably; for many pets that’s scary.”
Most dog bites occur in the home and to children known by the dog.
When children meet dogs outdoors, caution is equally important. Before allowing your child to pet a strange dog, make sure the youngster asks the handler, “Can I pet?”
“Even if the answer is ‘yes,’ it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the dog’s body language,” Aspros says.
When meeting adults, some dogs just prefer not to interact. “The reality is that not all dogs consider it a good thing to be petted or stroked by people they don’t know,” adds Reisner. “We should respect that.”
Often, dogs who bite have a history of biting, or at the very least acting aggressively. But what about a dog or cat who suddenly and uncharacteristically bites? “That might be about a person who treated a pet harshly,” says Reisner. “Or the explanation might be medical, such as a pet who’s in pain.”
The AVMA offers free handouts and various other resources regarding dog bite prevention. Check https://www.avma.org/public/Pages/Dog-Bite-Prevention.aspx.
©Steve Dale Pet World, LLC; Tribune Content Agency