Several million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, causing hundreds of thousands of them to go to the emergency room or seek other medical attention. Many more bites go unreported. A dog you know, including your own, is as likely to be the culprit as a stray, and young children are more often the victims.
Certain breeds are known to be more aggressive, and most dog attack fatalities involve small children and large dogs. However, any dog can bite, and the American Veterinary Medical Association and the American Kennel Club do not make distinctions about biting behavior based on breed. Dogs of any breed or size that receive proper training, exercise, food, and attention are not likely to be a danger.
Some basic rules for having a dog:
- Before getting a dog, find out what breeds are most suitable for your household. Then find a reputable source. An animal shelter or rescue organization is a good place to start; many have both purebreds and mixed-breeds available for adoption—and you may be saving a life. If you go to a breeder, visit the facility and ask a lot of questions. Make sure the breeder is raising healthy, companionable dogs and not a running puppy mill; get references. Puppies from pet shops often come from puppy mills and are more likely to have behavior (and other) problems. You can check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints against a store or breeder.
- Neuter your dog. This makes the dog—especially males—less aggressive and less likely to bite and keeps females from attracting aggressive male dogs.
- Socialize and train your dog. Teach puppies (the critical age may be between 3 and 14 weeks) firmly but gently to be friendly—especially to children. Obedience classes are worth the money.
- If you have children, involve them in your dog's training—but always under adult supervision. Teach them how to recognize signs of fear and aggression in your dog. Children should never tease, hit, kick, or play roughly with a dog.
- Never leave an infant or small child alone with a dog. Even a small dog can cause severe injury. Don't assume that any dog, even a gentle-natured one, will take well to a new infant. The motion of wind-up infant swings may also provoke attacks, according to a paper in the Journal of Forensic Science.
- Don't scream or run around your dog—loud noises and quick movements can scare him or her or trigger chasing.
- Don't bother a dog that is eating, ill, or caring for puppies. Wake a dog by calling it rather than touching it. Stay clear of dogfights; never attempt to physically break one up.
- Give your dog opportunity to exercise regularly.
- If your dog shows any signs of aggression, even just nipping, talk to your veterinarian. If it's not a medical problem, you may need the help of a trainer or canine behavior specialist.
- When petting a friendly but unfamiliar dog, approach it slowly from the front or side (not the back) and let it sniff your closed fist first. Never approach a stray dog. Children should never pet unfamiliar dogs without permission and supervision.
- Keep your dog fenced in, obey leash and licensing laws, and keep vaccinations up to date.
For more information: The American Kennel Club's website offers a Canine Good Citizen program (a certification program for dogs that have "good manners"), a free video on dog safety for children, and other information.
Warding off an attack
If you encounter an unleashed dog, especially if it is showing signs of aggression (growling, standing stiff-legged, or with ears back, for example), stand still ("like a tree") and be quiet. Don't make threatening moves and avoid direct eye contact. Running away may provoke the dog's instinct to chase and attack. Once the dog is calmed, wait for him to walk away, then back away slowly.
If the dog continues to approach you, try to assert verbal dominance by saying "no," "sit," or "go home." If you have a jacket or some garment, you can try "feeding" it to him. If the dog attacks, roll up into a ball on the ground, protecting your face.
If a dog bites you, try not to pull back, since that will make the dog hold on and worsen the injury. If the bite breaks the skin, thoroughly cleanse the wound with water, with or without a mild soap. If it's a stray dog, seek medical advice.
Dog repellents (such as Halt), along with devices (such as the Dazer) that emit high-frequency sound waves audible only to dogs, can help prevent an attack. Or you can arm yourself with a water pistol or pop-open umbrella.
See also: Wound Care Essentials