"Safety begins with understanding dogs and educating people," a sage quote from Victoria Stilwell at the National Dog Bite Investigation, Treatment and Prevention conference I recently attended in Atlanta.
In the past 16 years, the number of hospital admissions due to dog bites has doubled. An overwhelming majority of these are children ages 3-9 years old.
Where there is a child, there needs to be an adult. Supervision of children and dogs at all times is critical. Very young children do not have the ability to make sound decisions about approaching or touching a dog any more than they can understand not to stick their hand in an electric socket or run into the street. If a parent cannot directly supervise a child/dog interaction, the safest alternative is to simply physically separate the child and dog into different rooms with a closed door.
Most of the bites reported come from the family dog or a dog the person knows. Why? Because the elegant language of dogs needs to be learned by the humans who surround them. If a dog walks away from a situation, it is a clear sign that they have had enough. Dogs should always be allowed to leave a situation they are uncomfortable with and should always be given a clear and safe "escape route." When dogs lick their lips and they are not at a dinner bowl, pant heavily without being hot or having exercised, yawn when they are not tired, they are stressed and are trying to calm themselves down. Other signs of stress include an overall tense body, tail between the legs, ears flat against the head, the whites of their eyes showing, stress lines around the muzzle and a very tight mouth. If a dog is showing any of these signs, please immediately give her/him a quiet, secluded space away from children or whatever is causing them stress.
Children should also be taught not to approach, grab or hug a dog they do not know. In fact, it is not enough to ask the dog's owner if they may pet the dog. Instead, at a distance, they need to invite the dog to them. If the dog does not want to come over to the child, his/her decision must be accepted. Never force a dog to come to a child just to "be friendly" or because the parent thinks their child "is good with dogs."
When approached by a dog they do not know, children need to be taught to be quiet, fold their arms in and look at the ground. Running around or from dogs can stimulate the canine chase instinct. Again, two adults should theoretically be around. At least one for the dog and one for the child.
Safety involves supervision and education. Working together, we can all decrease the tragic incidences of dog bites.
Louisa Morrissey is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and owner of Skijor-n-More. She is also a professional member of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers and a licensed Victoria Stilwell Positively Dog Trainer. www.skijornmore.com