The third full week in May is set aside as National Dog Bite Prevention week, sponsored by the United States Postal Service and the American Veterinary Medical Association in partnership with Doggone Safe, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to dog bite prevention through education.
So, what will YOU do this week to prevent a dog bite?
A good start for any time of the year is to pay attention to body language – theirs and ours – so we can consciously choose peaceful, respectful interactions with our best friends.
There is no reason anyone should be surprised by a dog bite. Dogs bite as a last resort and they telegraph their growing unease every step of the way. Dogs don’t “turn Cujo” or bite out of the blue. It can seem that way only if we did not pay attention to the clear, “Please leave me alone” signals and/or we did not take into account how our own actions may be perceived as confrontational or threatening.
As a general rule, dogs do not want to be touched when they are on alert or focused on something else. In practical terms, do not reach out to touch a dog that is not looking at you.
Assuming the dog is voluntarily looking at you, now look at the dog’s body. It’s a heads-up that maybe the dog doesn’t want to be touched if you see some combination of: tail tucked, cowering, backing away, a very still, almost frozen body, whites of the dog’s eye in a “crescent moon” shape, ears held back, or a tight, closed mouth. Interestingly, a wagging tail does not override any of these signs. See previous body language post for illustrations.
Still look OK? The final check is to see if the dog wants to come to you; it’s neither safe nor polite to reach into a dog’s personal space without invitation (yet we do it all the time, don’t we?).
Instead, use your own body language to communicate your good intentions. Turn your head to the side and yawn or even lick your lips. Crouch with your side facing the dog and hold your hand towards the ground as if you were examining something interesting. Glance at the dog and then look away again. Smile! Speak in an inviting tone of voice.
When the dog comes close, pet only on the side closest to you. Do not reach over the dog. You’ll be surprised at how quickly dogs want to make friends with someone as savvy as you are!
When it comes to children, especially those under five years old, there can never be too many reminders. Doggone Safe offers an easy catchphrase, “Pet only happy dogs.” Too often, photos of children and dogs show happy kids but worried or nervous dogs.
Make a point to look for body language clues: happy dogs approach easily, usually with an open mouth and a tail that wags even or low or maybe in a circle; they look at who they are interacting with and they remain attentive to their owners.
Allow children to touch only those friendly dogs who “volunteer” for contact by coming over to the child. One hand at a time and touch only the body part that can be reached while the child’s elbow is in contact with his or her own body. Children should never, ever “close the gap” and approach into a dog’s three feet of personal space, even with their own family dog or a dog they know well. It must always be the DOG’s choice to come close to accept the contact.
The supervising adult must have a hand on the child and a hand on the dog during any interaction, and, no matter what, children should never pick up or hug or kiss dogs. Dogs just don’t like it.
If dogs could talk in words, they would say, “Our bodies tell you everything you need to know. Look and see. We do not want to bite – help us feel safe with you.”
Local here in the San Diego area, the Helen Woodward Animal Center offers a unique one-on-one program for children and adults alike to learn about canine body language and acquire the knowledge and coping skills to feel comfortable in real-life dog situations. This program is designed for anyone wishing to overcome a fear of dogs. Call (858) 756-4117, Ext. 318 and ask about the DogSmart program.