THE BLOG

A Problem to Sink Our Teeth Into

05/15/2015 04:32 pm ET | Updated May 15, 2016

This week is National Dog Bite Prevention Week, sponsored by a coalition including the United States Postal Service, State Farm Insurance, and the American Veterinary Medical Association. The event is designed to raise awareness of dog bite statistics and help to educate the public on preventing dog bites.

Every year in the U.S., around 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs. According to the AVMA, the most frequent victims of dog bites, in order, are children, the elderly and postal carriers. That 4.5 million figure may seem high, but it represents just under 1.5 percent of the population. According to Karen Delise, author of Fatal Dog Attacks, you're 18 times more likely to be hit by lightning than bitten by a dog.

You and your children are also far less likely to be bitten if you take steps now to prevent it from happening. Here's what you can do:

Take Responsibility

The most important thing we can do is to take responsibility for our own dogs. This means training and socializing them properly, so that they get along with other dogs and people. They should also be trained to be submissive so that humans in the pack are able to take food or toys away from them without issue -- dogs should see any human, not just their own people, as having a higher position in the pack.

Two other important things you can do: Avoid playing aggressive games with your dogs, like tug-of-war. Instead, focus on games like fetch, training your dog to drop the ball in front of you. And, most of all, have your dogs spayed or neutered. This will prevent your female dogs from becoming pregnant -- a nursing mother can become very defensive and aggressive around her pups. This will also keep male dogs from becoming aggressive in general.

Educate Your Children

Children are naturally drawn to animals, particularly dogs, because they're cute and furry. However, children don't understand that it's not a good idea to run right up to a strange dog, which is how a lot of bites happen. They often also don't understand that not all dogs like having their ears or tail pulled, or being grabbed or picked up. Two thirds of all children bitten by dogs were bitten by the family dog, and this is often the reason.

The first thing to teach your children is to never approach a strange dog, even if the dog seems friendly, and especially if the dog is alone. If the dog is with its owner, teach your children to ask permission from a distance to approach and pet the dog, and to not be upset if the owner says "No," because there's probably a good reason for that.

When approaching a strange dog, children (and adults) should practice "No talk, no touch, no eye contact," and should wait for the dog to come to them. Remember: dogs come to the Pack Leader, not the other way around. If the dog sniffs you and stays, then you can pet it, preferably on the front of the chest and not on the back or head. If the dogs walks away, with or without sniffing you, don't take it personally. She's just not interested in interacting.

Above all, teach your children how to stay calm around dogs. A lot of kids have very high energy and can be loud or erratic, both of which can make dogs anxious or over-excited. Especially with strange dogs, they should never yell or run away.

Educate Yourself

I mentioned that in two thirds of cases where dogs bite children, it was the family dog. This is why, as an adult, you should never leave small children and dogs together unsupervised. A dog is much less likely to bite a child if an adult human is present. Also, if something does happen, you'll be right there to intervene.

You should also learn the dog bite prevention rules for children because they're exactly the same for adults. We don't get a free pass to directly approach strange dogs just because we're grown up.

Finally, learn how to read a dog's body language so you can see the signs that a bite may be coming and de-escalate the encounter immediately. Signals that a dog may be about to attack are the ears pinned back, and the fur along their back may stand up in a visible pattern -- the origin of the expression "getting their hackles up."

You might be able to see the whites of the dog's eyes, and they may yawn which, with the other signals, does not indicate the dog is tired but, instead, is the dog showing off its teeth as a warning. If the dog makes intense and direct eye contact with you, this is a clear sign that you should back off immediately.

The motto for National Dog Bite Prevention Week is, "70 million nice dogs... but any dog can bite." The good news is that in the vast majority of those dog bite cases, humans bear some of the responsibility by not knowing how to approach or interact with a dog.

By learning to read a dog's body language, educating our children, and understanding how to respect a dog's space, we can reduce those 4.5 million bites per year substantially. Join me in spreading the message.

Stay calm, and don't get bitten!