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Dog Safety
A spate of horrific recent attacks only underscores the importance of understanding man's best friend--and ways to protect your children.

Mike Woitalla

Most likely, a make-believe menagerie captured your child's imagination from a very young age. Didn't you read Winnie the Pooh and Curious George and "Go Dogs. Go!" Scientists say 80 percent of the dreams of children under the age of 6 are about animals. It's no wonder that children are usually thrilled to encounter real animals.

But never forget how dangerous they can be.

In Dr. Seuss' world, dogs drive cars and play tennis on top of a zeppelin. In the real world, they bite more than 4 million Americans every year. Up to 1 million dog bites require medical attention annually and about 60 percent of those bitten are children.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that half the nation's children are bitten by a dog by the time they're 12. "Dogs usually bite familiar people near their home. Injuries to the head, neck and face areas are common in young children," according to The Journal of the American Pediatric Association.

Whether you have a dog or not, take a few moments to get familiar with these fundamental safety pointers. They could save you and your family a lot of pain:

* Dogs' feelings about humans are not universal. They can be gentle toward some people and hostile toward others. Don't take a good record of congeniality as insurance that a dog can't pose danger, especially with children.

* Always monitor contact between dogs and young kids and babies. Toddlers have a strong inclination to pat forcefully and tug hard-kids become more grabby as they get older. Even the friendliest dog may snap if he's yanked on the tail-or an even more sensitive spot. So even if your dog and child have been enjoying an amiable co-existence, realize that your child could make a provocative move at any moment.

* Don't let toddlers wrestle or play tug-of-war with dogs. That type of play, because of pack-hierarchy instinct, could bring up a dog's inherent desire to prove itself as the child's superior. But the child won't be wise to the signals that dogs expect to receive from their inferiors.

* Teach your child to "ask the dog's permission" to play or be petted. This will help the child understand it can't assume a dog wants attention. Don't pet a dog, even your own, without letting him see and sniff you first.

* Teach your child not to disturb dogs while they're sleeping, eating, or caring for puppies.

* Avoid encounters between children and dogs in which the dog is unable to move away from the child at will.

* Be especially cautious around dogs that do not live in a household with children.

* Never approach a dog you don't know or a dog that is alone without his owner, especially if the dog is confined behind a fence, in a car, or on a chain.

* Spay and neuter your dog. Dogs who haven't been spayed or neutered are three times more likely to bite.

* Keep your own dog on a leash when you're out in public.

* If your dog exhibits behavior such as growling, nipping, or biting-even on an occasional basis-get professional advice from your veterinarian, an animal behaviorist, or a skilled dog trainer.

* Stand still like a tree, with arms on the side, when approached by a hostile dog. This is something you can practice with your child using a toy dog.

* If attacked, curl into a ball with hands over ears, lie still and stay quiet.

* If a dog attacks, try "feeding" him your jacket, purse, bicycle or anything that can serve as a barrier between you and the dog.

* Avoid the following breeds: Akitas, Australian Cattles Dogs, Bloodhounds, Bernese Mountain Dogs, Bouviers, Chows, Chinese Shar Peis, Lhasa Apsos Miniatures Pinschers, Pit Bulls, Presa Canario, Rottweilers. They are genetically predisposed to aggression.

* Don't assume that a certain kind of dog doesn't bite because it isn't known as an aggressive breed. When they're in an undesirable situation all dogs naturally consider two options: flee or bite.

(Sources: Humane Society of the United States, American Veterinary Medical Association, National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Leader of the Pack, by Nancy Baer and Steve Duno)

Mike Woitalla is Executive Editor of Soccer America Magazine. He and his wife, Holly Kernan, live in Oakland with their 2-year-old daughter, Julia, and 13-year-old greyhound, Ocho.

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