April 10, 2018 03:30 PM

It’s National Dog Bite Prevention Week, and while the issue might seem small to some, millions of people worldwide are bitten by dogs each year. And some require immediate medical attention – even rabies shots – to treat their injuries. However, there are steps all of us can take to prevent dog bites, and, luckily, they’re easy to follow! PEOPLE Pets spoke to veterinarian Dr. Sophia Yin, author of Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Dogs & Cats, for her advice on avoiding dog bites, and tips on what you can do to keep your dog from biting others.

Tell us about Dog Bite Prevention Week.
It’s a public health problem, and that’s why the CDC raises awareness about Dog Bite Prevention Week each year. Of all the health problems we have in this country, it’s one we can easily prevent.

What happens when someone needs to go to the ER for a dog bite?
Mainly they’ll have to get their bite cleaned up, and many people will be put on antibiotics. Dogs that bite people are reported to the health department, and will be put on a 10-day quarantine if they were vaccinated for rabies, just to be sure they don’t come down with any signs of rabies.

When a dog bite happens, who’s usually to blame: the person or the dog?
Dogs can’t help it. Humans need to be trained to be appropriate around dogs and also reward appropriate behaviors in dogs. A lot of people will say the bite was unprovoked, but that’s because they don’t know how to read the warning signs. Interestingly, a huge number of people who are bitten are actually members of the pet’s family. You always think people were bitten by a strange dog, and that does happen, but bites are often directed toward family members, too. It happens most frequently around young kids, especially young boys, because they tend to be rowdy around pets.

When it comes to small kids, sometimes dogs are actually afraid of them. When they were young, they weren’t raised around kids, so they may be scared of kids. They don’t know what the kids are – they’re basically, to them, little Martians who make a lot of noise! When the child is an infant, the dog may be nervous but can tolerate it, but when the infant becomes a toddler, the dog suddenly has this scary thing chasing him through the house.

What are warning signs to look for in a dog that may bite?
Oftentimes people think a dog is mean, when it’s actually just fearful. Dogs show fear through body postures like turning the head away, pacing, yawning or licking their lips. They may even try to get away. Sometimes dogs put their ears out to the back or side, and have a worried look on their face.

Often they’ll start giving other warning signs for you to back away, which may be subtle, so if adults don’t recognize them, kids for sure won’t. You have to be vigilant! Dogs may get stiff or tense, lift their lip or let out a low growl. At that point a lot of people just reprimand the dog, not recognizing they the dog is actually giving a warning, and in doing that discipline, they’re training the warning signs out of their dog; training the dog not to show those signs even though he’s anxious. As a result, he’s more likely to bite and not show warning signs in the future.

Other dogs are good and tolerant with kids, but can only take so much. Like humans, we can only put up with kids so much too, and then eventually need a break. So a lot of people also tend to think dogs should put up with everything, and that’s not true or fair. We don’t want a dog to “just tolerate” being annoyed by humans, because when they can’t stand it anymore, they won’t just tolerate it, and they’ll bite.

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Do you have tips for preventing dog bites?
Set rules and boundaries, especially with children. The dog should have personal space, like a safe spot to be away from the kids. Have rules: If the dog is laying down resting, don’t bug him, but if you call him and he comes, you can play. That way you’re not pushing him to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Have a carrier or kennel the dog likes to rest in, and make a rule that you can’t bug the dog when he’s in his crate. Don’t go in with him, and don’t be outside making funny faces at the dog. And don’t bother the dog when he’s sleeping, chewing on a bone or eating his meal.

When kids do the things they love to do – like scream, run around, wrestle or play rough with a dog – they turn themselves into a human squeaky toy. The dog learns it’s fun to get out of control with them, even nip them like they would with their toys. This behavior teaches the dog to be overly excited, and allows him to play rough and in an unsafe manner. That’s not okay. Arousal and aggression are on the same continuum – if the dog gets too excited he could bite out of excitement.

Every time you’re playing with the dog and you’re getting him excited, you have to recognize if he has an “off switch,” meaning he’ll calm down on his own if you tell him in a normal voice to sit down and be still. If he doesn’t, it’s probably not safe to get him too worked up, and maybe he shouldn’t be playing that way, because the behavior will only lead to rough-housing and, eventually, a potential dog bite.

What advice do you have for behaving around unfamiliar dogs?
With strange dogs, people just need to know to be careful. First, before petting, ask the owner for permission. Secondly, look at the dog and see if he wants to be petted. Owners will say you can pet the dog, but may not realize the dog doesn’t want to be petted – the animal may be shy or scared.

People will say to extend your hand out for the dog to sniff. That works for friendly dogs, but for scared dogs, that would be comparable to a spider sticking its leg out toward someone who was afraid of bugs. So stand far away from the dog and say “Hi” to him in a happy voice, or put your hand out if you’re far enough away and see if the dog wants to come to you. If he comes over in a relaxed manner, then yes, you can pet him. If the dog doesn’t, he doesn’t want to be petted. Why would you pet him if that’s not what he wants? It takes common sense and education, and it’s very much about how you greet a person – you wouldn’t stick your hand in a person’s face. Remember, kids should always be supervised around animals, but even if they’re being supervised, it only takes an instant for something to happen.

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