by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Going for a walk in the park can be fun. Enjoying the sights, the sounds, the smells of the great outside world is good. Meeting people, exercising our body and our mind, a healthy thing to do. Sometimes those people we meet are with a canine friend.
Dog bites are not fun. They hurt. They have the potential to cause serious injury and complicating infections. Also, they can cause us dismay and depression. Why on earth does that dog that bit me, not like me? I was not doing anything bad to it, just trying to be friendly.
Now, we may have all sorts of ways to try to rationalize the incident. The dog did not know me. It must have been startled when I reached out to pat it. I should have knelt down to be on its level before reaching out to greet it. The dog was probably just trying to guard and protect its territory or it's master. They may, from the dog's point of view, all be very legitimate reasons to be an aggressor. However, it doesn't matter. The bite accident occurred. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta states there are about 4.5 to 4.7 million people bitten by dogs each year in the United States. One-fifth of those will require medical attention and 30,000 will require reconstructive surgery. Everyone must work hard to prevent such things from happening.
When dog bite injuries are studied by those groups and organizations recording them, there are some significant patterns that emerge. Children are bitten more often than adults, with kids between the ages of five and nine years being bitten the most. Boys are bitten slightly more often than girls. Approximately 35 per cent of bites involve a dog belonging to a friend or neighbour, 12 percent involve a stray dog. In slightly more than 20 percent of incidents, the dog was unknown.
Pit bulls and Rottweilers seem to be commonly represented in news media reports on dog bites. However, the fact is no breed is guaranteed to be non-biting. Therefore, when you prepare to meet and greet an unfamiliar dog, you cannot decide on the intimacy of the greeting, based on its breed. There are, however, a few things to remember to reduce the risk of an undesirable event.
As a general rule, it should be considered unsafe to approach strange dogs. This is especially the case if you find a stray or unrecognized dog, alone or injured. It is much better to call humane society or animal welfare personnel if help or rescue efforts are deemed necessary. This approach is much better for the animal and anyone handling it.
When meeting a dog accompanied by its owner or caregiver, always ask permission before petting the dog. Even if reassured that the dog is friendly, your approach should be slow and cautious. Try to make a very non-threatening approach, extending your closed hand, slowly from the dog's own level rather than coming from above them. Speaking in a calm, controlled tone of voice can accompany your offered greeting. Throughout your approach, carefully watch for any reaction on the dog's part that they are reluctant to continue or are feeling threatened. Sometimes it's best to stop and let the dog continue when it feels more comfortable at doing so. There are times when it is best just to admire the dog from a distance and chat with its accompanying person about the dog. Remember, it is impossible to predict how a dog will react when meeting someone new, because in any given situation any dog can bite.
If approached by a dog, become a tree. Stand tall, tuck your hands in your armpits and try to ignore the dog, avoiding eye contact with it. Try to never stare at a dog, put your face in the dog's face or kiss the dog on its face. Parents should be sure their children are very familiar with the guidelines of meeting and greeting dogs in these circumstances.
Dogs can be wonderful social companions. All dog owners and admirers need to do everything possible to avoid incidents that injure others and damage the reputation of these wonderful friends. Barry Burtis is a local companion animal veterinarian. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca