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Once bitten, know why

Dogs bite for a reason, so if you know the warning signs, you can identify an anxious dog

POSTED: June 1, 2008 5:01 a.m.


Does your dog bite?

The correct answer is yes, no matter how harmless you think your dog is. Mike Ledford, director of Hall County Animal Control, said biting is an instinctive behavior that dogs use to protect themselves.

"That’s their only way of saying ‘ouch’ or ‘leave me alone,’" he said. "But they’ll almost always give you a warning sign."

The trick is to be able to read those warning signs so you don’t get hurt. In observance of National Dog Bite Prevention Week, animal care professionals are trying to educate the public on what people can do to stay safe.

That message took on new urgency Sunday, after a 7-year-old boy was killed by two pit bulls near Abilene, Texas. Just four days earlier, a 2-year-old girl was critically injured by a pair of pit bulls in Fort Worth, Texas.

"To my knowledge, there has never been a dog-bite fatality in Hall County, or even a serious mauling," Ledford said.

But metro Atlanta has had a number of such incidents. In February 2007, a 2-year-old girl was killed in Lithonia by a pit bull and a mastiff mix.

Fortunately, most dog bites don’t result in serious injuries. But they are surprisingly common. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that almost 5 million Americans are bitten every year, with about 800,000 requiring medical attention.

Ledford said in 2007, there were 506 bites reported to Hall County Animal Control. But he suspects far more people were actually bitten and never reported it.

What’s disturbing is that a disproportionate number of serious bites happen to young children. Kim Martin, coordinator of Safe Kids Gainesville/Hall County, said between July 2006 and June 2007, 80 children ages 14 and younger were treated for dog bites at Northeast Georgia Medical Center.

"Of the kids who were bitten, 46 percent had head or facial injuries," Martin said.

Unlike adults, who tend to get bitten on a leg or hand, a child’s short stature makes it easy for a dog to grab the head or neck. This can lead to disfigurement or damage to vulnerable areas, such as the eyes or the carotid artery.

And kids innocently put themselves at risk even when they’re just trying to show affection.

"Kids don’t understand danger. They run up to an animal and try to hug it," said Martin. "It’s just instinct on the dog’s part to try to get out of a strange or scary situation."

Martin said parents should not assume that even their own family dog can be safely left alone with a baby or toddler.

"(Young children) can’t resist pulling on tails and ears," she said. "They don’t understand that it’s a living thing. They think it’s like a stuffed animal."

As soon as children are able to communicate verbally, Martin said, parents should start teaching them how to behave around dogs.

"They need to learn to approach the animal slowly, and make sure that it can see you. Don’t approach from behind," she said. "Also, don’t approach while they’re eating. Animals are very protective of their food source."

Avoiding a dog who’s busy eating his dinner seems like a no-brainer. But what about a dog who seems to bite for no reason?

Ledford said there almost always is a reason, but people don’t bother to see things from the dog’s point of view.

"A surprising number of adults do get bitten because they just don’t think," he said. "If you don’t know the dog, don’t touch it. Don’t try to pick up a dog that is not used to being picked up. Don’t try to help an animal that’s been injured on the side of the road."

Most people make such mistakes because they fail to read the dog’s body language. Doggone Safe, an organization dedicated to dog bite prevention, offers educational materials on its Web site,, to help people learn how to recognize when a dog is in a friendly mood.

A receptive dog has a relaxed posture and a happy facial expression, with the mouth open and the tongue hanging out. His ears are usually up, and he makes direct eye contact.

When a dog is fearful or apprehensive, his mouth is closed and his ears are laid back. When a person approaches, he turns his head away, and the whites of his eyes may be visible. He will have a stiff-legged posture, and his tail may be erect but not wagging.

Other signs of anxiety include yawning, licking the nose and lifting one paw. These are so subtle that the average person may not realize they are warning signals. But to experienced dog handlers, these behaviors are red flags.

Ledford said if your own dog suddenly bites for no apparent reason, "it’s a good idea to have it checked out by a vet, because something physical (such as hidden pain) is probably going on."

But Ledford said there are two kinds of biters: the "don’t touch me" dogs who are trying to protect themselves, and the "get off my territory" dogs who actively attack people.

It’s the latter who create headaches for animal control officers. "We keep a list (of dangerous dogs)," Ledford said. "We know where they are, and we keep an eye on them."

He said the county’s animal control ordinance defines what constitutes a dangerous or potentially dangerous dog. It’s more complicated than "one bite and you’re out," he said.

"A dog is not necessarily considered dangerous after the first bite. It depends on the circumstances," he said. "If there’s a second bite, the dog is definitely declared and the owner has to take very restrictive measures (or else euthanize the animal)."

What should you do if you’re bitten by a dog?

"Seek medical help if needed, then notify animal control," Ledford said. "We go to the property owner, if we know who it is, and we verify the shot records. If the dog is not vaccinated (against rabies), it must be quarantined at a vet or at the humane society for 10 days."

Aggressive, territorial dogs are the bane of joggers and cyclists, though Ledford said relatively few of them actually end up biting somebody.

"Usually the dog just has the instinct to chase. He really wouldn’t know what to do with you if he caught you," said Ledford. "We’ve seen bikers get injured in accidents while they were trying to get away from dogs."

But if people routinely encounter aggressive dogs, they may want to carry some protection.

"A visual aid such as a walking stick is usually enough, just to put a barrier between you and the dog," said Ledford. "Mace (pepper spray) is overkill, and it usually doesn’t work anyway."


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