How to teach children to safely approach familiar and unfamiliar dogs

 It is important to teach children to be respectful of all living things, regardless of whether it is human or animal, domestic or wild. Most families own a dog or come into contact with other people’s dogs, yet many parents do not teach their children how to safely approach a dog. According to the Center for Disease Control, 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, many of these involving children, with dog bite related injuries highest in 5-9 year olds. It is important to teach children how to approach dogs to keep children safe, to keep your pets happy, and to avoid becoming one of those statistics.
Approaching familiar dogs
Teach children to read a dog’s body language. Animals cannot tell us verbally how they are feeling or what they like or don’t like, so they use body language to communicate with us. By teaching children the common friendly postures (ears forward, tail up and wagging, relaxed posture) scared postures (body lowered, tail tucked, ears back, eyes averted) or threatening postures (body lowered, hair on end, tail straight out from the body, snarling face, growling) you can ensure that in most cases children will have a good first impression on whether or not the dog is safe to approach. Some common mistakes children make that result in bites include: surprising the dog (while sleeping, older dogs with hearing problems), approaching the dog while he is eating, or trying to take away a toy. It is the dog’s instinct to be protective of his food, space, and belongings so it is imperative to teach children to avoid approaching the dog in these situations. If your child is too young to understand the concepts of body language and safety it is best to keep your dog and child separate.
Approaching unfamiliar dogs
If there is no owner present, teach children to quietly walk by and not approach the dog. If there is an owner present, ask for permission to approach. Once you have permission, instruct your child to “introduce” themselves by extending a hand, palm facing down for the dog to sniff.  Avoid staring in the dog’s eyes and let the dog decide how close he wants to be to your child. If the dog is receptive, allow the child to gently pet the dog. If the dog seems apprehensive instruct your child to slowly withdraw their hand and quietly walk away.
Sometimes the dog might be barking as you approach.  A dog who is giving short, low, repetitive barks while showing a tense or stiff body might be giving an alarm bark. This means the dog is unsure of the situation. If the dog is doing a mixture of growling and deep barking with increasing intensity and showing aggressive body language, this is a threatening bark.  Do not approach dogs who are exhibiting these behaviors.  However, if a dog is barking in a high pitched manner, making eye contact and standing relaxed, this dog might be seeking attention or anticipating a fun interaction.   Use the normal precautions such reading the other body signals the dog is giving, as well as asking the owner for permission, and approach this dog with caution.
What if a strange, ownerless dog approaches you?  The most important thing is to tell children to stay calm and not to run away, but to act like a tree. Running may trigger the dog to chase, and the child may end up injured even if the dog is just playing. If the approaching dog is staring with tail wagging slowly and ears up, turn and walk away calmly without making eye contact. If the dog is standing in a threatening or aggressive posture, tell the dog firmly (without yelling) to “Go Home” and back away slowly, avoiding any sudden moves. If the dog decides to chase or attack, curl into the turtle position (roll up like a stone) and yell for help.
For more information, visit http://www.humanesocietyyouth.org/bite.asp. For fun games about dog safety, visit http://www.pbrc.net/poppysplace/Safety/DogSafteyMain.htm.

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