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Avoiding Dog Bites

They're furry and friendly, but even the cutest of dogs can be potentially dangerous if you're not careful.

Almost five million people are bitten by dogs each year and over half of the victims that require medical attention are children, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But experts say the threat of dog bites can all but be eliminated through public awareness and education.

Stephanie Shain, a spokesperson for Humane Society of the United States, visited The Saturday Early Show to suggest ways to protect families from an aggressive dog.

Shain discussed the seriousness of dog bites in a phone interview with The Saturday Early Show. The following is a transcript from that interview.

How serious is this topic?
It's very serious. Over 4 1/2 million people are bitten each year, most from dogs that you know, not by strange dogs. And most of the bites are suffered by children.

When you say dogs that you know, does that mean your own?
Your own dog, the dog of a friend, or your children's friend's family. It's not a dog running down the street.

Can children be taught to avoid being bitten by a dog?
Sure, it just a matter of teaching them these things and being consistent.

Why do dogs bite?
They bite for all sorts of reasons, some very simple, some complex. They could be protecting their property [their home or their puppies], sometimes they could be eating dinner and protecting food. They could be protecting a toy that's especially important to them. Or it could be for reasons that are difficult to identify, such as they weren't properly socialized with people or other dogs. It could be from being continuously chained. It could be that they weren't trained by their owner to look to people for guidance on how to behave. And it could be a combination of all of those.

What kind of dogs should you stay away from? Is it just the big dogs?
No, that is a very common misconception. Most times people want a list of ten breeds that they should stay away from, and that's really not something that you can accurately do because any dog can bite.

Why the misconception?
Small dogs, just by their size, are probably going to do less damage if they bite. But they still bite, and they still can harm a child. But we tend to tolerate biting in little dogs.

How can someone avoid being bitten by a dog?
You never approach a strange dog you don't know. You don't reach out to pet a strange dog. You don't chase or torment a dog, [by doing things] like sticking your fingers through a fence. Don't look a dog in the eye. To a dog, that's a challenge. We tell children to look people in the eye, but to a dog that's a challenge. If you feel afraid, don't run because a dog will catch you - you can never outrun a dog. Something we teach children is to be a tree, to stand still. Often a dog just wants to investigate you. They'll sniff you good, then they will either leave, or if they don't, once they've had a good sniff, the child can very slowly start backing away.

What are the warning signs of a dog getting ready to bite?
They can give us lots of warning signs, and some of them are very easy, such as growling. Other things are more subtle, but you can pay attention to them. Ears pulled all the way back is one [sign], hair raised up is another. And this dog is going to be looking directly at you. It's so important for a child to know that a wagging tale doesn't mean a dog is happy and doesn't mean a dog is friendly. A dog who feels threatened will continue to wag its tale, but it will hold it lower and may wag it slower. A dog who is not afraid and not threatened may want to assert themselves a little bit. They're going to be standing forward up on their toes. It's the equivalent of us pushing our chests out.

What should you do if you are attacked?
Let the dog have anything he wants - a backpack, stuffed animal, anything that you can "feed" the dog. For instance, if a dog comes up and grabs a backpack, let him have it. Don't scream, it can incite the dog even further. If a child is knocked to the ground, he should "become a rock." [Teach your child to] crawl into a ball and tuck himself up as tight as can be and [cover his head with his hands].

Are there any way to "bite-proof" a dog?
Thankfully it's all pretty easy stuff. Number one you want to spay or neuter your dog, because they're much less likely to bite. Two, keep your dog as part as your family. They're social pack animals so don't keep your dog out in the backyard in a pen or tied to the doghouse, because what you're doing is keeping a creature who needs social interaction in a way that socially isolates them. And [give them] basic training. Get your dog into a class. A basic training course provides the dog the opportunity to interact with other dogs and all different kinds of people. It also helps the dog understand that people are in charge.

If you'd like to adopt a dog seen on The Saturday Early Show, or would like to adopt a pet, go to the Web site for New York Center for Animal Care and Control.