Kelly Voigt didn’t think twice about walking over to pet a neighbor’s dog lying on the driveway in suburban Palatine. The 7-year-old had been given permission to pet the dog in the past, but when she put out her hand this time the dog attacked, biting her in the face and throat. It took plastic surgery and more than 100 stitches to repair the damage.
Eight years later, Kelly and her mom Kathy are determined to prevent other children from being bitten, one of the top 10 ways children are injured. Their organization, Prevent the Bite, visits local elementary schools to teach children how to avoid being harmed by a dog.
Key to educating children about dogs is helping them understand that dogs don’t think like kids and you can’t treat them like people."Hugs are for people, not for dogs,” Kathy says."Kids like to treat dogs like they’re friends. They run around and move quickly, look them in the eye, they put their faces near the dog’s face and all of these things are danger signs with a dog.”
The majority of dog bites are in the face—another reason why children should not put their face near a dog’s, Kathy says.
To help prevent bites, teach your child that if a stray dog approaches, they should either stand like a tree or lay like a rock until the dog moves on. For on-leash dogs, children should learn to follow the acronym WAIT, which stands for the following:
Wait to make sure the dog looks friendly.
Ask the owner for permission to pet the dog.
Invite the dog to come to see you first. Curl up your fingers and put your hands to your sides to see if the dog wants to come and sniff you. If the dog doesn’t come to you, then he doesn’t want you to come to him.
Touch the dog gently to pet it, petting him on the back in the direction the fur grows. Stay away from the head and tail.
Also, teach kids to identify canine body language. If a dog is crouched down, avoiding eye contact and their face looks tense, chances are the dog is afraid."A dog that’s afraid is as dangerous as a dog who’s angry,” Kathy says."This is a very dangerous dog.”
An angry dog also has a tense body, but they’re likely to be leaning forward, with their hair up on their head and back. They may be barking or growling, or they may be silent but with teeth showing and eyes staring directly at you. His tail may be moving back and forth, but that shouldn’t be confused with the wagging tail of a happy dog, Kathy says.
“If the dog doesn’t look friendly or the owner doesn’t give permission, you back away slowly and quietly,” Kathy advises.
The last lesson for kids—and parents—is to learn responsible dog ownership."We teach them that dogs don’t learn by being hit or punished,” Kathy says."They learn through kindness and that, even if it takes a dog 10 times to learn to come, when they do come you pet them and praise them.”
Kathy also emphasizes that to have a dog, you have to be around."Loving a dog isn’t enough,” she says."You have to take care of them and play with them.”
Since July is the biggest month for dog bites, now’s the time to teach your kids what to do around dogs. Education is the biggest way to prevent bites, Kathy says."Most of the time kids aren’t being bad, they just don’t know what to do.”
For more information on Prevent the Bite, visit their Web site at www.preventthebite.org.