National Dog Bite Prevention Week 2019

Once again, it’s National Dog Bite Prevention week. During this week last year, I discussed practical examples of how we teach our daughter to interact safely with dogs. According to the AVMA, more than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year, and the majority of cases are children 16 and under. There are a lot of amazing resources that discuss teaching kids to be safe around dogs both known and unknown. As adults, we also know general guidelines for safety around dogs. But sometimes I wonder - are we listening to our own advice?

I want to talk about one of the most common tips in bite prevention. It’s pretty much the number one rule. And yet, let me share some observations that I see every day in real life interactions and some things I routinely hear from clients that make me question if we practice what we preach.

Guideline: Always ask before petting a dog

We repeat this over and over to children, and I see a lot of caregivers enforcing the rule. I also see a lot of adults who don’t follow the same advice. Strolling down the street, I’ll bet you do as well. For an animal lover it can be hard to resist petting a cute pup or the new dog on the block. Clients of fearful dogs report that they have to sidestep people, constantly explain that their dog doesn’t like to be petted, and even deal with people becoming offended when told they can’t pet their dog. We often teach these clients to train their dog to go behind them on cue, so the person can act as a shield. These situations don’t just happen with fearful dogs, of course. There are many of us who pass by a happy-looking pooch and can’t resist a little pat. I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of this in the past.

Maybe we see the dog’s body language is loose and relaxed, and we reach out without even thinking about it. Because we’re grown ups. Because we can “tell” this dog won’t bite. And maybe because it seems awkward to ask to pet a dog as an adult. However, kids watch us. Kids learn from example. Our message about asking before petting a dog should be consistent across all situations.

Also, more than just being about children’s safety, there is the issue of adult safety. The bottom line is that we don’t actually know the dog. And just because a dog looks comfortable and relaxed, and even tolerates being petted by strangers, doesn’t mean the dog enjoys it.

After asking the person if you can pet her dog, ask the dog! If the person says “yes”,  ask the dog next. Hold your hand out for the dog to sniff. Does the dog wiggle up to you to sniff your hand? If so, give their neck a nice scratch. If not, don't reach for the dog. Some dogs will sniff your hand but stay very still. Don't reach out to pet that dog either. If you're ever wondering if a dog is enjoying how you're petting him, stop petting him. Does he lean in with the same or different body part? Does he walk away? Does he do a shake off like a dog after a bath? Dogs who enjoy petting will often come back to you and show you where they'd like a good scratch. Dogs who were only tolerating your petting will move away as soon as they can.

So again – Dog Bite Prevention 101: always ask the person AND the dog before petting a dog. Yes, you too. Want to learn more about dog body language? Need a plan to set your family and dog up for success? Reach out to us at