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NC State College of Veterinary Medicine Behaviorist Urges Awareness to Protect Children from Dog Bites

Warning signs: Based on her behavior — ears back, tail tucked — this fearful dog is communicating that she might snap if  a child reaches to pet her.


More than 4.5 million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States. One out of five victims requires medical attention. Among children, the most common bite victims are between the ages of five to nine.

Children are more likely than adults to be  severely injured, often with bites to the hand, when they reach for a dog, and face, when they look into a dog’s face. Bites may be the dog’s attempt to signal to the child to “keep away.”

Dr. Barbara Sherman, a veterinary behaviorist at NC State University, wants to educate parents and children on how to avoid becoming a victim of a dog bite.

“Always supervise interactions between dogs and children even those known to the parent and child and believed to be friendly,” says Dr. Sherman. “Not all dogs welcome interactions with children. Be attentive to signs that the dog is unfriendly or fearful of the child. For example, to show fear, the dog may tuck its tail or rotate its ears back. Dogs may threaten a child by giving a hard stare, being immobile or  seemingly “frozen” or growling. Separate the child and dog immediately.”

To avoid this miscommunication during greetings, Dr. Sherman says it is critical for parents to teach children safe methods of approaching and greeting dogs, and to avoid them at certain times. Three simple rules can help:

  • Children should always ask owners if it is okay to pet the dog;
  • The dog should be petted on the back from collar to tail, never on the head;
  • Leave dogs that are eating, sleeping, or caring for puppies alone.

Additional basic child safety around dogs:

  • Do not approach an unfamiliar dog.
  • Do not run from a dog and scream.
  • Remain motionless (“be still like a tree”) when approached by an unfamiliar dog.
  • If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball and lie still (“be still like a log”).
  • Do not play with a dog unless supervised by an adult.
  • Do not disturb a dog when it is eating, on its bed, in a car, behind a fence, or tied up.
  • Parents: Never leave babies or small children alone with any dog, even the gentle family pet. If you have small children, make a safe place for your dog that is “out of reach” of the children.

For more information:

NC State Behavior Medicine Service

The College of Veterinary Medicine faculty collaborated with the Wake County Department of Public Health to develop a bi-lingual coloring book to teach children of all ages about good etiquette as it relates to interacting with dogs. The book may be downloaded from the site.

The American Association of Veterinary Medicine offers a Dog Bite Prevention resource page.

Doggone Safe Bite Prevention Challenge.

ASPCA Dog Bite Prevention.