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Preventing Dog Bites

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD

Most kids don't think a cuddly dog would ever hurt them. But about 4.7 million dog bites happen every year in the United States. Of kids bitten, more than half are under age 14. Dog bites can be much more than an innocent little nip, and some need care in the hospital or even surgery.

How Can We Manage Other People's Dogs?

Any breed of dog might bite. Just because a dog is small or seems friendly doesn't mean it can't do some damage. Even the nicest, best-trained family dog may snap if it's startled, scared, threatened, angry, or hungry.

No matter how well you think you know the dog, always supervise your kids around someone else's pet. To reduce the risk of bites, teach kids these safety guidelines:

  • Always ask the owner if it's OK to pet the dog.
  • Let the dog see and sniff you before petting it.
  • Do not run toward or away from a dog.
  • If an unfamiliar dog approaches you, stay calm, don't look it directly in the eye, and stand still or back up slowly.
  • If a dog tries to bite you, put anything you can between you and the dog. If knocked over by a dog, roll into a ball, cover your face, and lie still. 

Make sure that your kids understand some "nevers" about being around dogs:

  • Never squeeze dogs too tight, drop them, fall on them, or jump on them.
  • Never tease dogs or pull their tails or ears.
  • Never bother dogs while they're eating, sleeping, or taking care of their puppies.
  • Never take a toy or bone away from a dog or play tug of war with a dog.
  • Never feed a dog a treat with your fingers. Put the treat in your palm with your fingers and thumb held close together.
  • Never crowd a dog or back it into a corner.

What Should Dog Owners Do?

Before getting a dog, talk to a professional (such as a veterinarian or respected breeder or pet shelter) about what type of dog or breed is best for your household. Ask questions about the dog's temperament and health. A dog with a history of aggression is not a suitable pet for a household with kids.

If your family has a dog, make sure it gets all required immunizations and regular vet checkups. Also, have it spayed or neutered. Consider taking your dog to obedience school to make it more social and obedient, and thus less likely to bite someone.

When you take your dog out in public, always keep it on a leash so you can be in control if its behavior gets out of hand. If you have kids, closely supervise them when they're around the dog and never leave an infant or toddler alone with your pet.

What If a Dog Bites Our Child?

If a dog bites your child, contact your doctor, especially if the dog is not yours. Some dog bites need to be treated in an emergency department. Some dog bites can seem minor on the surface but can cause deeper injuries to muscle, bone, and nerves.

While rare, rabies and other kinds of infections from dogs like bacterial infections can happen and should be treated right away. Your doctor will let you know if your child needs antibiotics to prevent a dog bite from becoming infected. Not all cuts (lacerations) due to dog bites are closed with stitches. Sometimes, closing a wound can increase the risk of infection.

To help the doctor know the infection risk and what treatment your child might need, try to have this information ready:

  • the name and location of the dog's owners
  • if the dog is up to date on its vaccinations
  • whether the attack was provoked or unprovoked. A provoked attack, for example, includes approaching a dog while it's eating or or taking care of its puppies. Knowing the attack was unprovoked lets the doctor know that the dog could be sick, which might affect treatment decisions.
  • your child's immunization status and medical history
Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: November 2019