Each year, dogs bite about 4.5 million people—mostly children and senior citizens; one in 5 wind up needing medical care for the wound, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). "A lot of people assume that every dog is friendly, but they may just be very well adjusted to the people who are familiar to them," Wells says.
The main message? Any dog can bite.
Use these dog-bite prevention tips to avert an attack:
• Don't tie your dog. ER doctors will back this up: Many dog bite cases originate when a stranger walks up and tries to pet a dog outside of a store. "This is a very stressful situation for dogs," Wells says. "They're left alone, they don't know where their owners are, and people pet them during a very uncomfortable situation."
• Get permission. Before petting any dog that doesn't belong to you, ask the owner for permission. If the owner says no, respect that—it's not your place to play Dog Whisperer.
• Practice proper dog park etiquette. Pay attention to your pup the whole time, and avoiding taking food or your dog's favorite toy to a dog run. With other strange dogs in the mix, your pooch could turn very possessive of food or its favorite things and you could wind up in the middle of a canine altercation. It's a good idea to keep kids out of dog runs, too. "Sometimes kids run around, attracting dogs to chase after them," Wells notes.
• Lay out the rules for your kids. Most bites of young kids occur during everyday activities in interactions with familiar dogs, according to the AVMA. Teach your kids not to run up to dogs—it puts canines on edge. "Children tend to be the target of dog bites only because they're unaware of what prompts them," says Wells. "Running toward and rushing up on a dog triggers a defense in even the most docile dogs."
• Practice low-stress petting. When you pet an unfamiliar dog, don't put your hand over its head, but instead try the less intimidating under-the-chin scratch, Wells recommends.
• Know the signs. A dog's body language could be telling you to back off. A tail tucked straight under the body, ears flat back against the head, dilated pupils, lip licking, and yawning are all stress indicators in dogs.
If you are bitten by a dog:
• Exchange information. Get the dog owner's contact information at the scene of the incident, if possible, so you can obtain vaccination records.
• ID tags. Scan the dog's collar to see if it's wearing an updated rabies tag.
• Go to the ER or urgent care center right away. Depending on the situation, you may need rabies post-exposure shots. (Don't worry, they're not painful, in-the-belly shots like they used to be.)