For many of us, our dogs are our best friends, but we all know the potential for any dog to bite and cause a nasty injury. Too many children are being bitten by dogs and lifestyle block dogs are just as likely to be the culprits as any other.
Sometimes it's the dog's fault, but other times the owner of the dog or the person bitten is mainly to blame.
So how can you help make sure you and your dog aren't involved in a dog attack? Here are some of my ideas on the subject, based on many years of working with people and dogs.
If you own a dog
Dogs are the only domestic animal with their own legislation - the Dog Control Act. Among other requirements, this says that if you own a dog you must keep it under control at all times. When you and your dog are out in public, you must use or carry a leash (unless your dog is registered as a working dog). Even when your dog is on its own property, you must make sure it's under someone's direct control or that it's confined so that it can't leave the property.
There are hefty fines if you fail to comply.
Any wandering dog is liable to be picked up by the local authority's dog control officers or rangers and impounded. If your dog has been registered and microchipped you have a good chance of getting it back without delay. If not, you have 7 days to claim it and pay the associated fees - which can amount to several hundred dollars.
If your dog wanders off your property and seems to be threatening livestock, the property owner has a right to shoot it. And of course, if it attacks stock or injures anyone or any other animal, there are serious repercussions - it may even have to be euthanased.
The moral is - make sure your dog is always under control and that it stays at home unless you or someone responsible are with it, and make sure it is microchipped and re-registered each year. Although dogs registered as working dogs don't have to be microchipped, it's a good idea in case they are stolen or become lost.
If you feel threatened by a strange dog
If its owner is not around and you are approached by a strange dog that seems menacing, especially if you have just arrived on its property, stand still and ignore it for the first few minutes. Don't look at it in the eye. If you have been told to offer strange dogs the back of your hand, forget that now. Never put your hand out to a strange dog, especially if it seems tense or if it is barking, and never try to pat it, especially in the first few minutes of an encounter.
What you should do is keep your hands behind your back, don't look at the dog, and stand quietly. This is especially important if the dog looks in any way threatening, ie if it is barking, or its hackles are up, or its tail extended out stiffly behind it or it is growling. Hopefully, the owner will soon appear to welcome you and you can relax.
Why do dogs bite?
Most dog bites occur when dogs are afraid and when they are angry. Fear aggression is likely if the dog has been injured and is in pain or if it has been abused or if it feels threatened by a stranger. A dog can get angry for all sorts of reasons - if someone tries to take away its food or if it has pups. Often territorial dogs get angry when a stranger enters their space and their owner is not around.
How to approach a strange dog
A hand extended to a dog that is barking may well be taken as a physical threat. When you have shown by your passive behaviour that you are not threatening, or when you have been welcomed by the owner, the dog's challenge will usually become a welcome too. In its own time, the dog will probably approach you quietly, tail relaxed and wagging, for a pat. You're no longer a stranger.
If a strange dog approaches and you are not on its property, it is still important to be passive and non-threatening. This means no eye contact, turning away from the dog, standing or moving quietly away, and if the dog is really menacing, keeping your forearms crossed over in front of your face and neck (the most vulnerable and exposed parts of your body) or in your pockets until the dog loses interest. This last bit of advice is especially important for children to know.
Children are most at risk
It is very important to teach children how to be safe around dogs. Children must be taught the rule about not offering their hands. Teach them not to approach a strange dog without asking the owner's permission. Even if they know the dog, they must not disturb it when it is sleeping or eating or if it has pups, or if it has been injured and in pain.
If they are approached by a menacing dog or if they are playing with a dog and the dog becomes boisterous, they should never run away squealing or waving their hands in the air. This may tempt any dog to jump on them, knocking them over. They must stand still, turn away from the dog, cross their forearms in front of their face and neck and sidle quietly away.
Most important of all, children must be taught never to tease dogs - provoking irritation or anger is a sure way to get bitten.
It goes without saying that dog owners must be responsible and keep their dogs under control at all times. Fortunately, serious dog attacks are rare. Even the occasional dog bites that occur are relatively uncommon given the huge number of dogs in the community. There could be even fewer incidents if people knew how to prevent them by using the common sense guidelines described here.