Comfort, companionship and unconditional love. There’s no doubt man’s best friend adds joy and meaning to many lives. But even the mellowest pooches can be unpredictable at times. Dogs bite 45 million Americans each year according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children under 15 — especially boys age 5 to 9 — are the victims in 60 percent of the cases. 

It’s ultimately the owner’s responsibility to make sure their dog doesn’t bite people. But it pays to teach your kids how to be safe around canines. 

“Most dog owners are not animal behavior experts, so it’s a mistake to rely on them to interpret every aggressive cue,” says Jennifer Shults, DVM, owner of the Animal Emergency Clinic of Cary in N.C., and mother of two young children. “Parents should be proactive and teach their children proper behavior and how to recognize danger signs.”

Why dogs bite

Any dog — regardless of breed or size — can bite if provoked. Some common reasons dogs will attack: 

  • They’re startled or unexpectedly disturbed
  • To protect a possession, such as a toy, food, his property or his owner
  • They feel stressed — young, active children can be threatening to some dogs
  • Vigorous play got them overly excited
  • They’ve been hurt or are in pain from an illness or earlier injury

Pooch pointers for parents

The truth is some dogs aren’t well controlled by their owners and/or simply don’t like kids. Without scaring your child, experts recommending helping your child understand that not all dogs are nice.

“Some dogs haven’t been socialized with children and may view them as prey,” Shults says. “Bear in mind that dogs bite due to stress, but what a dog finds stressful isn’t necessarily stressful to us.”

Shults says children under 5 cannot be expected to pick up cues from a dog. “Toddlers and preschoolers have more trouble with impulse control so it’s best to discourage them interacting with an unfamiliar dog,” she says.

Barbara Nagy, a professional dog trainer, says dogs use physical signs to communicate. “They will warn you before acting aggressively. It’s a matter of interpreting the behavior and signs can be subtle.”

Shults agrees and adds that wagging tails are usuallya good sign, as are looking away or lowering the head, licking the nose and yawning and sniffing the ground. On the other hand, “low tails or tails tucked between hind legs signal fear,” says the vet. And “raised hair along the back and neck that is accompanied with growling and baring of teeth mean keep away.”

To help reduce the number of dog bites, dog owners created The Yellow Dog Project. This international movement allows owners to signal to others that their dog needs space. “Owners of these types of dogs tie a yellow ribbon on the dog’s leash as a caution signal,” says Shults. “Teach your children to look for the yellow ribbon and steer clear if they see one.” A yellow ribbon doesn’t always mean the dog is aggressive. The dog may have chronic pain from an injury or lack obedience training, and the owner feels it’s best that strangers don’t approach their pet.

Doggie dos and don’ts

Here are Nagy’s dog etiquette tips for kids:

  • Never approach a dog without asking permission from your parent and the dog owner.
  • Never charge toward a dog. Calmly walk toward the animal and stop a few feet away. “Let the dog close the distance and offer your hand for him to sniff.”
  • Don’t make eye contact or stare when first meeting a dog.
  • Never pull a dog’s ears or tail.
  • Pet the dog underneath the chin, rather than the top of the head. “Always use an open hand — not a closed palm — when touching a dog.”
  • Never approach a dog from behind. “Sudden movements, like karate chops, are not a good idea either.”
  • Avoid dogs when they are eating or sleeping. “Think of it this way,” says the trainer. “If you are sleeping comfortably on the couch and someone suddenly jumps on you, how would you react? Surprising a dog isn’t fair to her.”

Tips for dog owners

If you own a dog, take dog bite prevention seriously. In many states, dogs that bite and are not up to date on their vaccines are euthanized. Here’s what you can do:

  • If you don’t plan to breed your dog, have him neutered. According to the American Veterinary Medicine Association, unneutered males are involved in 70 to 76 percent of reported dog incidents. 
  • Socialize your dog to become familiar with children so the dog feels comfortable around them. According to Nagy, puppies should be socialized as soon as possible.
  • Always supervise children and dogs, regardless of how certain you are of the animal’s temperament.
  • Never allow roughhousing with your dog. Wrestling or tug-of-war can escalate quickly and an overly excited dog can bite or nip during play.
  • Always use a leash in public places to give you more control of your dog.

Ann Matturro Gault is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in national magazines and many websites. She lives with her four kids, dog, cat and spouse in New Jersey.