It may seem odd, but there's a parallel between abductions and dog attacks: Most children who are victimized aren't randomly selected; they're attacked by a person or dog known to them. Just as an abductor is more likely to be someone known to the child -- an estranged parent, say -- a dog involved in a serious attack is more likely to be an animal the child knows, kept by the family, a friend or a relative.
The profile on these dogs is well-known to experts. They're usually kept isolated from the family, often spending their lives on chains. This increases their sense of isolation and their desire to protect territory. They're often untrained and unsocialized, usually young, unneutered males who are just coming into their own as adults and starting to feel -- absent human assistance -- that in their territory, they reign supreme.
Any child who wanders into the reach of such an animal is in grave danger.
If you have such a dog, you must take action. First step: Neutering, to minimize hormone-influenced aggression and territoriality. Then, ask your veterinarian for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist who can help you train and socialize the animal. If you cannot rehabilitate your dog, you must be certain he is securely contained in an escape-proof area and muzzled while in public. Sadly, for some of these animals, euthanasia is the only answer.
Even if your family dog is a cupcake, your child may still be at risk for a bite. The Humane Society of the United States suggests teaching your children how to behave around strange dogs and how to react if attacked. With the start of school at hand, and with many children walking on streets that may have loose dogs, be sure your children know the following:
-- Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs confined in yards and especially on chains should also be avoided. If the dog is with its owner, children should always ask permission before petting and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. Pat on the neck or chest -- the dog may interpret a pat from above as a dominant gesture. Teach your children to avoid fast or jerky movements.
-- "Be a tree" when a dog approaches, standing straight with feet together, fists under the neck and elbows into the chest. Teach your children to make no eye contact: Some dogs view this as a challenge. Running is a normal response to danger, but it's the worst possible thing to do around a dog, because it triggers the animal's instinct to chase and bite. Many dogs just sniff and leave; teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then back away slowly out of the area.
-- "Feed" the dog a jacket or backpack if attacked, or use a bike to block the dog. These strategies may keep an attacking dog's teeth from connecting on flesh.
-- Act like a log if knocked down -- face down, legs together, curled into a ball with fists covering the back of the neck and forearms over the ears. This position protects vital areas and can keep an attack from turning fatal.
Role-play these lessons with your child until they are ingrained. Dealing with the dangers in your own yard and teaching your children how to cope may spare your child a bite -- and even save a life.
PETS ON THE WEB
The Daily Drool (www.dailydrool.com) serves as the home page for an e-mail list that celebrates the basset hound. The Drool offers health and training information on this low-slung, low-key breed, as well as pictures and sound clips, information on how to find a puppy or adult basset, links to rescue groups, shopping and more. One of the most amusing pages features the basset-related license plates of some Drool members, such as "BASSTMBL" and "DAWGMOM." This site is as informative as it is entertaining. Anyone who has or is thinking about getting a basset hound will find much of interest here.
Whenever I need to pick up a little gift for a cat lover, I always go for one of Bob Walker's books, the first of which was "The Cats' House" (Andrews McMeel, $16.95). Walker and his wife, Frances Mooney, live in a modest Southern California house they've remodeled in a spectacularly clever and colorful way for the pleasure and comfort of their cats, with floor-to-ceiling cat trees leading to overhead catwalks that connect from room to room through holes cut in the walls.
The books, like the house, are like nothing else out there, bright and whimsical depictions of what must be some of the happiest cats in the world. I met Walker at a conference a few years back -- "just call me Bobcat," he said, merrily. I found him to be every bit as charming as his books. This makes me feel doubly good about supporting both his work and his happy cats!
QUESTIONS FROM THE PACK
Q: I've heard that head halters can cause serious injuries if used wrongly. A too-abrupt tug could jerk a dog's head causing neck or spinal injuries, couldn't it? -- A.K., via e-mail
A: Anything's possible, which is why I don't recommend using a head halter with one of those long, reel-type leashes. The force of a running dog hitting the end of a 30-foot line does have the potential to cause injury.
In truth, just about every piece of canine equipment has the potential for problems if used incorrectly. Slip-chain collars can choke a dog or injure his neck. Break-away collars, designed to release a dog who's caught on something, can result in a dog being off-leash when it's least safe, such as next to a busy street. And head halters can jerk a dog's head around.
If you don't know what's right for your dog or how to use it, find a trainer who can help you choose the appropriate equipment and show you how it works. Every piece of training equipment is right for some dogs, but no single item is right for all.
Q: We have a neighbor who is always getting cats and then will not feed them regularly or provide them with medical care. They are covered with fleas, mites and burrs and frequently become ill. Because they aren't altered, the males are very aggressive and the females produce kittens.
Our cats can't set foot outside, and we can't leave a door or window open without her cats coming inside to forage for food or attack our cats.
We have done what we can. We have taken three cats to the animal shelter, treated others for fleas, had a few neutered and found homes for some kittens. We've also paid for emergency medical care -- even surgery -- for injured animals, and have tried to keep the cats fed when they become desperate.
Communication with this neighbor is impossible. We have tried, as have many people before us. She knows her behavior is disruptive and couldn't care less.
We are at our wits' end. Is there anything that can be done about situations like this? We've tried to work with the local animal shelter, but they've made it clear they'd prefer not to have the problem transferred to them. -- G.J., via e-mail
A: You've already done more than most people would in trying to care for the neighbor's cats and, clearly, you and the cats (hers and yours both) need help with this situation.
Try again with local officials, talking directly to the humane investigators in your area, not just the front-desk people at the shelter. Let investigators know that the neighbor is neglecting even the most basic needs of the animals. Talk to municipal officials as well about the nuisance, noise and health problems the cats present. I'd also consider talking to an attorney, especially if her aggressive cats cause injury to yours on your property -- paying a few veterinary bills may get her attention. And see if you can get the neighbors involved: The more people who complain, the more force the complaints have, especially with municipal officials.
It may not seem fair to the cats to take action against the neighbor, since they may end up in the shelter if she's forced to clean up her act. But the best solution for all involved -- including her string of long-suffering pets -- would be if this woman is finally convinced to keep no animals at all.
Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of "Dogs for Dummies," "Cats for Dummies" and "Birds for Dummies." She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her in care of this newspaper, or send e-mail to writetogina(at)spadafori.com.
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