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.
Most of the risk can be minimized by making sure the family dog is just that: a member of the family, an indoor dog given ample opportunities for training and socializing. While this won't remove all the risk (see the accompanying story for signs of trouble), a dog who feels comfortable and secure can be what you hope for most -- your child's best friend.
If you've taken steps to make your family dog as safe as possible, the next step in bite prevention is to teach your child what to do if he or she encounters a potentially hostile dog while out and about. This is especially important because our instincts, when faced with a threatening loose dog, could not be more deadly. We want to scream and run, which may trigger predatory behavior in a dog.
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 -- especially those on chains -- should also be avoided. If the dog is with its owner, children should always ask permission before petting him and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. Pat him 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 response to 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 with 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.
Safety starts at home
Is your dog a time bomb? Answer these questions and be brutally honest:
-- Has your dog ever "stared you down"? If your dog gives you a hard, fixed stare, you need to recognize it for the challenge it is.
-- Does your dog adopt a dominant posture with you or other people? A dog who's trying to be boss will be up on his toes, with his legs stiff, ears forward and hackles raised. His tail will be held up or out, and may even be wagging a little. Don't confuse the latter for friendliness. There's big difference between the wide, relaxed wag of a friendly dog and the stiff, tight one of an aggressive animal.
-- Do you avoid doing certain things around your dog because they elicit growling or a show of teeth? Some people live their lives in fear of their dog, avoiding the animal when he's eating, sleeping, playing with a toy ... the list can be endless.
-- Do you consider your dog safe, except around a particular group of people, such as children? When he growls at the veterinarian, do you tell yourself the behavior is reasonable because the animal thinks the doctor is "mean"?
-- Has your dog ever bitten anyone? Whatever the reason, no matter the excuse, a dog who has bitten once is more likely to bite again than the dog who has never bitten at all.
A "yes" to any of these questions means you do have a problem, and you need to find help. Talk to your veterinarian about a referral to a trainer or behaviorist with experience in canine aggression.
While some dogs with aggression problems cannot be reformed, others can, with a combination of medication and retraining, and a big dose of dog-savvy on the part of the owner.
If your dog cannot be trusted, even after professional help, don't try to pass the problem along to someone else just because it's too hard to do what needs to be done. Take responsibility and euthanize your dog. You may be sparing a child a lifetime of fear and disfigurement, or you may even be saving someone's life.
Give up our pit? We'd move first
Thank you for speaking out against banning pit bulls. As you noted, the blame for most dog attacks can be attached to ignorant, negligent and sometimes criminal dog owners and breeders. I also believe that pit bull bans are instigated by sensationalistic reporting and enacted by self-serving, mean-spirited politicians.
Five years ago, we adopted a 1-year-old pit bull from the shelter, and she's been with us ever since. She loves every person she meets, and she's never as much as curled her lip at anyone. If our city ever enacted an ordinance like Denver's, we'd move rather than give her up. -- D.D., via e-mail
Giving up our dog
I wake each morning knowing that my time with my beloved Cyrus is coming to an end. I have been fighting since February 2005 because landlords do not want us because we have a "pit bull." Now we have to take a place for ourselves that does not allow our dog. It breaks my heart knowing he will no longer be with me.
He has always been there for me, and now I have to desert him. It makes me angry and sad. Cyrus is a loving member of our family. If our financial status were better, we could buy a place so we could keep him. Please keep spreading the word, and maybe it will save others the heartache of leaving a friend. -- K.O., via e-mail
In support of bans
The majority of serious dog attacks on humans are done by pit bulls. A few are done by other breeds, but they are seldom the unprovoked attacks that can maim and kill like pit bulls can. My brother is in law enforcement. He can show records of dog attacks going back many years. Most are by pit bulls.
To allow pit bulls within the city limits is absurd. These animals do the most damage the most often. Get rid of the pit bulls and save a life. Many gang types keep a dog as a weapon. Dog of choice: pit bull. Ban pit bulls. -- C.S., via e-mail
Gina responds: After my column against banning pit bulls ran, I was swamped with responses. Most were in agreement, but then, most (but not all) of those who defended pit bulls had them or liked the breed.
Other readers insisted that pit bulls -- a generic term for a handful of breeds, in fact -- were genetically different from other dogs and so should be exterminated down to the last loving pet.
Isn't it odd that the pit bull has been around for decades with no more problems than any other large breed until the criminal element got ahold of it? Does anyone remember when the Doberman was the "killer breed"? What make anyone think that people who want a dangerous dog wouldn't shift to another kind of dog once pit bulls are gone?
Now, to be sure, there are problems with pit bulls, and I'm not denying it. Pit bulls are more likely to be dog-aggressive, thanks to their development as a fighting breed. That's why the group Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls, aka BAD RAP (www.badrap.org), and others strongly advise against off-leash play with other dogs for pit bulls, and argue they do not belong in dog parks.
As far as aggression against humans, there's no doubt every attack is one attack too many. But my point is that strong and sensible legislation against all dangerous dogs -- not just pit bulls -- will provide municipalities with tools for dealing with menacing dogs no matter the breed.
(Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Many dogs love little pools
There's no doubt that many manufacturers realize how much crossover there is between the children's market and the pets' market. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that more "baby" gates are sold to dog owners than to parents. And other products, from playpens to toddler toys, do double duty, selling well in both markets.
As summer winds down, you might be able to pick up one of these double-duty items at a deep discount and put it away for your pet's enjoyment next summer. That item? The kiddie pool.
For dogs who love water, a wallow in the pool is a great way to cool down after summer activity. Even dogs who wouldn't dream of getting completely drenched might be convinced of the pleasures of getting their tummies wet.
I keep two pools full for the dogs, draining and hosing them clean every other day before refilling them. While I'm sure the retrievers would rather have a built-in pool, the kiddie pools seem to keep them happy and cool enough all summer long.
Pets can get sunburned, too
While a pet's fur coat provides protection from the sun's harmful rays, some pets are still at risk for sunburn. Among them: hairless breeds like the Chinese crested, animals with thin, light-color coats, and pets whose coats have thinned with age. Animals who are recovering from surgery are also at risk on the areas that were shaved.
Prevention is always better than treatment. Keep high-risk pets out of direct sunlight. If your pet must be in the sun, apply sunblock. Recommended products include Johnson & Johnson's Waterbabies, Bullfrog waterproof and EltaBlock waterproof. The benefit of waterproof products is that they're also dog-saliva-proof.
You can also try putting a child's T-shirt on the animal to protect him from harmful rays. Pets with a small problem area, such as a light spot on a nose, may be a candidate for having the area permanently tattooed with dark ink.
If your pet gets sunburned, liberal amounts of an aloe vera preparation can be applied. Do not apply any other medication without first discussing it with your veterinarian.
Sun protection is important not just for sunburn -- the same kinds of dogs who are vulnerable to sunburn are often at risk for skin cancer, too.
(Pet Rx is provided by the Veterinary Information Network (VIN.com), an online service for veterinary professionals. More information can be found at www.veterinarypartner.com.)
Training your cat can be fun for you both
Some people point to the dog's ability to learn obedience commands and tricks as proof that dogs are smarter than cats. Others point to the same thing as proof that cats are smarter than dogs -- cats don't have to work for a living.
Cats and dogs are different in how they relate to us. Dogs have an ingrained need to be part of a family structure and to have a job to do within that family. Dogs are that way in large part because wolves are that way -- survival depends on the family, or pack.
The cat came from a different place, descended from solitary hunters who didn't need teamwork to survive.
If you want to put a good spin on it as a cat lover, you could say that dogs need to be with us, while cats choose to.
Because of this distinction, you absolutely cannot get a cat to do something he doesn't want to. Something must be in it for him. When training a cat, that something is usually food.
For example, you can start teaching the "sit" command to a hungry cat using a table, a quiet room and some treats. Get your cat to stand up by touching her in front of her tail. Then hold the treat a little over her head, saying her name and the command "sit." Slowly move the treat between your cat's ears, but not high enough for her to pick her front paws off the ground and grab the tidbit. Instead, she'll sit. After she does, praise her and give her the treat. Work in short sessions and be patient. Your cat will eventually get the idea!
Build on your successes. From "sit" can come "sit up." Many cats also love active tricks, such as jumping through hoops.
"Clicker" training -- marking a correct behavior with a noise and following with a treat -- works great when training cats. Clicker-training guru Karen Pryor offers a collection of instructions, streaming video, books, and other tools and tips for clicker-training cats on her Web site at www.clickertraining.com/training/cats.
PETS ON THE WEB
Resources for the hard-shelled
Felice Rood is a dynamo, a one-woman army fighting for the good of turtles and tortoises everywhere. Felice's World of Turtles Web site (http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/felicerood) lets more people in on the commonsense care tips and lively sense of humor she shares in person with members of the Sacramento Turtle and Tortoise Club.
Best bets: excerpts from the club's newsletters, especially Rood's stories of her pets. The care sheets for various species are lifesavers, and you can order either or both of Rood's turtle and tortoise care videos on the site. World of Turtles would be helped out a great deal, though, by providing links to other sites devoted to these charming beings, such as the extremely comprehensive site of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society (www.nytts.org), the California Turtle and Tortoise Club (www.tortoise.org), or the reptile resources on Melissa Kaplan's Herp Care Collection (www.anapsid.org).
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 email@example.com. You can also read her frequently updated Web log or view her column archives at www.spadafori.com.
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