When we see a news story about a dog attacking a child, we quickly look for the reason behind the tragedy. It's usually there, if you know what you're looking for. And no, what we're talking about isn't a reference to the dog's being identified -- or just as often, misidentified -- as a "pit bull."
What we're looking for -- and usually find -- are the indicators that the situation was already well on the way to being dangerous when the attack happened. Typically, the dog was young, male and unneutered. He was also unsocialized, usually a backyard dog with little to no interaction with the family. Even more likely, the dog was in effect trained to defend his turf by being kept full-time on a chain or in a small kennel run.
"He never gave us any problem before!" says the owner of the dog, who really didn't know the animal because he was little more than a lawn ornament or the living equivalent of a burglar alarm sign. Or maybe the owners will grudgingly admit to a bite now and then -- but "nothing serious." Again, more warning signs ignored.
Is there a dog like this in your neighborhood -- or in your own yard? If it's the latter, call your veterinarian and arrange for your pet to be neutered, and then ask for a referral to a trainer or behaviorist with experience in aggressive dogs who can help you with any problems that have driven you to ban your pet from your family (like house-training issues). You can then work on manners and socialization that will turn your pet into a true member of the family -- safe around both family members and visitors alike.
Of course, you can't control what other people do with their animals. That's why you have to make sure your children know how to behave around dogs to protect them from attack.
Here's what every child should know:
Never approach a loose dog, even if he seems friendly. Dogs who are confined in yards, and especially those on chains, should also be avoided. Many are very serious about protecting their turf. If the dog is with his owner, children should always ask permission before petting, and then begin by offering the back of the hand for a sniff. Further, they should pat the dog on the neck or chest. The dog may interpret a pat from above as a gesture of dominance. Teach your children to avoid fast or jerky movements around dogs, since these may trigger predatory behavior.
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, since some dogs view eye contact 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 will just sniff and leave. Teach your children to stay still until the animal walks away, and then back away slowly from 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. They may save your child's life.
Discuss safe behavior with your children and role-play how to approach dogs, when not to approach, and what to do if confronted or attacked.
To be fair, dogs aren't the biggest risk that children face growing up. Organized sports, for example, are 10 times more likely to result in a child's trip to the emergency room than are dogs.
But why take a chance? With summer here and children out and about more than the rest of the year, you need to make sure they know the risks and what to do. You can help protect your child from a dog bite, and it's always worth the time to do so. And sometimes the place to start is in your own family, with a dog who needs your attention now.
Have cats checked on
when you take a trip
Q: How long can my cat stay home alone if I leave plenty of food and water? I don't have anyone to care for him while I am gone, up to four days at a time for business. -- S.W., via e-mail
A: How would you like to be left with food that's getting older by the minute, water that's developing a skin of slime and a bathroom where the toilet's backed up? That's pretty much what you're dealing with if you leave your cat unattended for more than a day.
Even worse, what if the water is spilled, or your cat eats all the food on Day One? And what if he gets seriously sick or injured and no one's around to help?
Or what if your home is broken into or a window left open and your cat escapes? In some areas, if your cat ends up in the local animal-control shelter, he could be killed as a stray before you even knew he was missing. (This is why collar and ID tags -- and a microchip -- are a must even for indoor-only cats.)
Although there are some time-release food dispensers that can keep a cat covered for a weekend in a pinch, your pet really should have someone check in at least once a day.
If you don't have friends, relatives or neighbors who can help, hire a pet sitter to come to your home. PetSitUSA.com, Petsitters.org and Petsit.com all offer searchable listings, or ask friends and co-workers for recommendations. (And check references!)
There are some really great pet sitters out there, and once you find the right one, you'll find that your trips will be easier with the peace of mind that comes from skipping the added worry of wondering about the pet you left behind. -- Gina Spadafori
Do you have a pet question? Send it to email@example.com.
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.
Canine cancer cure?
Prevention is best
-- The best treatment for canine cancer is prevention. Restrict your dog's daily intake of food to maintain a fit body weight, and feed him a balanced, delicious high-quality diet with limited amounts of carbohydrates (sugars), moderate amounts of good-quality proteins and higher levels of n-3 fatty acids such as DHA. Consider supplementing omega-3 fatty acids to potentially reduce the risk of developing cancer. Add regular exercise to complete the list of preventive recommendations, and see your veterinarian if you suspect a problem, since early detection improves survival rates.
-- More than a third of lizard species in the world will be extinct by 2080, according to journal Science. The reason behind mass extinction is that the climate is changing too quickly for many species, especially the lizards who give live birth. These species have lower body temperatures that leave them more vulnerable to kill-offs. Almost 4 percent of lizard species are already extinct.
-- For the first time in modern England, a horse is being used to provide ambulance service. Chase, a 7-year-old horse, and his owner are replacing the traditional ambulance as the first responder at the Cannock Chase Country Park in Staffordshire. The team can get anywhere in the 3,000 acres of parkland within 15 minutes and are able to maneuver easier and more quickly than a vehicle can, officials say. In addition to his human partner, Chase carries many of the materials found on a regular ambulance, including a defibrillator, oxygen, blanket, splints and bandages, according to TheHorse.com -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker Shannon