Children are most often the victims of dog bites, as evidenced by the recent attack in Chicago of a pit bull that killed an innocent five-year-old child. The story is a terrible tragedy that has been reported in the news for days.
Dogs are many times our closest companions and considered one of the family. But any dog can be territorial and unpredictable when it feels threatened or when defending puppies, owners or food. “Our dog has never bitten anyone before” is a common refrain to those who respond to dog bite situations. The numbers tell the story. More than 4.5 million people are bitten each year in the United States, one in five requiring medical attention, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). Half of the victims are children and are far more likely to be injured. The Insurance Information Institute also reports that the number of dog bite claims is on the rise, accounting for more than one-third of all homeowners insurance claims paid in 2013, or $483.7 million nationwide.
How to Try to Avoid a Dog Bite
First of all, assume any dog can bite, not just breeds that are often thought to be more aggressive. Always be cautious around strange dogs, respecting their space especially when sleeping, eating or chewing on a toy. Other important tips:
- Never leave a baby or small child alone with a dog. Teach children to be cautious around pets and to ask first before approaching a dog.
- Pay attention to a dog’s body language, looking for cues that it might be uncomfortable like a tensed body, stiff tail, pulled-back head or ears, yawning and intense staring.
- If it looks like a dog might attack, resist the impulse to scream or run away. Stay motionless with your hands at your side. Once the dog loses interest, slowly back away.
- If the dog does attack, “feed” him your jacket, hat, purse or anything else you can put between you and the dog. If you fall, curl into a ball and lay as still as possible with your hands over your head and neck.
- After a dog bite, immediately wash the wound with soap and warm water. Seek medical attention as soon as possible and then report the dog bite to your local animal control agency.
There is a lot you can do as an owner to ensure that your dog doesn’t bite anyone. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it is also your obligation under state and local law. Start by consulting a veterinarian on suitable dogs for your household. Then consider these tips:
- Because so many dog bites happen to young children, you might want to wait until your children are four-years-old or older before bringing home a dog.
- Socialize your pet as a puppy so it feels at ease around people and other animals.
- Train your dog on basic commands like “sit,” “stay,” “no” and “come” to build a bond of obedience and trust. It is also important to exercise and spend time with your dog as dogs left alone too much can develop behavioral problems.
- Keep your dog healthy and feeling well with all required vaccinations. Neutering your pet can also lessen aggression.
- Follow the rules by licensing your dog and obeying leash laws.
For more information, download this brochure from the AVMA. And check out the Blue Dog Parent Guide for tips on how to help children safely interact with dogs.
Your Legal Rights
Laws governing dog bites vary by state or local jurisdiction, but in most cases the dog owner is liable for injuries caused by his or her dog. A smaller number of states require the victim to prove that the dog was vicious or that the owner caused the attack by violating animal control laws. Damages are typically covered by the dog owner’s homeowners or renters insurance policies. Your best bet if you or someone close to you has been bitten by a dog is to discuss all of your options with a lawyer. The relevant part of the Illinois Animal Control Act is as follows:p510 ILCS 5/16:Sec. 16.p
If a dog or other animal, without provocation, attacks, attempts to attack, or injures any person who is peaceably conducting himself or herself in any place where he or she may lawfully be, the owner of such dog or other animal is liable in civil damages to such person for the full amount of the injury proximately caused thereby. A dog bite victim can bring a claim against a dog owner based upon the foregoing statute. Additionally, a victim can reach owners and other potential defendants, such as the custodian of the dog, on the ground of negligence or negligence per se.