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May 30 2007 - Avoid dog bites

Sometimes, a bark is just a bark — but a dog’s ears will never lie.

Pups with ears pointed forward are dominant or aggressive.

These and other clues, from the stiffness of the spine to the height of the tail, can give vital indicators to a dog’s emotional state, comfort level, and intentions.

Understanding canine cues and appropriately reacting can avert bites and attacks in 90 percent of encounters with an aggressive dog, Kerri Burns said.

The former police officer and trainer for the American Humane Society led a daylong workshop Friday in human-dog interaction and bite prevention.

The Rio Grande Valley boasts a larger-than-average population of dogs, both pets and strays, and more than half of Texan children under the age of 12 have been the victims of a dog bite, according to a 2006 study.

Local police departments report bite incidents in the triple digits each year, particularly during summer months.

The workshop, sponsored by the Upper Valley Humane Society, was designed to teach a motley crew of animal workers and law enforcement officers the basics of doggie etiquette — in particular, how to make sure your body language is not unintentionally urging a dog to attack.

For Rogelio Palacios, supervisor of Pharr’s animal control team, the lesson was well-taken, and perhaps a bit late.

He suffered a dog bite to the stomach several years ago and was surprised to learn that he has been incorrectly approaching dogs.

Normally, with a dog, “we would just get off (the truck) and just approach him, straight at him,” he said.

The most important way to ensure safety from a dog, according to American Humane’s course, is to Bark, Stop, Drop and Roll.

That is, if you realize a dog is nearby (from the bark), stop forward movement, drop your eyes so you are not staring directly at it in a challenging way, and roll your shoulder, or pivot sideways, so that you are taking a step back from the animal and presenting your side.

All these actions say: “No fight,” Burns said.

“I wish I could have brought all my other officers,” Palacios said of the training.

Not all bites come from aggressive, dominant pooches, Burns said.

Dogs that are threatened, protective or very afraid are likely to attack if provoked or approached too quickly.

And though pit bulls and Rotweillers have nasty reputations, bites more often come from tiny, territorial house pets.

Palacios and fellow officer Francisco Villarreal said terriers and Chihuahuas threatened and confused by new people in their home can often become fierce.

What not to do when faced with an uncomfortable scenario?

Don’t run away (it might activate its hunting instincts). Don’t lean down and into its face — in an attempt to hug or grab it, for example. And don’t stare into its eyes.

“A fearful person communicates the wrong way, because they will stare at the dog to make sure it doesn’t move,” Burns said.

Also, don’t leave children unsupervised with pets.

Kids are the most frequent victims of dog bites because their first instinct is to try to square off with a dog and hug it around the neck, Burns said. And when pushed over, the little ones tend to escalate situations by thrashing — a movement that makes dogs think they have pinned prey.

Virginia Ingram left the session with new insights into the animals she used to fear when on home visits as a social worker.

“Communication is important to me,” she said. “A lot of dogs have entered my life lately — all kinds, all sizes.”

Learning to read these animals’ cues and responses will guide her to help creatures that she said too often are abandoned, abused, trained to be nasty or used as weapons.

The lessons even apply to humans.

When approaching disoriented patients at the Las Palmas Health Care Center in McAllen, she does so sideways — “We do not use that gunslinger stance,” she said.
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