For countless pet owners, dogs are an integral part of their family and their life. But, as loving and loyal as canines can be, it’s essential not to forget that they are still animals who rely on their instincts. Though dogs will never attack or bite without a reason, fear, pain or poor socialization can create dangerous scenarios that often lead to injuries – even if the dog was previously friendly.

Over 4.5 million people in the United States are bitten by dogs each year, and about one-fifth of these victims will require medical attention. While it’s ultimately the dog owner’s responsibility to prevent their dog from biting, dogs are virtually everywhere. Adults and children must know how to safely interact with dogs and recognize when they feel threatened to avoid getting hurt.

Here are a few tips you can follow to prevent a dangerous dog encounter:

When you shouldn’t approach a dog

Generally, you should never approach an unfamiliar dog – especially if they are behind a fence or leashed in their yard. A dog who doesn’t know you may see you as a threat to their territory. If a strange dog approaches you outside of their yard, don’t run away or panic, as this could activate the dog’s prey drive. Instead, stand tall and avoid direct eye contact as you slowly back away.

Also, it’s a good idea not ever to disturb a dog who is:

  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Playing with a toy
  • Sick or injured
  • Caring for puppies
  • Appears fearful or aggressive

The proper way to greet a dog

When meeting a new dog, you should always ask for the owner’s permission before trying to approach or pet the dog. If you get consent, you should first allow the dog to sniff the back of your hand to ensure they are comfortable. Teach your children not to pet the dog’s head and be especially careful around its ears, eyes and mouth. Petting them gently on the dog’s side is usually a more comfortable option for the animal.

When a dog becomes aggressive

Though it may seem counterintuitive, if a dog knocks you over and displays aggression, the safest thing you can do is remain quiet and roll into a ball to protect your face and neck. If you try to run away or scream, it could excite the dog and cause them to chase you. By remaining calm and still, the dog should lose interest and leave.

Dog bites aren’t always preventable, but learning to read the warning signs can help you avoid potentially dangerous canine encounters. By following these tips, you can ensure you and your family stay safe around your furry companions.