Even if your child is comfortable around pets, it pays to discuss safety tips as they return to school. Nearly half the estimated 800,000 dog bites that occur each year involve children between the ages of 5 and 9 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Dog trainer and TV show host Victoria Stilwell of “It’s Me or the Dog” on Animal Planet offers seven things kids need to know about safely interacting with dogs on their way to school.

ASPCA illustration of aggressive attack dog1. Not every dog is your friend.
Kids often mistake wagging tails for happiness — and that isn’t always the case, Stilwell says. Help kids recognize when a dog is showing signs of aggression or fear. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA.org) offers photos that illustrate canine body language and tips to avoid dog bites. There’s also a printable handout (right) that kids and parents can share with classmates.

Even if kids know the dog, they should avoid approaching, hugging, staring or showing teeth. Stilwell says these actions can cause pressure for a dog, leading to growling or biting. After years of watching Mom in action, Stilwell says her 8-year-old daughter has learned that it’s best to ignore dogs during initial meetings.

“She waits for the dog to come to her,” she says. “If the dog wants to have a relationship with her, she looks for fluid body language that she can read and we do it on the dog’s terms.”

Victoria Stilwell

2. Embrace your inner tree (or rock).

Dogs lose interest when they are ignored, so Stilwell (right) tells children to become a tree, standing still and avoiding eye contact when dogs approach. If kids get knocked to the ground, advise them to roll up like a stone on the ground with knees in and hands behind their neck so they protect vital organs. Practice makes perfect.

3. Avoid running from loose dogs.

If possible, slowly walk away from the dog. But she says to avoid freaking out and making high-pitched noises. Whatever happens, do not run. Remember to ignore dogs by becoming a tree or a rock.

4. Report loose or stray dogs.

If kids see a stray dog during walks to school, remind them to alert an adult. Stilwell says that parents should report loose dogs to animal control immediately. “There are so many irresponsible dog owners out there and these people need to be reported,” she says.

5. Be careful when walking on a dog’s ‘turf.’

Many owners rely on electric fences or shock collars to keep dogs confined to their own yard. But Stilwell notes that kids and other animals can easily cross those invisible boundaries — and that’s often when the trouble occurs. “Mostly children are bitten on the dog’s territory by a dog that they know,” she says. “It’s rare for a child to be bitten by a dog that comes out of nowhere and bites them.”

6. Never touch dogs behind a fence.

Tell kids to exercise caution and avoid taunting or exciting dogs behind fences, she says. Remember, that fence may not be too sturdy, and some determined dogs can jump over fences without any trouble.

7. Taunting dogs is a form of bullying.

“Being kind to animals is much more powerful than teasing, bullying, or being rough or unkind to these creatures,” she says.  “How would you feel if you were teased or bullied or hit?”

School-related activities for kids

Here are a few ideas to help kids learn more about the joy and responsibility of pet ownership.

Pet project: Adopt a class frog or turtle and learn what’s necessary for its care. Kids who perform well in school can take the class pets home during weekends or holiday breaks.

Pay it forward: Collect newspapers, used towels and toys for your local animal shelter.

Create or expand your food drive: Add pet food to your holiday canned food drives. SaveOurPetsFoodBank.org lists organizations that help pet owners who need a helping hand.

Host pets in need: Invite rescue groups or the animal shelter to hold an adoption fair during special events at the schools, such as winter carnivals or summer festivals.

Spread the word: Use school newsletters, social media tools and websites to spread the word about pets that need good homes. A sweet boxer named Merlin waited more than a year to find his forever home. Schools provide a vast network of potential forever homes for pets in need.

— Morieka Johnson, @SoulPup

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