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Children often most vulnerable to dog attacks
(CNN) -- Dogs are the preferred pet for millions of Americans, valued for their loyalty, companionship and protection. But sometimes, that faithful friend can turn into a foe. Health officials say dogs bite or attack more than 4.5 million people each year, killing an average of 20 people.
Young children are often the most vulnerable to these attacks.
"Children are small people, they are closer to dog size. So the dog often views them as playmates, you know, rather than someone as leader," said Patricia McDonnell of Comprehensive Pet Therapy.
In dog society there is a distinct rank order, and dogs sometime see a young child as someone they can push around or perhaps discipline by biting or nipping, according to McDonnell.
Just last year in Georgia, 5-year-old Justin Taubner was attacked by the family Rottweiler while playing with it outside. The bite wounds to his head and neck were fatal.
Boys ages 5 to 9 are most at risk, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Research shows half of all children are bitten by dogs at some point, and half of those attacks occur at home with a familiar dog.
"Too many parents get dogs that do not fit their lifestyle," said Carlos Mendez, a dog trainer with K-9 Express. "When we put them in the backyard, we start to build up separation anxiety, we start to build the negative behavior like barking, digging."
Keeping a dog chained up all day leaves the animal feeling exposed and vulnerable, and can cause it to develop aggressive defensive behaviors, according to Mendez.
If a dog must be confined, experts suggest using a crate in the house, to make the dog feel more secure and comfortable.
But Mendez warns that too much confinement can have negative consequences.
"If you keep this dog cooped up and don't give them any type of human contact, that will obviously make him aggressive because he doesn't know anybody," Mendez said.
A dog posturing to attack will usually stiffen, lean forward and stare at its prey with the hair on its back standing up.
Trainers say a person being threatened by a dog should try to stay calm, because dogs can sense nervousness. They suggest slowly backing away to a safe distance while keeping the dog in sight. But they say no one should turn his back on a threatening dog, or look the animal directly in the eye.
Experts say it is important to remember that any dog, no matter what size or breed, can become aggressive.
Postal Service, Humane Society unite on dog bites
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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