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Dog's body language tells all

June 21, 1998|By LAURA ERNDE

Sam Turnbull used to walk around Hagerstown City Park every morning before dawn, but he changed his route recently after a stray German shepherd bit him.

About 300 people are bitten by dogs every year in Washington County.

In many cases, the victims could have been spared if they had a better understanding of dog behavior, officials said.

"Dogs survive and dogs communicate the majority of the time with body language," said Keller Haden, animal control supervisor at the Washington County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Knowing canine body language can prevent an attack, she said. Some warning signs dogs provide are direct eye contact, a face-to-face stance with a person, and hair raised across the dog's shoulders.

Sometimes, the warning is subtle. Haden has been bitten three times in her 17-year career with animals, she said.

"Each time was my fault. I did not read the situation correctly," she said.

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Turnbull said he did nothing to provoke the German shepherd that approached him at the corner of Summit and Garlinger avenues.

To him, it looked friendly. And even though he didn't try to pet the dog, it bit him on the back of the leg, leaving teeth marks and a bruise.

Because the dog couldn't be found to be checked for rabies, health officials recommended that Turnbull take rabies shots.

He is undergoing a series of nine shots, which leave him with dull body aches for a day, but otherwise are not painful, he said.

The shots are given at various places on the body, but no longer in the stomach.

Nationwide, up to a million people a year need medical attention due to dog bites. Many more bites go unreported and untreated, said the Humane Society of the United States, which sponsored National Dog Bite Prevention Week last week.

"It's a nasty, stressful situation and so much is preventable," said Betty Shank, spokeswoman for the Washington County Health Department.

Dog owners and possible victims need to know how to prevent their pets from hurting people.

Owners should properly socialize and train the dog to be submissive to people, have the animal spayed or neutered and should not play aggressive games with their dog, the Humane Society says.

Young children should not be left alone with a dog because they may not have the experience to tell when the dog is aggravated.

Even dogs that have never been aggressive can bite if they feel threatened, said Becky Sauceda, sanitarian at the Washington County Health Department.

"People that own these dogs have no idea their dogs can be so mean," she said.

Any dog bite that breaks the skin is supposed to be reported.

In Washington County, the report is most often taken by a police officer. It's then up to the health department to investigate the possibility that the dog was rabid.

In many other counties, the reports are handled by animal control officers instead of police officers, Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said.

The SPCA said the county needs to find a better way to deal with nuisance animals.

The SPCA isn't authorized to detain or destroy vicious or nuisance dogs unless the SPCA officer witnesses them running loose.

Even then, the SPCA can impound the animal only until it is claimed by the owner. All the agency can do is issue a $10 fine and order the animal quarantined for 10 days at the owner's home if it bites someone.

The SPCA has proposed that the Washington County Commissioners appoint an Animal Control Authority with the power to fine owners of nuisance animals.

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