Dog trainers hear it all the time from shaken parents whose children have been bit by the family pet: the dog just snapped.
A group of researchers who say that's almost never the case are now testing software aimed at teaching young children how to behave around animals in hopes of cutting down on the number of dog bites and maulings.
"This is not a small problem," said David Schwebel, professor and vice chairman of the psychology department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
And when dogs do bite, it can be a high profile problem. The 4-year-old daughter of reality television star Jesse Browning, who appears on The History Channel's "Ax Men" about the logging industry, was mauled and killed by one of the family's Rottweilers this weekend.
According to The Associated Press, Ashlynn Anderson was found on the front lawn of the family's Astoria, Ore., home on Sunday. The attack came four months after another of the family's dogs -- also a Rottweiler -- was removed from the home after it bit someone. Reached at home, a family member said Browning was unavailable for comment.
Dogs bite 4.5 million Americans each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control -- and those are just the reported cases. Children, who are more apt to miss a dog's obvious warning signs of distress, are at especially high risk.
Its those warnings signs Schwebel hopes to emulate with Blue Dog software, using cartoon simulations and an oversized blue dog that's friendly one moment and threatening the next.
Schwebel's team of researchers have worked their way through a group of about 100 children of dog owners, testing the software's effectiveness at making kids think twice about how they treat their pets.
"The software is designed to teach children when the dog wants to play and when the dog may be upset," he said. "You can almost read in their faces and their eyes. This is usually something that adults are very good at, at recognizing these signs. But children do not have the perspective taking skills."
A spate of other dog attacks have made headlines in recent months, including the fatal mauling of an 11-day-old baby boy last month by a Siberian husky and the death of a 2-year-old boy in Florida, who was bitten in the neck by the family's Weimaraner.
"Dog owners love their dogs and think their dogs are very safe," Schwebel said. "A huge portion of the dogs are safe. But if they get provoked the wrong way, they will bite."
It's been seven months since 3-day-old AJ Smith was carried off in the jaws of his parents wolf-hybrid mix. Even though he is home and a healthy 22-pound baby, his dad is still vigilant about keeping him separated from the two dogs that still live with the family.
Michael and Chrissie Smith made national news last summer after their dog Dakota snatched AJ, also a preemie, and left him in the yard, alive but seriously injured. Dakota has since been adopted by another family and the Smiths installed extra protections around the house, including door knobs the two remaining dogs have not been able figure out how to open on their own.
"After seven months, we're still cautious," Smith said. "You almost live in fear."
They say they fully trust their two other dogs – a wolf-hybrid who is related to Dakota and a Laborador retriever – but now know how quickly something tragic can happen.
"There was a human being around him at all times," he said.