Smith said the computer software and anything else that teaches children how to treat all animals with respect is something parents should invest in.
Schwebel's team -- working in conjunction with a professional colleague in Ontario -- first tests the children at the university and records their interaction with with a live dog and during role-play with a family and a dog living in a dollhouse.
Families are sent home with either the Blue Dog software -- designed by a Belgian veterinarian and already on the market in some places -- or a separate computer program on fire safety as a control, and they're invited back to the university after a few weeks to repeat the initial tests.
Children are asked to choose whether to play with the dog or leave it alone in a multitude of scenarios. One opportunity comes when the dog is eating, and the child is asked whether they should pet the dog or go play with a toy.
In another, a child is asked to choose between a dog's toy and her own. If the child makes the wrong choice and ignores the dog's warning signs -- growling and baring teeth are among them -- the computer tells the child he or she has not made the right choice, without actually showing the consequences.
When the cartoon child tries to take a bone from the blue dog, he growls and looks angry and the girl's pigtails fly up in the air in fright.
Schwebel declined to share any early data from his research, but said the study is expected to be completed by late spring and the analysis by early fall.
Connecticut dog trainer and bite prevention expert Karen Moulton said she hopes parents would take advantage of programs like Blue Dog, but from her own experience has found that many people don't seek help until it's too late.
"I always get the statement the dog bit without warning. It is so rare the dog bites without warning," said Moulton, owner of Secret Lake Dog Training. "There's usually a lot of warning."
Moulton, who has about 100 clients currently between her class sessions and private consults, said about half of her clients come to her only after the family dog has bit someone, often a child.
And the dogs she sees aren't those stereotypically associated with vicious attacks -- they are golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and small dogs. Never once, Moulton said, has she worked with a bite victim that owned a pit bull.
"They don't just snap," she said. "They do it for a reason."
But there are common behaviors that get children, especially young children, bit. Hugging a dog tightly around the neck, pulling tails, sticking things in dogs' ears and decorating dogs with hair clips are just a few.
"They are giving all the signals, all the warnings they can, and then they get backed into a corner and there's nothing else to do but bite," she said. "And that's really sad."
Older boys also get hurt when they roughhouse with the dog, not because the dog is angry, she said, but because it is more apt to treat the boy like another dog and "play" with its mouth.
And though people hear news of other dog attacks, they rarely do anything to learn how to prevent it. Moulton said she offers free bite prevention and dog safety classes to schools, day care centers and scouting groups. In four years, she's been taken up on her off three times.
She's hoping the UAB researchers will be able to prove that education works.
"I'd be really interested to see," she said. "I think they'll see results."