March 3, 2010 -- 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.
Smith said the computer software and anything else that teaches children how to treat all animals with respect is something parents should invest in.
Software Tests Children on Right and Wrong Ways to Play With Dogs
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."
Dog Trainer: 'They Don't Just Snap'
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."