It happens to 4.7 million Americans each year: dog bites.

National Dog Bite Prevention Week is here, and the American Veterinary Medical Association is helping spread the word on how people can educate themselves — along with family members and friends — about some simple preventive measures that could save you a trip to the doctor.

“As summer vacation season approaches, it’s a good idea to remind people that children are the most common victims of dog bites,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a board-certified veterinary behaviorist and a professor in the department of small animal clinical sciences at Texas A&M University. “And since kids are home during the summer months, that’s when they are most likely to be bitten.”

About 17 percent of dog bites require medical attention — only a small number (about a dozen each year) result in death — but the costs are still staggering.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, nearly $413 million in liability claims paid in 2010 on homeowners insurance were for dog bites, which is more than a third of all total claims. In 2011, State Farm Insurance alone received 3,800 dog bite claims, totaling $109 million.

Common Dog Bite Triggers

We sometimes forget that dogs aren’t small, furry people. The truth is that they can react differently than people when they’re taken by surprise or if they feel threatened.

Ever heard the saying “let sleeping dogs lie”? Well, it’s good advice. Dogs can often react by biting if they’re startled while sleeping. The same holds true for dogs who exhibit aggressive guarding behavior around food, treats and even favorite toys.  

The AVMA also advises people to be careful when running near dogs. Your sprint can actually awaken a canine’s natural instinct to chase, which can then lead to biting.

And, as adorable as they may be, resist the urge to approach female dogs with puppies. Mother dogs are naturally protective — and they don’t always appreciate when people coo over their little ones.

Most Vulnerable Victims: Children

It’s a sad but true statistic: About half of all dog bites happen to kids.

“They tend to walk up to any dog, make direct eye contact (a stare is a major threat to a dog), pull hair and ears, sit or step on dogs, and they’re loud,” Dr. Beaver explains. Kids are also less skilled at recognizing when a pup’s patience has run out, which is why you should never leave children or babies alone with even the most docile of dogs.

In addition to teaching kids to be respectful and careful around all pets, it’s also crucial that they understand the importance of never approaching or petting strange dogs without first asking permission from the owner.

Know the Risks With Your Own Pet

It may be tempting to think that your loving pup would never, ever nip someone, but statistics show that people are most often bitten by their own dogs or canines they know. And don’t buy into the myth that there are safe breeds — any dog of any breed can bite.

But there are some steps that you can take to minimize the chances that your dog will ever chomp down on you or someone you know.

Start proper socialization early. Expose your pup to plenty of people and other dogs at a young age, so he feels confident and comfortable around people.

Remain aware. Be alert to your dog’s behavior — no matter how well behaved and easygoing he is most of the time. Even dogs who’ve never shown aggression can react poorly when they’re stressed or feeling sick.

Consider neuter surgery. According to research, aside from controlling the pet population, neutering can improve certain types of aggression associated with biting.

Teach good behavior. Obedience training and working with your dog on basic commands can also help to prevent biting, since a well-trained dog will have a stronger connection with humans — and will be less likely to act out in challenging situations.

How to Handle a Dog Bite

If you happen to be bitten by someone else’s dog, be sure to ask the owner for proof that the animal has been vaccinated for rabies, and check with the dog’s vet to make sure that his vaccination is up to date. And don’t forget to jot down the owner’s name and contact information, as well as look into local ordinances for reporting dog bites.

Clean the bite wound with soap and water, and then seek immediate medical care.

If it was your own dog that bit you or someone else, seeking medical attention is still recommended. You should also consult your veterinarian about your dog’s rabies vaccination and your dog’s health to check for any underlying physical conditions that may have led to his aggressive behavior. And ask for your vet’s input for preventing future biting.