Dogs can be man’s best friend, but they also can be dangerous. While you may feel comfortable getting face-to-face with your own pet, when you meet other people’s dogs, you should be careful of their comfort level and temperament.

In the U.S., there are approximately 4.5 million dog attacks a year. Typically, victims are children, often because they don’t know how to safely approach a pooch. Here are some tips for helping yourself and your family stay safe:

  1. Ask the owner – This seems obvious, but always be sure to ask the dog’s owner if approaching their dog is okay. Not only is this common courtesy, but it gives them a chance to tell you if their dog doesn’t like new people.
  2. Move slowly and offer your hand for sniffs – Letting the dog decide how they feel about you before trying to pet them shows them that you are not a threat. Hold out a closed hand for the pup to investigate and try not to make any jolting movements.
  3. Don’t stare into their eyes – Many dogs will take extended eye contact as a sign of aggression, so don’t stare at them for very long.
  4. Pay attention to body language – Recognize how the pup is reacting to you. If he or she backs away or seems tense, give them some space and don’t push the interaction. If they are relaxed, friendly and wagging their tail, go ahead and continue to engage.
  5. Don’t lean over – Bending over a dog can make them feel crowded and threatened. Instead, either stand up straight or squat if you feel comfortable at eye level with the dog.
  6. Don’t hold on – Though furry friends are great for cuddling, you shouldn’t hug dogs that aren’t completely comfortable with you. They can become stressed or uncomfortable if they feel trapped.
  7. Remind your children to stay calm and respectful – Many kids love dogs and want to immediately play. However, keeping your children safe means you need to teach them to respect animals and not get over-excited. Show them how to approach a new dog slowly and to back away if the dog isn’t interested.
  8. Protect yourself – If a dog does get aggressive, do your best to keep them away from your neck, face, chest, thighs and fingers. Instead, try to pull your sleeves down to protect your skin. A bite to the forearm or shin will be the least harmful.

While you should always be cautious around a new dog, knowing how to properly approach them and communicating with the owner can help make it a positive experience. Dog bites can be harmful, scary and sometimes traumatic. If you know how to be respectful of the animal, though, you may make a new friend.