After a dog bit her when she was 7 years old, Sarah Francis, now 19, decided she wanted to teach children the importance of being respectful but not fearful of dogs.
“At first, I was just playing with it and everything was fine, and then I ran from it and it bit my ankle,” said Francis, who noted the bite hurt but barely broke her skin. “I was really scared of dogs after that, but then I learned what to do.”
The American Veterinary Medical Association reported in July that more than 4.7 million people are bitten by a dog every year in the United States, with about 800,000 victims requiring medical attention. Children between the ages of five and nine are at higher risk of being bitten, as well as being severely injured by a bite. It is the second leading cause of injury to children, ranking behind injuries affiliated with sports.
That’s why she and her father, Mark, who reside in Moose Jaw, Canada, started the “Aware, Not Afraid” program, which they’ve being presenting throughout the United States and parts of Canada since she was 11. Together, they’ve visited at least 80 schools, including St. Peter School at 120 Mayfair Road, which they stopped by yesterday morning. There, she addressed an assembly of more than 100 children, ranging in age from kindergarteners through fifth graders.
“What do you guys do when you get scared of a dog?” Francis asked them. “How many of you would run away?”
With that, a majority of the children raised their hands. This, said Francis, is not the proper approach. Instead, she said it’s important to use other forms of body language to show the animal emotions.
Using Principal Joan Sickinger’s dog, Mopsy, as an example, Francis showed the children how to greet a dog. She started by saying hello to Mopsy, a five-year-old male Shih Tzu, and introducing herself to him. At that point, Mopsy began wagging his tail, a sign that shows Francis she had the green light to pet him, which she did on his side, noting the importance of never touching an unknown dog on the head or face, as it may startle the dog.
Francis also told the children to avoid approaching a dog if its ears are pulled back, if it is holding its tail between its legs, and especially if it is showing its teeth and growling.
“A growling dog doesn’t mean that they want to bite us, but it’s more of a warning,” said Francis. “They just want us to stay away.”
Further, she informed the assembly that they should always ask a dog’s owner if they may pet the dog before they attempt to greet the animal. But just because the owner says yes doesn’t always mean it’s safe.
“Before I even thought about petting Mopsy, I let him come up to me and sniff me,” Francis said.
But what does someone do if a strange and unknown dog approaches him or her? The answer is to stand as tall and still as possible with your arms by your side. Sickinger, as well as the children, helped demonstrate.
“Look down or up, as long as you aren’t looking the dog directly in the eyes,” said Francis. “That could scare them. Another thing not to do is to make a loud noise. I know when you see a cute puppy, it’s natural to say, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s so cute,’ and talk in a high-pitched voice and be excited, but that could also frighten the dog.”
Aside from a few giggles during the presentation, as Sickinger’s energetic participation humored the children, the students took the event seriously. By the end of the presentation, they said it helped them learn more about how best to behave around dogs.
Fourth grader Andrew Cavanagh, 10, said he thought it was interesting to learn about what he should do if a dog approaches him.
“We know what to do in the future,” he said.
Sickinger said she was appreciative of the presentation, which was offered to the school at no cost. Also, she said it’s vital for the children to understand to be respectful not only of dogs but all animals.
“They need to know that animals are a good thing and learn how to approach them, particularly dogs they don’t know,” she said. “They are all God’s creatures. Sickinger, who said the presentation marked the first time the school had a visit from Francis and Mark, also expressed her gratitude to them for donating their time.
Mark said they are able to offer the program for free because hotels they stay at during tours sponsor them. Among the hotels are the Sheraton, as well as the Hilton, to name a few. Francis and Mark pay for their own travel expenses. They hope to move to New York in the near future to ease the cost. At times, their friends make donations.
Francis, who works part time at a clothing store in Canada, is hoping to turn the presentations into a career. She also co-wrote a book with her father about life lessons that animals teach people, which she donated to the school along with a plush toy dog.
“Every time you see it, just try to remember what you learned,” she said.
The book, “Love Your Pet, Love Your Life,” is available as an eBook, which is short for electronic book, via iBooks for iPads, Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes and Noble’s Nook. The first five people who own iPads can e-mail Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org and will receive a free electronic version. Simply type “Special Beacon Offer” in the subject line. For more information, visit sarahspetlife.com/schools.php.