NEWPORT NEWS, VA. Rick Tvelia's pinky finger was fractured and practically torn off three months ago when he tried to break up a fight between two of his dogs.
The incident happened when one of his dogs was loose and attacked a dog that was leashed, biting it five or six times. When Tvelia, a dog trainer, tried to grab the loose dog, the one that was leashed a German shepherd bit him while it was reaching for the other dog.
Tvelia went straight to the emergency room for treatment. He lost a lot of blood. But a plastic surgeon, Dr. Gilson Kingman, was able to save Tvelia's finger, reattaching it and pinning the bone.
Tvelia said he knows better than to get between two fighting dogs. But because the dogs involved were his pets, he couldn't stand to see either one getting hurt.
Tvelia knowingly put himself at risk. But that's not usually the case involving dog bites.
Plastic surgeons say the vast majority of dog bite victims are unsuspecting people who are unaware that their injuries probably could've been avoided.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons tries to educate the public about precautions people can take to avoid being bitten.
According to the society, dogs bite about 4.7 million Americans each year. Sixty percent of the victims are children. In fact, dogs bite half of the nation's children before they finish high school.
The organization says bites are more common in the summer when children spend more time playing with the family dog or a neighbor's dog.
Plastic surgeons say they'd like to see people avoid dog bites and the pain and trauma that accompany the injuries.
Kingman advises parents to always keep an eye on their children when they're around dogs.
"I get nervous when I see young children around dogs," he said. "Children are so trusting, they'll put their face right in a dog's face."
The plastic surgeon advises: "Always approach a dog with your hand first."
He recently treated a teen-ager whose lip was partially removed after she bent down to kiss a sleeping dog. The lip was reattached, and Kingman worked to reduce scarring from the attack.
The surgeon said that in most cases he's worked, children aren't teasing the dogs. But sometimes they may try to play with a dog while it's eating or drinking and the dog will lash out and bite.
Many people assume dog bites are unprovoked. But Tvelia said that when he talks in depth with clients who have been bitten by dogs, he finds the attacks usually occur when people place dogs in stressful situations and ignore warning signs.
"I've talked to a number of people who say, 'I'm shocked the dog did this. We don't know why.' But when you interview them, you find they've been given plenty of warning," Tvelia said.
Chaining a dog is the leading factor that brings about a dog bite.
He knows of instances when dogs have bitten their owners, after the dog's legs have gotten entangled in a chain. The bites may occur when an owner inadvertently tightens the chain while trying to unwrap it. In those situations the dog may feel constricted and lash out.
Tvelia says it's rare for a dog to bite an owner without warning.
And he offers this advice: "Don't hug your dogs. Avoid putting your face in the dog's face. And don't make a dog feel constricted."