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Insurance payouts for dog-related injuries hit record high

State Farm, which advises dog owners to consider liability insurance, says it paid out a record amount in dog-related injury claims last year: $121 million.

If you find yourself hearing more about dog bites in the coming days, that's because it's National Dog Bite Prevention Week.

This event is marked - not exactly celebrated - each April by a few groups that would really like to see a decrease in dog bites. Among them are U.S. postal workers, 6,755 of whom were attacked by dogs last year, and the American Humane Association, which knows that those biting dogs are more likely to be euthanized or abandoned.

Also taking part is State Farm, which advises dog owners to consider liability insurance - and which says it paid out a record amount in dog-related injury claims last year: $121 million.

Does that mean dog bites are on the rise in the United States? Not necessarily, though that is a very difficult - and controversial - question to answer. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that about 4.5 million dog bites against people happen each year and that most victims are children. Other attempts to track bites are done primarily through news reports, but those often focus on the goriest incidents or those carried out by breeds with a reputation as likely to attack - namely, pit bulls, a catchall category of dogs with a certain block-headed and stocky look.

Even State Farm doesn't know how many of the claims it paid last year were the result of dog bites. The company codes any injury caused by a pooch under one claim number, spokeswoman Heather Paul said.

"It could be a happy dog jumped on you and you fell down the stairs and broke your arm," Paul said. "There's a lot of incidents where people have broken bones because they were riding a bike" and were somehow knocked off by a dog.

The number of those claims rose last year to 3,660, State Farm said. But Paul said that although that number ebbs and flows, it has stayed fairly consistent over the past decade. She attributed rising claims payments to spiking medical costs, an increase in expensive plastic surgeries to minimize scarring from dog bites, and increasing litigation.

For what it's worth, State Farm does not track dog bites or other injuries by breed of dog. "We don't discriminate," she said, adding that the company instead emphasizes that "the key to reducing dog-related injuries is the practice of responsible pet ownership."

That means doing things like training and socializing dogs, and keeping them leashed when in public.

State Farm and its dog-bite prevention partners are also pushing the idea that children need to be taught how to behave around dogs - no ear-tugging, for example, or surprise kissing - and how to read dog body language. Children often "want to pet a dog, but their first instinct is to run up without asking and get into the face of a dog," she said. "We have to let dogs make the choice that they want to be petted."

Paul said that at an event in Los Angeles last week, presenters asked the audience of about 100 children how many had been bitten by a dog. Nearly all raised their hands, she said.