People like to think of their neighborhoods as safe places, where neighbors can gather on the sidewalk to chat or families can take a walk down the street after work.

However, a dog running loose through the neighborhood can disrupt that feeling of safety, particularly if the dog is aggressive or vicious. Even if a roaming dog looks friendly, it can suddenly decide to attack if it feels threatened.

"The best thing you can do is avoid contact," advises Lori Smith, kennel manager with Caring Hands Humane Society in Newton.

According to the American Humane Association, an estimated 4.7 million dog bites occur in the United States each year, and almost 800,000 of those bites require medical care. Approximately two-thirds of bites occur on or near the victimís property, and most victims know the dog.

Jennifer Burns, an animal control officer with the Newton Police Department, said if people spot a vicious dog in their neighborhood, they should immediately call 911, particularly if people "are feeling threatened, or can't leave their vehicle or leave their home."

If you are caught out in the open and feel threatened by a dog, Smith said to not approach the animal. Don't talk to the animal; instead, fold your arms across your chest, and look away and avoid eye contact.

"Ignore the animal," she said. "Pretend you don't see it."

If you feel the situation escalating, turn and walk away ó don't run. Seek shelter in a nearby house or car. As a last resort, you can grab a heavy object such as a backpack and throw it down to create noise and distract the dog.

If you encounter an animal out in your neighborhood that doesn't appear aggressive, do not automatically assume it is friendly, Smith said. Even if you are an animal lover and have always gotten along well with animals, don't try to interact with the dog.

Another misconception people have is that it's a good idea to hold out your hand to let a dog smell it when first meeting them. Smith said it's safer to keep your arms close to your body.

Additionally, you can't always tell whether a dog is "safe" or not based on its breed. The American Humane Association reports certain breeds aren't necessarily more dangerous than others. While some communities have enacted breed-specific legislation that prohibits ownership of certain breeds, such as Pit Bulls and Rottweilers, any breed of dog can bite.

City regulations

Are the animals in your neighborhood following city regulations? By law in the city of Newton:

- Dogs and cats must be on a leash (or other approved tether) when not contained in a securely fenced yard. The tether (any leash, rope, chain or apparatus by which an animal is picketed) must be at least 10 feet in length, but not be a length that will allow the animal to leave the boundaries of the owner's property. A tether must be attached to an animal only by means of a collar, harness or other similar device designed for such a purpose and made from a material that prevents injury to the animal.

- A maximum of two dogs are allowed per residence. A maximum of three cats are allowed, but only two of the cats may be unspayed females.

- Animals that are kept outside must have adequate shelter, another source of shade (trees, tarps, etc.), food and water.

- All dogs and cats six months old or older in the city of Newton must be licensed.