Preventing Dogs From Biting Children
Dogs can make great pets. They are often thought of as part of the family. But dogs also bite and these bites cause serious injury and even death. According to the Humane Society, approximately 4.7 million people in the United States are bitten each year, and about 2.8 million of these victims are children under the age of 14. It is important to understand that almost any dog will bite under the right circumstances. Dogs may bite due to fear, to protect their territory or to establish their dominance over the person being bitten. A dog is an animal that perceives things and behaves differently than humans and can't always be predicted to behave in a certain way, no matter how friendly or reliable his is.
Most dogs, even those that are well-trained, do not consider children as authority figures. Since children often stare intently at animals, a dog may feel threatened by this small person who is trying to grab at him. Even the best-natured dog may bite to protect himself in these circumstances, especially if he feels cornered. Children should never approach a dog that is chained outside and is unattended. Many guard dogs that are constantly tied up can suffer from psychological problems and are downright aggressive.
Children should be taught how to behave around dogs, even if their own family does not own a dog. For example, a child should never approach a strange dog without asking the owner if it's okay to pet the dog. If the child sees a loose dog on the street, he should not approach it even if he knows the dog belongs to his friend. Nor should he scream or run away. These actions can result in an attack by the dog. Running can trigger an instinctive predator-prey response in his brain. Once triggered, this response is very difficult to interrupt. The dog is merely reacting to chemical stimulus, not rational thought.
Very few bites will happen without provocation, even if that provocation
exists only in the dog's mind. Dogs don't think about things the same way we do. They look at the world around them in a different perspective. Most of their actions are instinctive. A dog will react to situations according to what his instincts tell him unless he receives proper training and socialization throughout his life. Dogs instinctively set up an invisible 'fight or flight' boundary around themselves. This is their safety zone. The size of this boundary depends on the dog's level of confidence and tolerance. A fearful dog will give himself a wider area than a more stable one. If the dog perceives someone as a threat or is unwelcome in his area, the dog hastwo choices: it can run away or it can defend itself. If it feels that it can't run away, it will fight instead, no matter how afraid it might be. Some dogs will chose to fight first rather than run. A small child that is petting or hugging a dog has already intruded well within the dog's flight or fight boundary. If the dog has tried to leave or has issued a warning with no response from the child, the dog (in his mind) has no other recourse but to bite. To the dog, this is normal, instinctive behavior. He is responding to what he perceives as a threat and is doing what his instincts tell him to.
Here is one of the most commonly reported scenarios in a bite case: A very young child sees a dog he'd like to pet. The dog may not want to be petted. The dog's first instinctive reaction is to show his displeasure by giving a warning signal--growling. The growl means that something more unpleasant will follow if the warning isn't heeded. If the child persists in trying to pet the dog, a sterner warning, usually another growl, will follow. The child continues to pet the dog or follows it even though the dog has clearly warned him what will happen if he does not stop. The type and number of warnings varies depending on the dog. Some warnings are more subtle, such as stiffening of the body. Many dogs faced with a child like this would just walk away. Walking away can also be considered a warning. Few dogs bite without giving some type of warning beforehand. Small children may not recognize a warning when they see or hear one. What might be obvious to an adult isn't understood by the child.
Obedience training and proper socialization an absolute must for dogs that will be spending time with children. The dog needs to be taught to obey commands in all situations, no matter how distracting. Just as your dog responding to a "come" command could save the dog's life someday, an immediate response to the "leave it!" command could save a child from serious injury. Get help from a professional trainer if you run into problems. Don't fool yourself into thinking the dog will outgrow his problems or that they will go away on their own.
Teach your children how to behave correctly and safely around animals and to respect them. Many dog bites occur because the child teases the dog beyond its tolerance. Children need to learn what games are appropriate, how to touch the dog properly, how to interpret the dog's body language and when the dog is not to be disturbed. When they are old enough, kids should be involved in the dog's training. They should learn to give the dog commands and be able to enforce them.
Adult supervision is absolutely essential. Many children lack the judgment about how to behave around a dog and their inability to fend off an attack can add to the risk. Children less than five years of age should never be left alone with a dog. A young child may challenge or injure the dog unintentionally and the result could be tragic. A child's innocent action can be provocation for a bite when seen through the eyes of a dog. A responsible adult should be present to prevent any aggressive behavior by the dog and to keep the child from putting him or herself in danger. Telling the child to leave the dog alone isn't enough. It's up to the adult to keep both the dog and the child safe from each other. If you can't be there to supervise the child and dog interacting, or if you have any doubt about the dog's behavior around children, the dog should be put away and out of reach of the kids. Remember that what your dog tolerates from your own children may not be tolerated from someone else's. You need to take extra safety precautions when other children visit and make sure that the children obey your ground rules. Never leave a child alone with any dog no matter how harmless the dog seems.
Responsible dog ownership is the key to dog bite prevention. Owners should socialize their puppies to small children at an early age. It helps to buy from a breeder who has started this socialization prior to the puppy purchase. The younger the puppy is exposed to gentle children, the more tolerant of children it will become. Remember, a dog's temperament is first inherited, then modified by events in his life and proper training. Some breeds are friendlier and more tolerant to training because they were bred to be that way. A responsible breeder puts emphasis on good temperament when selecting breeding stock. Unscrupulous breeders sometimes deliberately breed dogs with poor temperaments. There are some dogs, just like there are some humans, that are mentally disturbed or have an illness or physical defect that affects their behavior. A dog's basic temperament, instincts and training have the biggest effects on how that dog reacts to the world around him and his levels of tolerance. Socializing your dog to children can be as simple as walking the dog near a playground where children are making noise, running around, playing ball, or walking through the neighborhood while the kids wait for the school bus. The dog can be told to walk in the heel position through a crowd of children, to sit-stay and watch the play or allow the children to pet his head, or to down-stay until the end of the game. This type of constant exposure will accustom the dog to the presence of children.
Teaching children how to properly greet dogs
Always ask the dog's owner if it is okay to pet the dog before approaching the dog. Stand
still and let the dog come to the child first. Let the dog sniff the child and watch the dog's body language carefully. If the dog shows any sign that he does not want to be petted, do
not allow the child to pet the dog. If the dog backs up, do not let the child pursue him.
If the dog gives his "okay", have the child hold out their hand close to their body, flat fingered with the palm facing in. The child can also present their hand in a closed fist for the dog to sniff. This protects the fingers in case and dog is frightened and tries to nip. If the dog does not show any aggression, let the child pet the dog. They should pet the dog calmly under the chin. Often children will reach over the dog's head, bend down over it or try to embrace the dog. However, these actions can be interpreted as aggressive, dominance postures by the dog. A threatened dog is not a friendly dog. If you have dogs yourself, make sure your children understand that not all dogs are as friendly as the family pet.
Basic Safety Tips
Here are some basic safety tips that might help reduce the chances of children in your care being bitten or injured by a dog.
- Never approach an unfamiliar dog
- Always ask the owner's permission before petting a dog
- Always approach dogs slowly and carefully
- Never run from a dog and scream
- Do not make loud noises around dogs
- Stay still when an unfamiliar dog comes up to you ("act like a tree")
- If a dog knocks you over, roll into a ball and lie still ("be like a log")
- Avoid direct eye to eye contact with a dog
- Teach children to pat the dog gently, not to pull on the fur, ears or tail or poke at the dog
- Do not disturb a dog that is sleeping, eating or caring for puppies
- Do not pet a dog without letting it see you and sniff you first
- Don't let your dog growl at you or other family members
- Shy and fearful dogs can be unpredictable
- Some dogs don't like being picked up or carried
- Never pet a dog that is being held on a tight lease
- Don't trust a wagging tail
- Do not ever tease a dog
- Never reach through a fence to pet a dog
- Never put your hand between two dogs
- Never try to help a hurt dog; get an adult to help
- If you do not have permission, never enter a yard with a dog in it
- If attacked, give the dog a book or backpack to chew on. Cover your head and neck, and protect your face. If bitten, immediately report the bite to an adult.
- Never play with a dog unless supervised by an adult
Statistics show that most dog bites causing serious injury involve medium to large sized
dogs and children under the age of five years. The dog is usually known to the child or is
the family pet. The relationship between a child and the dog that considers himself the
family guardian needs to be nurtured and guided. Families can accomplish this by teaching the dog and the child to respect each other. If this can be done, fewer children will be
bitten and fewer dogs euthanized for aggressive behavior. Kids and dogs are a wonderful combination when adults use common sense and put safety first.
For more information on this subject, we suggest the book "Childproofing Your Dog: A
Complete Guide to Preparing Your Dog for the Children in Your Life" by Brian Kilcommons and Sarah Wilson. This great and inexpensive book is only 96 pages long and is available through Amazon.com. Here is the exact address: