How To Prevent Dog Bites Involving Children
Children And Pets
One of the worst situations a parent or a dog owner can experience is when a child is bitten. These traumatic events harm the child and the dog and cause needless pain and suffering. One of the saddest statistics regarding dog bites in children is that the offending dog is usually either the family pet, friend’s animal or a neighborhood dog.
Familiarity seems to breed complacency.
One should never be complacent about child/dog interactions. In order to drastically reduce the number of dog bites each year this problem must be solved from both sides.
Children need to be dog proofed and dogs need to be childproofed.
Rules To Live By
Children under the age of five should NEVER be left unsupervised with a dog. Not even for a second, as attacks and bites happen quicker than you can imagine. Even a friendly large breed dog can accidentally injure a small child. They can knock them down while playing, roll on top of them and unintentionally suffocate them.
On the other side a rambunctious child can easily injure a small breed dog through incorrect handling. This can cause the dog to become afraid of children and fear aggression towards all children could result.
You want to always ensure positive experiences between dogs and children. So supervision is a must!
Children between the ages of five and twelve can be left alone with small to medium sized dogs if the children are responsible and have been taught proper handling techniques. The dogs involved must also have proved themselves to be reliably non-aggressive and compliant to the child’s commands. They must see the child as a pack leader. For large to giant sized dog’s supervision is still recommended.
From age twelve and up children can play unsupervised around dogs if the animal in question is well trained and respects the child’s leadership. The child must also be respectful of the dog and demonstrate a clear understanding of dog behavior.
Children and dogs that are unfamiliar with each other should NEVER be left alone together.
A word of caution: No child of any age should be left unsupervised with a large group of dogs. Even if the dogs by themselves are friendly and non-aggressive this may not be the case when grouped together. A dog’s behavior changes when put into a pack situation and a child does not have the physical presence or maturity to deal with the aggression or trouble that may occur.
All non-breeding dogs should be spayed and neutered! Intact dogs are three times more likely to bite than their sterilized counterparts.
These rules may seem strict to some, but given the fact that over 2 million children are bitten each year just in the U.S. alone, then strict measures need to be taken.
A Word About Pack Hierarchy And Dog Behavior
Many families face the sad situation of their own beloved pet biting their child. For some this comes as a shock because their dog never displayed aggressive tendencies before the incident. They are left to wonder why this could have occurred and what they could have done to prevent it.
One of the reasons a previously friendly dog may bite a child has to do with pack hierarchy. Canines in the wild have a strictly enforced code of conduct. Each member of the pack is ranked from the Alpha (leader) dog (usually a male and female pair) down to the most subordinate members of the group. The Alpha’s (leaders) are responsible for maintaining order, ensuring the safety of the pack and providing food and resources with help from the pack. They discipline subordinates whose behavior is compromising the safety of the pack, while rewarding members who follow the ‘rules’. These rules evolved to ensure survival of the species and even though we have domesticated canines they are still genetically programmed to follow these pack behaviors.
If a family dog sees itself as ranked higher than a child in the newly formed human ‘pack’ then they may ‘discipline’ the child when it doesn’t follow the ‘rules’. In the dogs mind it is teaching the child respectful behavior so as to ensure survival of the pack. Dog’s need order and discipline in their lives. Unfortunately the way Alpha canines discipline subordinates is by growling, biting and holding puppies up by the scruff of their necks. This behavior is, of course, dangerous to children.
During the course of daily life there may be no situations where the well-socialized dog feels they have to take control. There may be years of safe interactions. However, if your dog sees your child as a subordinate then one day a situation may occur where the dog feels it must take charge and your child could be hurt as a result.
This is why it is so important to ensure your children are ‘pack leaders’. Strangely enough, size is not a determining factor in who becomes ‘pack leader’. A Chihuahua can be the boss of a Mastiff, it all comes down to implied status.
So parents need to ensure their children (and babies) are viewed as higher-ranking pack members by the family dog. This way the child dictates the dog’s behavior not the other way around.
Dog Proofing Your Child
Children need to understand dog behavior and learn what is acceptable handling and what is off limits. They need to learn about boundaries and common sense rules in regards to dog safety.
1. Children must ask the permission of their parent or guardian, as well as, the dog’s owner before petting a strange dog.
2. Children should never pet or go near ANY dog if its owner is not present. This includes a friend’s dog.
3. Children should NEVER approach a dog behind a fence and should avoid walking by yards with aggressive dogs inside. An overly stimulated aggressive dog can clear a high fence if it is determined to do so.
4. Children should NEVER pick up or carry a dog around.
5. Children should NOT play tug-of-war games or roughhouse with the family pet. Suitable games are fetch, find and hide-and-seek (yes you can play this with your dog and they really enjoy it. Of course the child is always the one who is hiding. The dog must find them and be suitably rewarded with a treat of course!)
6. Children must learn NOT to hug a dog or put their face near their beloved pet. (Leaning over a dog or getting close to the muzzle is considered aggressive posturing to a dog. Many have been trained to tolerate this behavior but it is better to educate the child on the differences between humans and animals.) Teach them to rub the dog’s side, belly and chest when they wish to show their love.
7. Involve children in the training of your dog. Even a three year old can ask a dog to sit and reward with a cookie. Make them active participants so the dog learns to listen to the child’s voice commands. This can be a fun time for the family and helps to enforce pack leadership.
8. Involve children in the feeding of the dog. (Please make sure the dog has no food aggression issues before trying this. Food guarding is a major cause of bites.) Have your child ask the dog to sit and then place the bowl on the floor. Then have the child tell the dog it is okay to eat. Providing food is another subtle way to infer pack leader status to your child. (Obviously I am assuming here that your dog is properly obedience trained or is a puppy that you are in the process of training.)
9. Children should avoid any dog with a bone or food dish nearby when not with an adult.
10. Children should not try to take a toy from a dog. If the dog does not drop the toy when commanded the child should end the game and walk away.
11. Children should ‘let sleeping dogs lie’. This is sage advice! Startling an animal can cause it to bite reflexively.
12. Children should learn NOT to squeal or make sudden movements towards an animal. This can elicit predatory or protective behavior.
13. Children should understand that hitting or kicking, pulling tails, ears or fur or throwing things at a dog is absolutely UNACCEPTABLE BEHAVIOR.
What your child should do if a strange or aggressive dog approaches (this is also good advice for adults who may find themselves in a similar situation):
Your child should remain quiet and still with their arms by their side. Very slowly they should angle their body so they are not facing the dog square on but slightly from the side. They need to keep the dog in their line of sight but must AVOID EYE CONTACT.
Staring is considered an aggressive challenge to a dog or any predatory animal and by itself can elicit an attack. If the dog tries to move behind the child they need to slowly and calmly turn in a circle to keep the dog in sight. You do not want to allow the dog to be behind you! (In the case of very young children, standing still may be all they can do in such a distressing situation. This is better than nothing.)
Your child should allow the dog to sniff or investigate while standing still and quiet. If the dog moves away the child can then slowly back away to safety, always keeping the dog in their line of sight. NEVER RUN!
All predatory animals will chase down a running person. It is a genetic drive that overwhelms any other signal in the brain. Even a friendly dog will ‘give chase’ when their owners run from them.
Once the child is safe they have to report the incident immediately to an adult and the proper authorities need to be called.
If the worst happens and the dog attacks, your child should fall into the fetal position with knees pulled into the chest and arms covering the face and back of the head. Many times a dominant aggressive dog will stop at this point because the child has assumed a completely submissive pose. They may stand over the child or lean on them to show their dominance. Again, the child should remain as quiet and still as possible. If the dog does not stop the attack the fetal position will help to protect vital organs until the child is rescued.
BE VERY CAREFUL how you intervene if you see an aggressive dog near your child. (One that has not attacked but is posturing.) Unfortunately parents in the midst of trying to protect or save their child can inadvertently trigger a vicious mauling in a dog that may have walked away otherwise.
If you look over and see your child in a stand off with a dog the first thing you should do is find some kind of a weapon you can use if you need to. An umbrella, a baseball bat, a tree branch or pepper spray (if you have it on you.)
Remain calm and quiet.
DO NOT CALL OUT TO YOUR CHILD or yell at the dog. Move very slowly and quietly towards your child. If the dog begins to pay more attention to you then lure it slowly away from your child. Try to get in a position where you end up between the dog and your child. If the dog lunges use your weapon to defend yourself and your child until help arrives.
The authorities should ALWAYS be called in situations such as these. Even if the dog did not attack, it may the next time. The owners need to be informed of the dog’s behavior and reprimanded if their negligence caused the incident.
Please Train Me To Behave!
Child Proofing Your Dog
As responsible pet owners it is imperative that we teach our dogs to be tolerant of children. Even if you don’t have children yourself your dog still needs to be properly socialized with them. This is because dogs can live up to 18 years of age. Many things can happen to you in that time, including having unplanned children of your own. Every dog at some point in their lives will have interactions with children. Maybe friends, family or neighborhood children will be near your dog at one time or another.
The simple fact is children are attracted to dogs and some will even run across a park to meet a strange dog. For your peace of mind it is nice to have a dog that responds with a friendly wag of their tail instead of a nasty bark or bite.
The following training tips are recommended for puppies or young dogs that are new family pets. For older rescue dogs, with unknown histories, different rules apply. Safety is always the primary issue when training animals.
1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Take your puppy everywhere. A confident dog that is introduced to new situations on a regular basis will have a higher tolerance for the unexpected. Always reward good behavior with treats, praise or a game.
2. If you do not have children of your own, then borrow some well-behaved ones from family and friends. Have the children play fetch and handle and pet the puppy in positive ways. Let them help you train your dog to sit and roll over.
3. Every child that enters your house should ask your dog to sit and reward with a cookie. (The cookie jar should be conveniently located near the front door.) This will teach your dog that children are wonderful cookie giving creatures. It will also help to infer a higher pack status to children.
4. Obedience train your dog!
5. Slowly train your dog to tolerate or even enjoy having their tail, ears or fur pulled. Make this a fun game. Start with very gentle tugs and reward with your dog’s favorite treat. (Either food, praise or a game.) Make this kind of handling a positive experience. Work your way up to being able to tug at about the same level as a young child. Do this slowly over a long period of time. You only need to do this for 5-10 minutes a day. Follow this training with something really fun like a walk or a high-energy game.
DO NOT LET YOUR DOG ‘MOUTH’ YOU DURING THIS EXERCISE. If they start to respond that way end the session and ignore the dog. Do not reward this behavior. When you begin again the next day be more gentle with your tugs and work at it slower. (My dog now sees having her tail or ears being pulled as a fun game and loves the attention. If a child were to do this to her she would respond with licks and a desire to play.) A dog will view anything as positive if you train them that way from young.
Do this exercise when children are not around. While you want to childproof your dog, you do not want to teach kids that it is okay to touch an animal in this way.
6. Dogs should NOT sleep with children. Allowing your dog to sleep in the same bed as your child elevates their pack status and can cause major problems. The higher members of the pack have the best beds. A dogs place is on the floor in their own special bed or crate. Dogs should not be allowed to sit on furniture with children for the same reason.
7. Teach your dog the ‘drop it’ command. Children should be able to safely take a toy from your dog by using the ‘drop it’ command. Dogs should also be taught that toys are communal and must be shared. Your dog should NEVER be allowed to become possessive of toys.
8. Train your dog to understand what the word ‘off’ means. If your dog is sleeping on the couch and your child comes home they should be able to say from a distance ‘off’ and have the dog wake up and jump off the furniture.
9. Desensitize your dog to being hugged and having a face near theirs. ONLY DO THIS WITH VERY YOUNG PUPPIES! This may provoke an older dog into biting.
Slowly hug and snuggle with your pet giving lots of praise and treats for a submissive response. Continue to do this till the dog reacts 100% positive to this treatment. Reinforce this tolerance throughout the dog’s life so they will react in a good way if a child were to approach this way.
It is a sad fact that most children are bitten on the face. Inappropriate hugging and leaning in close to a dog’s face are major causes of bites. Again do not do this exercise in the presence of children.
10. NEVER allow your dog to be in the presence of children unsupervised. If it is your family pet, do not allow it to be alone with your children until they are of an appropriate age and the dog is fully trained.
11. Give your dog a ‘safe zone’. Somewhere you can put them if the situation dictates it. Maybe you have a crate in a spare room or a bed in your room where you can shut the door. For outside dogs a proper fenced in run and kennel should be your dog’s ‘safe zone’. This is the place to put your dog if you see it becoming over stimulated by children. Reward your dog for going to their ‘safe zone’ and enforce the rule that the children must not bother the dog while they are resting. This is especially important for an older rescue dog whose behavior around children may be unknown.
12. NEVER give a dog a bone around children. Too many dogs are possessive over bones.
13. NEVER feed a dog in the presence of a child the dog is not familiar with.
14. Ensure that your yard is escape proof. NEVER allow your dog to run-at-large.
A word of caution: If you adopt an older dog whose history is unknown be very careful introducing them to children and watch their body language closely. Ensure you have them fully obedience trained beforehand and take appropriate measures to keep the interaction safe and positive.
If you know the dog is fear aggressive, phobic or has a low tolerance level then as a responsible owner you will have to make 100% sure that your dog is never in the presence of children. Provide a completely secure, escape proof yard. Walk the dog always on a leash and put them away in their ‘safe zone’ if children are coming to your house. If it is necessary put a basket muzzle on your pet to prevent bites.
Never allow children to disregard your house rules when it concerns your animal. If the parents aren’t willing to take control of their child’s behavior then ask them politely to leave. It is better to offend someone and be impolite than to have tragedy strike because of an out of control situation.
The harsh truth is that when a child is bitten adults are responsible. Either the parents were negligent and allowed their child to behave inappropriately around animals or the dog owner is negligent for not being in control of their animal. The child and the dog are the innocent victims in these tragic cases. One ends up in the hospital or worse, one ends up being euthanized.
We need to collectively, as responsible adults, stop this from happening!
On A More Positive Note
Dogs and children can and do live together in harmony. It is a relationship that is equally rewarding for your child and for your pet. By taking simple measures and enforcing house rules you can create a safe and fun environment for everyone involved. Many people say that their dog was their ‘best friend’ growing up. Every child and animal deserves such a positive experience!