Statistics show that most serious dog bites involve children under 5 years of age and dogs that are actually known to them – such as the family pet or a neighbour’s dog. In the majority of these cases, the tragedy could have been avoided if some precautions had been followed.
The key to any child-dog interaction is SUPERVISION, SUPERVISION, SUPERVISION. No matter how friendly or trustworthy you think the dog is or how well the dog and child know each other, never leave them alone, particularly if the child is very young. Toddlers are in the highest risk group – curious, excitable and mobile but too young to understand signs of potential danger (eg, growling) or to follow rules. Even if they are trying to behave well, they may accidentally hurt or frighten the dog. If a child is unable to interact gently with a dog, then it is best to separate them and remove the dog to a safe place.
Dog-proofing Your Kids
- Teach children to have respect for all other living creatures and in particular, to be gentle and respectful around dogs.
- Show them how to stroke a dog gently on the head or chest and remind them not to pull the dog’s tail or ears, poke it in the eye or tease it in any other way.
- Teach them not to run or scream around dogs – these behaviours can trigger the prey drive in many dogs and incite them to chase and “hunt”. Terriers, in particular, can get very excited by high squeaky noises.
- Tell them not to stare a dog in the eye – this is very challenging in canine body language and can make the dog feel threatened enough to attack.
- Children should not hug a strange dog. If it is the family dog, it may have learnt to tolerate being hugged gently by the children but in general, dogs find hugging a very threatening behaviour.
- Teach children to leave dogs alone when they are sleeping or eating, and also if they are tied up. A dog that is restrained may feel that it cannot escape and therefore has to bite to defend itself if it feels threatened.
- Make sure children always ask for permission before approaching a strange dog or trying to pat it.
- If they are allowed to meet a dog, tell them to hold their hands out for the dog to sniff first and to keep all movements slow and gentle.
- Teach children to recognise the danger signals – such as growling, stiffening of the body, raising of the hackles, staring eyes, cringing away in fear, tail between the legs – and to act promptly when they see them by leaving the dog alone.
Kid-proofing Your Dog
- Always buy from a reputable breeder who cares about good reliable temperament. While most dogs will not attack unless provoked, bad genetics can sometimes produce nervous or dominant individuals who have a lower threshold of tolerance and are quick to use aggression to deal with a situation.
- Socialise your dog from early puppyhood with as many children as possible – take him to the local playground or school (if they will allow it) and let him get used to children running, screaming and playing around him. This is especially important if you have no children of your own and no close friends or relatives with young children to socialise your puppy with.
- Teach your dog to behave well when around children – eg. walking politely past children waiting for the school bus or sitting quietly while watching children run and play in a playground. Do not allow it to jump up, lunge, bark or get excited in any other way.
- Remember, to a dog’s eyes, children behave very differently from adults – they move in sudden, unpredictable ways and make high-pitched noises which can be very disturbing for some dogs.
- Teach your dog basic obedience. A well-trained dog who knows his place within the pack is less likely to use dominating behaviour on others. Beware though that even a well-trained dog may not regard children as figures of authority – mostly, they see them as littermates or puppies that may need to be put in their place by a “nip”. Also, even the best-trained dog in the world can bite out of fear. However, a dog with good training will be easier to control around children and this will make the interaction more successful.
- Give your dog a safe place, such as a bed or crate, to retreat to when the children’s attention becomes too overwhelming. Often, if the dog has the option to retreat, it will not use aggression to deal with the situation.
Children and dogs can be a wonderful combination and with care and common sense, you can ensure a safe and happy relationship between them. Remember, however, that any dog – regardless of breed, age or type – can bite if they feel threatened and no matter how friendly they normally are, they can never be completely predictable around children. Dogs are animals and will always respond instinctively first, no matter how much training and socialisation has been given. However, very few dogs bite without provocation and almost all will give plenty of warning first so preventing children from teasing dogs and teaching them to recognise the warning signs will go a long way to preventing a tragic accident.