Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Dog Bite Prevention - Children and Dogs

I am sure my parents thought this was cute
but the look on my face is not too happy. A friend
pointed out that the dogs are also stealing food off my
tray.  Hey mom and dad, a little management please.
Fortunately, no harm came to this baby.
One of my earliest childhood memories of a dog showing aggression towards me was when I was probably about 3-4 years old and I was with my 4-5 year old toy poodle (we had 3 of them at the time). I had a fisher-price type train toy and I decided to play choo-choo train and my dog was going to be the caboose.  I tied the string of the toy around my dog and then my dog growled at me. Add to the fact that this young dog was completely blind and he did not do more is quite tolerant.  At some point one of my parents came in, untied the dog and got mad at me for bothering the dog.  Needless to say, I never teased or mistreated my dog for the rest of his long life.

Sadly, small children under 12 years old are one of the most frequent recipients of dog bites. According to the AVMA, children between the ages of 5-9 are at greater risk of being bitten and seriously injured by that dog bite. Approximately 400,000 children receive medical attention every year. Most of the injuries inflicted on children are from everyday interactions with familiar or family pets. Children move faster than adults and toddlers move in a manner that seems erratic and odd to dogs.  This video from Dr. Sophia Lin and illustrated by Lili Chin (the artist who did the doggy drawings on my website), really captures what a small child seems like from a dog's perspective:

This video highlights the importance of supervision and management when young children and dogs are in the same room or area. Here are some important things to keep in mind:
Be vigilant of stress signals - If a dog is showing stress, increase distance between the dog and the child.  If you are in a house, separate the children and dogs using baby gates, crates or separate rooms.  The following video is a summary of the major signals dogs exhibit when stressed:

Most dogs do not like hugs (or kisses) - there is a tendency for young children to want to hug, kiss or grab dogs much like a stuffed animal and this runs the risk of a bite to the face. Unlike primates, most dogs do not like to be hugged or kissed on the face so it is wise to make it a practice not to do this with your own dog so your child will not assume that it is o.k. to do it to other dogs.  Teaching gentle petting is a better alternative.  As I was contemplating this article I looked through all my childhood photos of me and my dogs and sadly in almost all of them, I have my dog in a tight choke hold.  Another interaction that can provoke a dog is putting your face too close to a dog's face. Many children want to do this and try to kiss the dog.

Not digging on the hug 
Notice the flattened ears and head tilting away from the person. 
My dog is shy and is uncomfortable being grabbed or hugged by people.

Tolerating the Hug
This dog (who is blind) is tolerating the hug. 
Notice the tense mouth and expression. 

Tolerating the hug better
My dog is more relaxed,
I am not grabbing around the neck
but over the back

Here is a happy dog. 
Face relaxed, mouth relaxed, perky expression
Apparently my dad had better manners than me.
But then, they are in Hawaii so who wouldn't be happy. 
Teach your child the appropriate way to approach an unfamiliar dog - it is important to supervise your child around other animals. Teach your child to never touch another person's pet without permission and that you must be present.  Here is a summary and video:
  • Instruct your children that a parent needs to be with them before approaching a dog.
  • Stand 6 feet away from the dog
  • Ask the owner for permission
  • Look for stress signals (see video above)
  • Stand still, let the dog come to you, do not go to the dog or hover over the dog. If the dog does not want to come, leave the dog alone.
  • Let the dog smell your closed hand
  • Remember - dogs don't like hugs.  Gentle petting if the dog shows you he/she is receptive
  • If the dog shows stress signals or growls, stop what you are doing and slowly back away (don't run or yell).  See my article on what to do if your dog growls at you.

Running or Loose dogs:  Children should not yell or run away from dogs that are loose.  This can cause the dog to chase and knock down the child. It is better for the child to stand still (like a tree) and stay still until the dog loses interest and goes away. Here is a video from Doggone Safe that demonstrates this concept:

Read this article by Joan Orr for a more detailed description of how to stand like a tree

Parents should never leave a dog unattended with a child under the age of 12 years old no matter how gentle your dog seems.  A few months ago an infant was killed by the family golden retriever/lab mix.  The child was left in a swing while the father fell asleep in another room.  There are many stories like this every year and children left alone in baby swings is a common theme.  Moreover, any breed is capable of harming a child. Do not assume that your nice family dog is not going to react to a child teasing him/her.  As my story with the choo-choo train illustrates, toddlers and kids can do some pretty crazy things.

Respect a dog's boundaries. Teach children not to touch or poke dogs when they are sleeping, in a crate, eating or behind a fence.    If you have resident dogs, you may want to create a "safe zone" where dogs can eat in peace and rest when things get really active around the house.  Crate training is also a helpful tool.  Dogs behind a barrier can get frustrated and dogs behind other people's fences can be territorial so teaching children not to bother dogs behind barriers is also important. Barriers include crates, gates, fences and the inside of a car. Riding a dog like a horse will provoke a dog to bite and can harm the dog physically. 

It is important to teach children not to
bother dogs when they are sleeping.  It is also important to
teach children not to put their face in a dog's face

Dogs can get defensive behind boundaries or areas where they sleep. 
Instruct children to leave dogs alone when they are in these areas. 
Note:  Yawning can be a stress is a stress signal

For dog owners - many dogs are afraid of young children. As highlighted in my earlier post, most dog bites inflicted on people are on children and senior citizens.  For this reason, early socialization and puppy classes are important for puppy owners. Many people think puppy socialization means socializing with other dogs.  This is only one facet of a dog's social development. Socialization includes socialization with different people including children and senior citizens.  Dog training classes also help build a dog's confidence and teach your dog some basic training skills and manners which will help your dog behave more acceptably in public.

If you have a dog that is afraid of children or certain people, follow the tips addressed in my previous article on how to greet a dog.  This includes recognizing signs of stress in your dog, managing your dog's space, providing a safe place for your dog and working with a certified trainer who uses positive reinforcement-based approaches to address this type of behavior.  With children, very strict supervision and management is required. Instruct guests and children how to interact with your dog and always supervise. If your dog is very stressed when children are at the house or if you are too busy or distracted to supervise, it is better to put your dog in a "safe place" until the children leave.  Children and strangers should not hug or grab your dog, hover over your dog or rub the dog's belly because your dog may act defensively. 

Fortunately, for me, my little blind poodle was very tolerant and was my best friend for many years until he died at the age of 17. Despite his early onset blindness, he could find his way around a two story house and hang out in the back yard with no problem.  Does anyone else have any fond memories of their childhood dog?

Los Angeles Dog Training: www.pawsitivefeedback.com


  1. Thank you for this! It is unfair when dogs take all the blame for unfortunate incidents between kids and dogs. We are raising a 22 month old boy (human :) ) and a 2.5year old rhodesian mix, so vigilance and responsibility need to be key. It is easy to let the guard down when they are so cute together and do things that make for great pictures. I didnt have a dog as a child, but am filled with joy and love for both my boys as i watch them grow together and learn from each other. I'm sure our son will have fond childhood memories he can one day share on posts like this!

    1. Thanks for the feedback. I am sure that your son and dog will have many happy adventures together. It is great to see that you are being proactive about raising your 2 and 4 legged kids.