This article could just as well have been “Why Dogs Bite People”, but many children are bitten by dogs and the sad truth it is completely preventable. Before we go into it I would like to explain why I feel I am qualified to write this post. First, I am a professional dog trainer and behavior consultant. I have been training dogs for 30 years this year. I have multiple dog training certifications and have spent years doing behavior consulting which included dogs with a bite history. In addition to my dog training experience I have also worked as a veterinary assistant, dog groomer, training coordinator for various rescues and consulted with animal shelters on their behavior assessment protocols and volunteer training. Also, I was bitten by a dog as a child.
When I was a kid I was in the next door neighbor’s front yard with my friend Carolyn while Carolyn’s mom, Jean stood at the front door talking to the neighbor Dorothy. As a kid I loved dogs. I loved all animals, but I really loved dogs. We had dogs, all of my friends had dogs and our neighbors all had dogs and I was drawn to all of them wanting to pet and touch them. Naturally, when a stray dog wandered onto Dorothy’s lawn I got excited and began to interact with the dog. The only details I remember are that the dog was a pointer and I don’t remember if he came up to me or I went up to him, but when we came together I remember having my hands up near his head but not touching him. At that point he jumped up and bit me in the face. I walked next door to my house and sat on the porch crying. It didn’t hurt, but my feelings were very hurt.
Jean went to look for the dog who by now was long gone. My parents took me to the hospital. The dog was never located so they began the series of rabies shots that they did in those days and maybe still do. I was required to go to the hospital every day for 2 weeks to get two injections into my stomach. At first, it was awful and scary, but soon I came to understand what would happen and just dealt with it. I was told that if they found the dog I would not have to get any more shots. I was taken to animal shelters to look for the dog and I remember saying a particular dog was the one who bit me. Carolyn’s mom came and said that no, that was not the dog. Either I thought that was the dog or I just said it was so the shots would stop. I remained unafraid of dogs and continued to love them as I always had.
What I can say with 100% certainty is that I loved dogs. Every interaction I had with them was with the best of intentions on my part, full of love and admiration. While I don’t think I was ever wildly inappropriate with dogs, I am sure I came on strong at times rushing in to be as close as possible.
Another thing I want to mention is that when I was a kid things were different. When I told my mom that the neighbor’s Briard growled at me when I was petting him she said, “yeah, don’t pet that dog”. When my grandpa’s poodle growled at us we were told to “leave Beau alone”. The neighbor’s dog and Beau were not hired professional trainers to modify their behavior as is common today. Instead, we, the kids were told to change our behavior. Obviously I make a living training dogs and modifying their behavior and I think the fact that we have the ability to do that is an amazing thing. It is wonderful that when a dog’s relationship with his people is suffering that we can help. However, I also think that there is a certain amount of insistence where people are unwilling to accept their dog’s limitations and be open to what is best for the dog and not just what is best or most convenient to the people.
So, I have been the trainer hired to work with dogs that have bitten kids and I myself have been that kid. Here is the number one reason that kids are bitten by dogs…
KIDS DO NOT KNOW HOW TO READ CANINE
BABIES, TODDLERS, KIDS
Most kids, like me when I was a kid, love dogs. In my experience they kids are either very into dogs and drawn to them or afraid of them. Kids who are afraid can be overly dramatic, but in general tend to do a good job of keeping themselves away from dogs. Kids who are into dogs are the ones more likely to get into trouble.
Babies can be the most challenging. Because babies are just learning to be more mobile and curious they may begin to follow dogs or move towards dogs and when they are as small as or smaller than some dogs this is an issue. If we just look at the behavior and intention of the baby it is clear that babies are interested and curious and learning. Learning about dogs is not something that should be left to just dogs and babies! Both need to be managed, both need to be kept safe and both need to be taught how to interact. If either one is uncomfortable than precautions need to be taken. A baby can not be expected to follow rules, it is up to the parents of the baby to ensure safety. This sounds like a no brainer, but you would be amazed at what some people will stand by and watch. I have watched so many videos of babies inappropriately climbing on dogs, literally jumping on dogs, standing on dogs to get to things they can’t reach all the while “someone” is recording and laughing along. If many of these videos you will see the dog get up and move away repeatedly while the child is allowed to follow the dog around.
These babies do not have bad intentions, they are babies. The parents probably don’t have bad intentions, but they allow this to happen and then react in shock and horror when the dog suddenly becomes “unpredictable” and bites the kid.
Toddler age is really where parents can begin to shape how their children interact with dogs. This is the age when parents must TEACH about how to interact with dogs. Don’t just tell kids to “be gentle”, SHOW them how to interact, show them what is kind and appropriate, explain when the dog likes something and when he doesn’t. If the child is appropriate with the dog reward him with time with the dog, when he isn’t remove him. Do not allow a dog, no matter how tolerant, to be treated roughly. ANY DOG COULD BITE and it is important to keep this in mind.
By starting early with kids you can really help them develop some skills in reading the dog’s body language. Kids get into trouble with dogs because they don’t know how to read the dog’s body language. They are excited to see a dog and to get close and they don’t understand when a dog doesn’t want that. They don’t understand that many dogs don’t like hugging or close contact and that they may actually really dislike it from strangers. Teaching some basic body language skills to kids will help keep them safe. A little bit of the good old “leave Beau alone” can be a good thing. Kids should be taught that if a dog walks away or attempts to avoid them they should leave the dog alone. There are plenty of social dogs that absolutely love meeting new people, there is not reason to force it on a dog who isn’t interested.
I have always enjoyed working with kids and dogs. There are a lot of children who are naturally very dog savvy. They seem to just know how to be careful and thoughtful. Not surprisingly, many of my dog trainer friend’s kids are extremely good at reading a dog’s body language even able to say that they can tell a dog is afraid. Kids can learn this they just need to be taught.
The other big issue and perhaps the biggest issue is that
MOST ADULTS DON’T KNOW HOW TO READ A
DOG’S BODY LANGUAGE
If the adults raising the children don’t know how to read a dog’s body language, how in the world will their children be able to? If I see a video of a small child relentlessly chasing a dog around to climb on him and jump on him while the parents record it while laughing and demanding the dog stay there all I see is a disaster waiting to happen. If that dog never bit that child it is a miracle and a true testament to the amazing nature of dogs. It is also frustrating that 1) any dog should have to put up with such treatment, 2) IF the dog ever does protest the dog is perceived to have something wrong with it, and 3) the parents and many other people will argue that the dog is “fine”. Even if they don’t know anything about dogs other than having dogs, even if 1000 professional trainers say that this is dangerous and risky people will allow this to happen and laugh and laugh until….the dog suddenly, out of the blue became unpredictable and bit the kid.
This article could go on and on because there is so much to say. But the important take aways are:
- Babies and dogs should always be supervised when together, should never be forced to be together and should BOTH feel comfortable in all interactions.
- Toddlers and older babies should be TAUGHT how to appropriately interact with dogs including leaving the dog alone if that is what the dog wants.
- Just because a dog will tolerate something doesn’t mean he should have to.
- If you want a dog and child to develop a strong relationship all interactions must be positive and safe.
- Kids who love dogs MUST be taught that not all dogs are friendly, not all dogs want to say “hi” and not all dogs should be pet.
There are several dog-kid safety programs such as:
This free graphic by Lili Chin – www.doggiedrawings.net is a great way to help kids understand how to greet a dog.