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March 2007
Kids and Dogs
A Cautionary Tail

by Veronica Sanchez, M.Ed., CABC

Does your child know how to behave safely around dogs? As a professional animal behavior consultant, the calls I receive from frantic parents are all too often similar: "Rover never bit anyone before." When I follow up with questions, I often learn it is true, Rover never did bite anyone before, but he had growled numerous times. Sometimes, Rover had not had much experience with children during his critical socialization period before he turned 16 weeks old. Other times, the child simply pushed a patient dog past his limits and the parent had not provided sufficient supervision.

Dog owners frequently tell me about the wonderful dogs they grew up with that were "perfect." The reality is that these dogs are typically a product of our selective memory. Most dogs are not "perfect" around children. It is the rare dog that can tolerate a young child's erratic behavior for a long period of time without becoming anxious and stressed.

Why Dogs Bite Children

One of the reasons children are bitten more often than adults is because normal child body language and behavior are often frightening to a dog. Children often stare at dogs directly, invade the dog's space with no warning, reach, poke and may want to hug a dog. Additionally, children's tendency to scream and run causes a dog to chase. Indeed, some breeds, such as herding dogs, were specifically bred to chase and nip at animals that run away from them. It is always important to remember that any animal with teeth is capable of biting, and even dogs that are normally friendly with children can be provoked to bite if they are pushed beyond their threshold.

Our expectations of dogs now are very different from our parents' expectations of our childhood dogs. We expect dogs to be patient and tolerant with our children all of the time. How many of us can live up to the same expectation? What would you do if a child poked you in the eye, jumped on you when you were trying to take a nap, screamed in your ear or grabbed your leg hard? What if this happened frequently and you were unable to escape or leave the situation? What if you were scolded when you told the child, as politely as you could, to stop?

A dog lets us know that it is uncomfortable by growling. Unfortunately, our response is often the opposite of what we should do. It may seem counterintuitive, but growling is wonderful because it is an overt, easily recognized sign that the dog may bite. Punishing a dog for growling may teach it to stop giving a warning. Dogs that bite without growling first are very dangerous. Aggressive behavior problems are complex and require the attention of a professional. If you are unsure of your dog's behavior, if your dog behaves aggressively, is extremely fearful or shows another unsafe behavior, get professional help right away.

When Children Are Around Dogs They Need To:

  • Walk — never run.
  • Use a normal speaking voice, no yelling and screaming.
  • Respect a dog's space; walk around — not step over — a sleeping dog.
  • Keep their faces away from a dog's face. Most dogs do not enjoy hugs.
  • Respect a dog's signs of stress. Children need to leave a stressed dog alone.

Recognizing Signs of Stress in Dogs:

Many dog owners misread their dog's body language. It is important for parents to carefully watch a dog's body language when it is around a child. Every dog is unique and demonstrates stress in a unique way. Indicators of stress in a dog may include:

  • Panting rapidly, drooling.
  • Freezing or moving extremely slowly.
  • Widening eyes.
  • Growling, snapping.
  • Tucking its tail.
  • Attempting to flee or hiding.
  • Sweating through paw pads.
  • Urinating or defecating.
  • Drinking increasingly.
  • Yawning.
  • Vomiting.

Some of these signs may indicate a medical problem. In addition, some behavior problems can be caused by an underlying physical illness. Your veterinarian can help you determine if your dog has a medical problem.

Parents Raising Children and Dogs Need To:

  • Directly supervise your child's interactions with your dog. Cooking in the kitchen while children and pets are in earshot in the living room is not sufficient. You need to literally watch and pay attention to both the child and the dog when they are together.
    • If your child is a toddler, you need to be within touching distance of both at all times when they are together so you can quickly intervene. Toddlers lack self-control and language skills necessary to respond quickly to your instructions from a distance. It takes only seconds for a bite to happen.
    • If you have an infant, it is safest to have two adults in the room, one supervising the dog and the other supervising the infant. Also, make sure your dog has been prepared for the baby's arrival in advance and trained to obey basic commands.
  • Give your dog breaks away from children. Just like people, dogs need quiet time. Crate Rover and give him a chew toy that keeps him engaged. Use a baby gate or other sturdy barrier to keep your dog and young child separated.
  • Watch your dog for signs of stress, and remove him from the vicinity of children when he is stressed. Make sure he is always able to leave the room and is never "cornered" by your child.
  • Keep all interactions between your dog and your child positive. Have your child give your dog treats, and make sure that your child does not push your dog's limits. It is your job to protect your dog from unpleasant experiences with your child as well as to protect your child from being injured by your dog. One negative experience can have long-lasting ramifications.
  • Never physically or verbally punish your dog in front of your child. Your child may mimic that behavior and could be bitten. Methods for training dogs that emphasize rewarding the dog with treats and/or toys are efficient and safer ways to control a dog.
  • Put your dog away if you will have visiting children. You can use a crate and give your dog toys that engage him for long periods of time. Parties and gatherings with many children are overwhelming for most dogs.

If your child will visit a home with a dog, ask many questions. Do not assume the dog is friendly with children just because the owners tell you it is. Ask if the dog will be left with the children and whether other adults will be present. Meet the dog yourself, and watch the dog's behavior and body language when it is around children.

If you are planning to get a new dog or puppy and you have an infant or toddler, please reconsider. Infants and toddlers lack self-control and like to explore the world using their hands. Their erratic behavior is extremely difficult for even the most patient dog to tolerate, and their height makes them vulnerable to a dangerous bite to the face. The responsibility of protecting the child from the dog — and the dog from the child — falls on the parents. It is extremely difficult to provide this level of supervision. Wait until your child is more mature before getting a dog. While some families are ready for a pet when children are in their mid-elementary school years, there is no "right age" to add a dog to the family. Every family situation is unique, and every child matures at a different rate. Remember, parental supervision is still a must even if your child is not a toddler.

While it is important to be vigilant, it is also important to keep things in perspective. Most dog bites do not result in severe injuries. In fact, having worked with hundreds of dog owners, including owners of aggressive dogs, I know only one person who was physically scarred by a dog bite — me. I was 9 years old when I was bitten, and I have two scars on my left arm as "proof." So perhaps an additional risk to a child from a dog bite is that the child just might grow up to become a dog behavior consultant!

Veronica Sanchez is certified in animal behavior consulting by the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also has degrees in early childhood education and psychology. Veronica works for Cooperative Paws Training and Behavior Consulting helping families solve their dog's behavior problems. For more information, go to www.cooperativepaws.com.
Getting Help

It is important to be certain you find someone who is truly qualified to work with both your dog and your family. Screen carefully, and be sure the person uses methods that emphasize safety and rewarding the dog for desired behavior. Also, be sure to speak with your veterinarian about your dog's behavior to rule out medical causes.

The International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants has a listing of behavior consultants at www.iaabc.org.

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