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Dogs and children are a great combination, and often become best buddies. But this doesn’t always happen by sheer magic. The dog has to be taught how to behave around children (the early training you do will ensure this) and children have to learn how to behave around dogs. It’s true some dogs are more friendly and safe with children than others. But even they can bite if provoked. Did you know the majority of dog bites to children come from their own dogs, or dogs they know well? This means most bites can be prevented if people are well informed, and do the right things.
Many people mistakenly believe their dogs must put up with everything they do to them, no matter how well trained they are – pulling the tail, hugging, pinching the ears, pulling the hair, grabbing them while they sleep, patting the head hard, picking them up by the paws, and so on. Wrong! Just as you dislike and refuse to have certain things done to you, so does your dog. Forcing him to accept what he hates can result in aggression and biting. You’re no less in control of your dog if you avoid doing things he dislikes. In fact, you have better control if you respect him and ask other people to do the same; this includes children. That’s the first step towards avoiding bites.
And a golden rule is never to leave a child (toddlers, and up to at least twelve-year-old children) alone with your dog, or any dog, no matter how much you trust him. This isn’t because he’ll suddenly turn vicious, or dislikes children, but because children are impulsive and tend to do things dogs don’t appreciate – pulling the hair, for example. Remember, dogs can’t speak and can only offer a variety of body movements and noises to indicate their discomfort. Adults can and should learn to recognise these signals; small children and toddlers are unlikely to – and in any case are more interested in playing. A child may, therefore, not provoke a dog on purpose, but still get bitten because he doesn’t pick up the signals.
Let’s look at an example of a dog biting out of the blue:
The dog is relaxing on a sofa – his favourite spot – wanting to be left alone. A two-year-old child approaches him. The dog licks his lips and turns his head away. The child keeps approaching, looking for the dog’s attention. At this point, the misunderstanding between dog and child has begun – lip-licking and turning the head away are subtle signals that mean ‘go away’. The child is acting as humans do – wanting eye contact – by approaching and being nice. As the child continues to approach, the dog may yawn, curve his body away from the child or lean hard into the sofa. The dog is feeling crowded, yet the child still moves in to hug or kiss him. The dog growls, bares his teeth, and bites the child on the face – all in a matter of seconds.
Was the bite ‘out of the blue’? No. The dog gave all the signals other dogs would have recognised. The child, however, communicated like a human – eye contact, hugging, and kissing. From the dog’s point of view, the child didn’t respond properly to his subtle warnings, so he made the message clearer, by biting. All the dog wanted was to be left alone; all the child wanted was to cuddle up to the dog. The bite happened because of a misunderstanding: their minds couldn’t meet. It could only have been prevented by an adult being there to ensure the problem didn’t arise in the first place.
What subtle signals does your dog give, that you must pay attention to?
1. Getting up and moving away from the child.
2. Turning his head, to avoid eye contact.
3. Yawning while the child approaches or starts playing with him.
4. Suddenly scratching himself or licking his lips.
5. Rolling his eyes to the side, exposing the white part.
6. If lying on a sofa, he may lean hard against it, or curve his body away from the child.
A dog giving these signals might not bite. But it’s better to be safe than sorry, and end the encounter when you see them.
It’s also useful to know the common situations where a dog is more likely to bite a child. These are:
These are situations when a dog may bite. I’m not saying he will. Even if he does, the bite may be no more than a nip. But why risk a nip or a serious bite, when there are safe and fun ways for children to play with dogs?
Dogs play with what they have: paws and teeth. If excited, they can hurt. Whatever games you let your dog play with a child, make sure they don’t include rough play – grabbing the dog’s muzzle, scruffing, or teasing.
Games of hide and seek are fun and safe. The child hides somewhere easy for the dog to find – behind doors, or around corners – and calls him. As soon as the dog finds the child, he gets rewarded with a couple of food treats. The child must drop the food on the floor, for the dog to pick up – this avoids nipped fingertips if the dog is enthusiastic about getting food. Instead of food treats, the child can carry a wooden spoon with peanut butter. When the dog finds him, he gets rewarded by licking the peanut butter off the spoon. Make sure the child holds the spoon as low as he can, to avoid the dog jumping up at him.
Children tend to become excited when the dog finds them, and jump up while screaming ‘yeah!’. This animated reunion may be fine with self-confident and calm dogs, but it may startle nervous ones. Play it safe, by instructing the child to celebrate the reunion without making a big fuss.
Games of fetch are also fun. When the child is holding the toy he’s about to throw, hold the dog back by the collar. This avoids him jumping at the child to grab the toy, and accidentally biting him. Tell the child to throw the toy, and say ‘fetch’. You, the adult, encourage the dog to return with it. When he does, hold him by the collar, take the toy away, and hand it to the child. The child throws it again, and the game continues. When it’s over, put the toy away. This prevents the child from feeling tempted to play ‘fetch’ alone with the dog.
Instead of playing, the child may prefer to spend quiet time with the dog. Teach him to stroke the dog instead of patting his head (many dogs dislike head pats); to scratch the dog’s chest instead of pulling his hair; to hold him lightly instead of hugging, and finally, to always keep his face away from the dog’s mouth.
Dogs and children can have something magical going on between them. Many children with speech challenges begin to talk with their dogs before talking with adults or other people. Children with disabilities that affect their movement can benefit from learning to brush their dogs. Some children, slow to develop speech and social skills, bloom with the combination of dog-assisted therapy and sign language. Shy, older children meet and make friends with other people while taking their dogs for walks.
What can you teach children to do, to preserve their trust in dogs, and remain safe? Offer them the following instructions:
1. Don’t approach unknown dogs, even if they are on a lead and with their owners.
2. Don’t be left alone with a dog, whether it’s your dog or a friend’s.
3. Never look directly for more than a second or so into a dog’s eyes.
4. Never put your face close to any dog’s mouth.
5. Never try to take an object from a dog.
6. Don’t approach a dog that’s eating, or chewing on a toy or bone.
7. Never put your hand through a car window to touch a dog.
8. Never touch a dog through a gate or fence.
9. Never go into the garden of a dog, even if he looks friendly.
10. Never come between dogs that are fighting.
11. Never disturb a dog that’s sleeping, wounded, or caring for a litter of puppies.
12. Never reach out for a dog that’s trapped and frightened.
13. Learn to recognise signals dogs show when they’re about to bite: growling, showing teeth, hair standing, tail held straight up without moving, or wagging fast in a narrow arc.
14. Play with your dog only, and not other people’s dogs, unless their owner assures you it’s OK and that the dog is friendly with children.
Teach a child what to do if he’s threatened or attacked by dogs.
If a child is alone, and has to walk past a place where one or more dogs are loose and barking, he should choose another route – the dogs may be guarding territory, and attack if he approaches.
If a child is chased by a dog he must remain still, fold his arms, look down, and wait until the dog goes away – running and screaming may provoke an attack.
If a child is attacked and knocked down by a dog, he must curl his body into a ball, and protect his face and neck with his arms and hands. Ask for help as soon as the dog is gone.
This may seem alarming, but the truth is: play it safe, and the likelihood of a bite is minimal.