Vol 6 No 3

Summer 2004

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 Kids And Dogs: Safety First!

2 Articles Every Dog Owner Should Read

Kid-proof Your Dogs,  Dog-proof Your Kids
Norma Bennet Woolf
Used by Permission. Copyright 2003 by Canis Major Publications

High-pitched laughter pealing behind her, Nancy ran around the corner of the house smack dab into the dog chained by the garage. Unnerved by the noise and startled by the child, the dog lunged and bit Nancy on the nose. She screamed, and the dog bit again. Nancy ended up with several stitches in her face and nightmares; the dog was euthanized for biting; and both families were traumatized.

The tragedy could have been avoided if Nancy's folks and the dog's owners had been prepared.

First of all, a dog should never be chained outside unattended. Most dogs of guard or working heritage suffer personality quirks when tied and many become downright aggressive. Dogs are better off in fenced areas, where they can see the barrier between them and the world, where they can feel somewhat safe from noisy, frolicking children. In addition, many dogs instinctively equate the high-pitched sounds of children with the distress sounds of prey animals, and they react by biting the child as they would have bitten the prey animal in the wild.

Second, children should be taught how to behave around dogs, even if their own family does not own a dog. For example, a child should never approach a strange dog without asking the owner if it's OK to pat the dog. If the child sees a loose dog on the street, he should not approach it even if he knows the dog belongs to his friend. He should tell someone that he saw the dog, but should make no attempt to pat or grab it.

Nor should he scream or run away, for these actions can result in an attack by the dog. A running being frequently says "prey" to the dog and triggers the chase response in his brain. Once triggered, this response is almost impossible to interrupt. The dog is reacting to chemical stimulus, not rational thought, and is extremely difficult to sidetrack.

Most dogs, even those that are well-trained, do not consider children as figures of authority. Furthermore, since children frequently stare intently at animals, a dog may feel threatened by this short person who is trying to catch him. Even the best-natured dog may bite to protect himself in these circumstances, especially if he feels cornered.

Once a child is given permission to approach a dog, she should present her closed fist for the dog to sniff. This protects the fingers in case the dog is frightened and tries to nip.

Children should never hug a dog that is not their own, and should only hug their own dog very gently if the dog can tolerate the hug. Children should be taught to never hit dogs with their hands or an object, to lower their voices when playing with the dog, to leave the dog alone when he's sleeping, eating, or ill, and to never tease a dog in any fashion. Many dog bites occur because the child teases the pet beyond endurance.

Dog owners share the responsibility for bite prevention as well. They should socialize their puppies to small children at an early age. (It helps to buy from a breeder who has started this socialization prior to the puppy purchase, for the younger the puppy is exposed to gentle children, the more tolerant of children it will become.)

Socialization can be as simple as walking the dog near a playground where children are making noise, running about, playing ball or Frisbee or soccer or walking through the neighborhood while the kids wait for the school bus. The dog can be told to walk at heel through a crowd of children, to sit-stay and watch the play or allow the children to pet his head, to down-stay until the end of the game. Constant exposure of this type will accustom the dog to the presence and antics of children.

  1. The dog should never be left alone with a child less than five years of age. A young child may challenge or injure the dog unintentionally and the result could be tragic. Dogs and children should be separated at snack time so the dog doesn't learn to steal food from tiny hands.
  2. The dog should have a place he can call his own, a retreat, a private room, a den. This can be a pen in the back yard or a crate in the house. The children should never be allowed to bother the dog when he is in his place.
  3. If the dog has access to a fenced yard, owners should make sure that neighborhood children cannot accidentally or intentionally tease him. Kids often begin by goading the dog to bark, then to snarl. Or they may throw things at him to chase him away from the fence. However it begins, the end result is usually the same: the kids learn that teasing the dog gives them a feeling of power tinged with the possibility of danger and the dog learns to hate kids. This hatred may be manifest as fear or as aggression, and may end when a child is bitten and the dog is taken to the pound to be placed in a new home, (if lucky).
  4. If the dog does not like the children, the children must change their behavior. Most dogs are wary of staring, of quick movements, and of high-pitched screams, all of which are typical of small children. Here's a few hints to alleviate the tension between dog and children.
  5. Provide a crate where the dog can escape the attention of boisterous or over-zealous children.
  6. Teach children to leave Ranger alone when he's in the crate, to pat him gently--no squeezing around the neck, please--and to leave him alone while he's eating.
  7. Do not play tug-of-war with any dog who has access to children. A dog that learns to tug on any item will soon figure that anything he can grab is his, even if it's a child's toy, clothing, or appendage.
  8. Teach children not to run past the dog and scream, for this can excite the dog and lead to dominant and even aggressive behavior.
  9. Never tie a dog in the yard. Children tend to tease tethered dogs even without realizing it, which can lead to aggressive behavior. Many instances of dogs attacking children occur when the dog is tethered in the yard and a screaming or running child enters its space.

The sight of a child and a dog napping together on the sofa or the floor, playing in the yard, or contemplating the sunset is a wondrous thing. The potential relationship between a child and the dog who considers himself the family guardian is precious, and it needs to be nurtured and guided. Families can accomplish this by teaching the dog and the child to respect and cherish each other. If this can be done, fewer children will be bitten and fewer dogs will be euthanized for aggressive behavior.

Understanding Dog Bites: How They Occur
 and How to Prevent Them
Vicki DeGruy
Used by Permission.  Copyright 2003 by Canis Major Publications

Tis article by Vicki DeGruy, originally published in Dog Owner's Guide, was the winner of a 1993 Dog Writer's Association of America Maxwell award for best article in a canine newspaper.

Question: I'd like to get a medium to large breed dog for my family but I'm worried. I've heard so many stories about dogs biting children. How can I be sure that it will be safe for my kids?

Answer: You have good reason to be concerned. Statistics show that most dog bites causing serious injury involve medium to large sized dogs and children under the age of five years. The dog is usually known to the child or is the family's pet.

To understand how these bites occur, what causes them and how to prevent them, a little education in the nature of dogs and the nature of small children is in order.

A dog's temperament is first inherited, then modified by events in his life and proper training. Some breeds and certain bloodlines within breeds are friendlier, more tolerant and more adaptable to training because they were bred to be that way. A responsible breeder wisely puts emphasis on good temperament when selecting breeding stock. Breeders without adequate knowledge of dog behavior may not understand what a correct temperament is and use unsuitable dogs for breeding.

Unscrupulous breeders sometimes deliberately breed dogs with poor temperaments. There are some dogs, just like there are some humans, that are mentally disturbed or have an illness or physical defect that affects their behavior. A dog's basic temperament, instincts and training have the biggest effects on how that dog reacts to the world around him and his levels of tolerance.

Very few bites happen without provocation -- but the provocation may exist only in the dog's mind! We need to realize that dogs are not little people in furry costumes. They don't think in the same way that we do. They look at the world around them with a different perspective. Most of their actions are instinctive. A dog will react to situations according to what his instincts tell him unless these instincts are overridden by the consistent training and socialization he needs to receive from his owner throughout his life.

Here is one of the most commonly reported scenarios in a bite case: A very young child sees a pretty dog he'd like to pet. The dog may not want to be petted. The dog's first instinctive reaction is show his displeasure by giving a warning -- growling. The growl means that something more unpleasant will follow if the warning isn't heeded.

The type and number of warnings given can vary. Many dogs faced with a child like this would just walk away. Walking away can be considered a warning. If the child keeps trying to pet the dog, a sterner warning, usually a growl, will follow. Some warnings are more subtle -- a stiffening of the body, for example. Few dogs bite without giving some indication beforehand.

Small children (and some adults) don't recognize a warning when they see or hear one. A very young child (under age six) doesn't know what a growl means. What may be obvious to an adult isn't understood by the child. The child continues to pet or follow after the dog even though the dog has now clearly told him what will happen if he doesn't stop.

Dogs instinctively set up an invisible "fight or flight" boundary around themselves. The size of this boundary depends on his level of confidence and tolerance. A fearful dog will give itself a wider area than a more stable one. When someone who the dog perceives as threatening or unwelcome enters that area, the dog has two choices -- it can run away or it can defend itself. If it feels that it can't run away, it will fight instead, no matter how afraid it might be. Some dogs will choose to fight first, rather than run.

A small child that's petting or hugging a dog has already intruded well within the dog's flight or fight boundary, the dog's safety zone. If the dog has tried to leave or has issued a warning with no response from the child, the dog (in his mind) has no other recourse -- he bites. This is normal, instinctive behavior -- to the dog. He is responding to what he perceives as a threat and is doing what his instincts tell him to. Remember that dogs don't think in the same way that people do. A child's innocent action, petting the dog, can be provocation for a bite when seen through the eyes of the dog.

There are other circumstances that can provoke a dog to bite a child. Running, playing, screaming kids can trigger an instinctive predator-prey reaction in some dogs. Children who rough house and wrestle with dogs unknowingly encourage them to use their teeth. Dogs equate this kind of play with littermates or other dogs where using teeth is allowed. Startling a sleeping dog or petting him when he's eating can also provoke a bite.

What can be done to prevent dogs from biting children? I feel that, first, it's essential to understand that almost any dog will bite under the right circumstances. Second, a dog is a dog, an animal whose behavior isn't the same as humans and can't always be predicted with 100 percent accuracy, no matter how friendly or reliable he is.

Obedience training and socialization are absolute musts for a dog who'll be spending time with children. Remember that a dog will act according to his instincts if he doesn't receive proper training or if that training isn't kept up through regular practice. The dog needs to be taught to obey commands under all conditions no matter how distracting. Just as responding to the command to "come" could save the dog's life someday, an immediate response to the command "leave it!" could save a child from serious injury.

Just as children need to be taught how to be well-behaved around other people, they need to be taught to be well-behaved and respectful around animals. They need to learn what kinds of games are appropriate, how to touch the dog properly, how to interpret the dog's body language and when the dog is not to be disturbed. When they're old enough to understand, kids should be involved in the training process. They should learn to give the dog commands and be able to enforce them.

Adult supervision is essential! Small children should never, ever be left alone with any dog, no matter how reliable the dog has been before. A responsible adult needs to be on the scene to prevent any aggressive behavior by the dog and to keep the child from putting him or herself in danger. Telling the toddler to stay away from the dog isn't enough! Remember that young children don't recognize when they may in trouble. It's up to the adult to keep them safe from the dog and to keep the dog safe from the children. I can't stress enough that adult supervision around children and dogs is absolutely critical! If you can't be right there to handle whatever might come up or if you have any doubt about the dog's behavior around children, the dog should be put away out of reach of the kids.

Almost all of us would agree that it would be nice for our children to grow up with a dog. Kids and dogs are wonderful, almost an American tradition. If you're thinking of getting a dog for the children or already have one, here are some guidelines: Consider postponing the purchase of a dog, especially a large one, until your children are at least six years old.

  1. Take your time when looking for a dog. Do your homework. Learn the differences in the various breeds and choose one best suited to your lifestyle and experience.
  2. Be honest with yourself about the amount of time and work you're willing to put into a dog. If you don't have time to raise and train the dog properly, don't get one.
  3. Buy your dog from a reputable, responsible breeder who puts priority on good temperament and health and consistently produces dogs that excel in those areas. Choose a breeder who's experienced and willing to guide and advise you about care and training throughout the dog's life.
  4. Train and socialize your dog properly! Get help if you run into problems. Don't fool yourself into thinking the dog will "outgrow" it or that the problem will go away on its own.
  5. Teach your children how to behave correctly and safely around animals and to respect them.
  6. If your children are too young to understand, it will be up to you to physically supervise them and protect them from potential harm. Don't take chances with their safety! If you can't be right there to take care of a problem or if you can't control your dog or your child -- put the dog away.
  7. Remember that what your dog tolerates from your own children may not be tolerated from someone else's. You need to take extra safety precautions when other children visit and make sure that the children obey your ground rules.
  8. Never, ever leave a child alone with any dog, no matter how harmless the dog seems.

Kids and dogs are wonderful together -- when adults use common sense and put safety first.