Preventing Dog Bites in Kids
Any dog can bite. I am not making a negative statement about dogs, just stating a fact. I am not saying all dogs WILL bite, just that all dogs are capable of biting.
Unfortunately, when kids are bitten, it is usually to the face or neck. Why is this? Well, there are a couple reasons. For the sake of this article, I am referring to family pets, not strange dogs you may encounter outside - that's a whole other topic. Some reasons are:
Kids love to hug. Dogs find hugging rude or even scary.
Many adults have a hard time reading dogs body language, we can't expect kids to automatically know what a dog is trying to convey by their body movements.
Some kids are not being taught how to properly interact with a dog. Squeezing, tormenting, teasing, riding, etc are all actions that most dogs will not enjoy.
All the above can cause fear or stress in your dog. The signs they show, that in their mind, are screaming that they are uncomfortable can be easily ignored or not even noticed by most kids and even a lot of adults. For example, if you hug your dog and they turn their head away and maybe even lean away, they are trying to tell you that they are not liking what you are doing and the longer it lasts, the higher your dog's stress level will be.
"most dogs do not want to bite"
Most dogs will not bite out of the blue. Actually, most dogs do not want to bite. They will usually show displacement behaviours first (looking away, avoiding eye contact) and probably some signs of stress (lip licking or tongue flicks when no food is present, shaking, yawning when they are not tired, moving slowly, moving away) and then if the cause of stress is still present, growling, air snapping, whale eye, showing teeth, etc. These interactions can happen rather quickly. When the first few behaviours are ignored and the cause of stress is repeated (child hugging the dog repeatedly or continuously), the growling may start sooner and sooner.
The biggest problem with this scenario is the dog is quickly forming a negative association with the particular child who is just wanting to show affection and hug the dog. To a dog, a hug is not affection.
"punishing your dog for growling will make the problem worse"
The next unfortunate step most adults take is punishing their dog for growling or showing teeth. This will most likely make the problem worse.
Why? First off, punishing a dog for showing fear or anxiety will cause more fear and anxiety in that dog when the cause of the anxiety is around (in this case, the child). Chances are, the dog only growls when that particular child is around. Now, he starts feeling stressed and perhaps shows his teeth. For this, he gets a smack or grabbed by the scruff or squirted in the face with a water bottle. This is all happening in the presence of the stress causing child. Now the dog is starting to associate that child with all sorts of bad things!
Secondly, the dog may learn to suppress his outward appearance of fear or anxiety, but how he feels inside has not improved at all. You may succeed in extinguishing a growl, but the root cause of that growl is still very much present. This gives humans a false sense of security. Look! He stopped growling! He must like (insert child's name here) now! So now you go back to allowing your child to hug, then all of a sudden there is a bite without warning because the dog learned that the warning created punishment.
"Pay attention to what your dog is telling you"
This can all be avoided by paying attention to what your dog is telling you. Familiarize yourself with basic dog body language and make sure your kids understand how to properly interact with a dog.
Here are some tips and rules to keep in mind when bringing in a new dog or raising a puppy in a household with small children:
Pick a puppy/dog with the appropriate energy level and size to suit your family's activity level.
Never let your kids hug, kiss, ride on, sit on or otherwise poke and prod at the dog.
Use this opportunity to teach your kids kindness and respect towards others - human and animal alike.
Don't allow your (or other) children to mistreat the dog. Teach them how to appropriately play with and train the dog. Having kids train the family dog is super helpful and fun!
Teach kids to stay out of the dogs space when the dog is eating, sleeping, chewing on a bone, or if the dog is injured.
Provide your dog with a child free zone they can retreat to if they are feeling overwhelmed.
Monitor all interactions with your dog and your kids to ensure safety for all and step in if you start seeing signs of stress in your dog. Giving your dog a time out is not a punishment, and may be a needed break.
Teach your dog that good things happen when children are present.
Don't let your kids startle or otherwise scare your dog.
"That dog that tried everything it could to get you to see it was uncomfortable will be euthanized because of something that was totally avoidable."
Most bites are preventable. Even if you think "my last dog didn't have a problem with that", keep in mind, each dog is different and may react differently to each situation. Dogs are living breathing things, not squeeze toys. The tragedy is, most kids love their dogs and want to show it the way they know how to show affection. Hugs and kisses. But all too often, this results in a trip to the emergency room for the humans and a trip to the pound for the dog. Ultimately, that dog that tried everything it could to get you to see it was uncomfortable will be euthanized because of something that was totally avoidable.
Its about time we started showing our dogs the respect they deserve by learning their body language so we can avoid unwanted behaviours and training with compassion to build a life long trusting bond.