Over the last twelve months, many of my clients have begun to start a family, having their first human baby, second to their fur baby; their dog. I have quite a few more clients and even colleagues who are about to pop theirs out over the next few months, so it prompted me to write this article as I get asked quite often, “Will my dog be okay?”
We all have in our minds the beautiful image of a dog laying calmly beside the baby, gently licking its feet and being the big protector, but is it always as sweet and simple as it seems? It can be for most but not necessarily for all.
We have media that throw horrible images of young children bearing scars and lacerations after a dog bite and it creates more hype, stigma and fear into not only the general public but also parents, families and dog owners. Why is it that media don’t show the lovely homes with toddlers and dogs getting on beautifully together? Why is it that they always portray the dog to be evil, the vicious animal that wanted to hurt a child? Why do they never tell you the full story as to what really happened? And isn’t it interesting that they only show the dog bites that involve larger breeds- the Staffies and Staffie crosses, the Rottweilers, the Malamutes and Mastiffs yet never the smaller fluffy dogs?
So I guess the question is, can dogs grow up with children, can they ever truly be trusted around children and more importantly, would your own dog ever harm your child? Well before we dig deeper and look into why bites happen, here are some interesting statistics that might actually surprise you.
1. Most bites in children occur in the age group from 0-5 years with the next most common category being children aged 5-10 years.
2. A staggering 70% of bites are carried out by the family dog or a dog belonging to a family member or neighbour.
3. The majority of bites occur when a valued resource such as food was present or the dog’s personal space was invaded.
4. Dogs don’t just bite out of nowhere. They give off warning signs all the time however if those signs were ignored or punished and the situation for the dog did not change, then it might resort to biting.
5. The majority of dogs bite out of fear and not out of malicious intent. They often had no escape or way of avoiding the threat, even if it was just a toddler coming closer. Some dogs freeze in a moment of fear and cannot move themselves away!
6. Most bites occur when an adult was NOT supervising the interaction between the dog and the child.
7. More often than not, the dog did not instigate the bite or attack. It was often pushed to the limit, scared, hurt or threatened by the child or its presence.
8. A large percentage of dogs that bite tend to have underlying anxiety, chronic pain, chronic infections, skin problems or underlying illnesses.
9. All dog breeds can bite, even the humble Golden Retriever. There is no specific breed that bites more often than others and sadly media compounds this problem by making us believe specific breeds attack children.
10. Most dog bites never get reported because the victim or victim’s family knew the dog. If it did get reported, the owner may be fined, have to face the court and be charged and the dog can be seized and condemned to be euthanased.
So this is a bit of an eye opener because most people assume dog bites happen randomly on the street and yes they can, but most occur behind closed doors by the beloved family pet. But it doesn’t mean your dog is a child eating monster waiting to be unleashed. It means we need to pay attention and look into how it can be prevented.
So why are young children getting bitten by dogs?
The first step is to recognise that no matter how well you raised your pup, no matter how much exposure to children it had, no matter how many good experiences it had, you can never be 100% sure it will not try to bite but it will do its damned hardest to avoid doing so; dogs don’t just go around looking for children to bite. This means parents have to supervise, parents cannot assume the children and dog will be just fine on their own. Kids are unpredictable and sometimes dogs just find that hard and parents have to remember, dogs are dogs!
Scenario 1. A middle aged family dog is lying on the floor on its mat, minding its own business, possibly even in a deep sleep. The toddler has woken up from a nap and mum collects from cot and pops in lounge room on the floor. While mum is busy with something else, toddler notices dog and suddenly wanders over, not very well balanced. Now toddler loses balance, trips on mat, lands full weight across this dog who was totally unaware…………. Can you imagine what the outcomes could be here?
Well we could have two really. One is that the dog suddenly startles and looks at the toddler and then takes the opportunity to lick the face and play. Two, we can also end up with the dog that startles, yelps, growls, tries to get away from the child but can’t because it has a grip of its fur and now is snapping. This is how things can turn ugly. The dog is not a nasty dog, it doesn’t hate children but in that moment it got scared and reacted because it feared for its life. It is that moment that sometimes dogs just do the wrong thing but it can be devastating for the family and the child.
Scenario 2. A young slightly nervous dog lives with its owner and they rarely have visitors. A friend comes to visit with her two young and noisy children and as soon as they arrive, the dog starts to bark and move away. It then tries to go up and sniff but then one child squeals so the dog barks louder and runs away again. The dog owner is a little surprised by the behaviour and the parent seems to not be fussed about it and they just ignore the situation……..Can you imagine what the outcomes could be here?
Well again we can have a few. One is that the dog gradually drums up enough courage to go up to the children who are now settling down. It sniffs them, sees they are not aliens, even gets a sandwich crust and over the hour, begins to like them but it prefers to move away if they get a bit too loud. Two is that the dog is in a corner, the children pester it and refuse to let it pass. The dog has moved from barking to now growling deeply and nobody is paying attention. The child now goes in for a grab of fur and…… very likely, the child has now been snapped at.
Warning as this video may disturb some viewers but we can say the child was unharmed. This is what happens when dogs are misread and pushed at the same time.
Scenario 3. A young family bring their newborn baby home. Their young dog is a confident dog, friendly, happy in general and excited about the novelty. Before the baby arrived, they brushed up on their training, ensured the dog was exposed to children and felt comfortable around them, made some changes in the home with rules and set ups and did their best to prepare this dog for the big life change. The parents do their best to find the balance between doting on their baby and some quality time with the dog to ensure it still felt like a part of the family. They take it on walks with the pram, they allow it to come inside when the baby is around and they always supervise the pair. As the baby grow and becomes more mobile, the parent notices that sometimes the dog wants to move away and this option is always available to it; it is never forced to remain still or punished for wanting to move. The dog always feels safe and secure, it trusts its owner and over time, a special bond develops between that child and dog…….Can you imagine the outcome here?
For me there is only one outcome here…..a great one. We have responsible parents who respect both their dog and child and pay attention to body language, they give the dog time to gradually get used to the child, they continue as best they can to include it in their daily routines, they make the changes necessary to ensure their dog likes having the child around and they always keep an eye on them. This scenario is by far the most common, not the first two and it doesn’t mean the parents or dog owners of the first two were necessarily irresponsible however we cannot afford to have complacency and interactions must be supervised.
When dog bites do occur, it doesn’t always mean the parents or dog owners were totally neglectful or irresponsible. Many parents and dog owners do supervise their dogs and children but sometimes they don’t recognise the earlier body language when the dog is stressed or uncomfortable. We all tend to recognise wagging tail and floppy tongue as a happy dog but we miss the other signs that mean scared and worried.This is why educating the public, sharing this article and teaching others is so important.
Why are some dogs better with children than others?
In my articles I always mention genetics and I will do it again in this article because people often say how amazing their dogs were when they grew up, they ‘could do anything’ to them; pull their tails, grab their hair, sit on them, even pull their ears (Yet I cringe when I hear that thinking, the poor dog). Now some have gone on to get their own family dog but it seems nervous, runs away from the kids, even growls or shows its teeth and just isn’t as bomb proof as the old dog they grew up with. So going back to genetics, some dogs are born to love and share, have enormous patience and tolerance and take as much as they can and they see the tripping child as a perfect opportunity to lick a face. Then there are others who are more introverted, they prefer quiet, they prefer space, they prefer to connect with one person who they feel is very predictable and easy to understand and these are the dogs that see that very same child as suspicious and up to something, as noisy and erratic and possibly even dangerous to be around!.
Either way, we need to watch the dogs to ensure the interactions between them and a child is always safe, calm, predictable and enjoyable and we need to be more mindful of the dog who really believes children are aliens.
Watching children grow up with dogs is an amazing opportunity and children learn so much about nurturing others, exploration of their senses, responsibility, patience, tolerance of other species, the life cycle and it even builds up the immune system to resist germs. But it has to work both ways and be fair for the dog.
If your dog had many good opportunities to grow up around children, then more often than not, they realise they are fun, are worth hanging around for, almost always have scraps of food in their hands, have cool sticky fingers and faces to lick, make great buddies and if they are dextrous enough, can even toss a ball!. Nothing beats the cute giggle a toddler does when the dog gently licks its feet or face or the look of surprise when the baby first touches a dogs soft coat. It is beautiful watching a dog drop a toy next to the child hoping it might get thrown and even if it just moved a centimetre, the dog is rapt. Watching the child in the pram with the leash in its hand is empowering and right from that young age they learn to work as a team, best friends and watching your dog lie quietly while the toddler is sleeping against it, allowing it to do so, priceless. This is what we wish for when we have the combination of children and dogs.
But if your dog is just not getting what children are all about, then you need to change that image. Sometimes they just don’t want to deal with them and prefer to be left alone. Some dogs are just simply not great at it!
When my boy Stanley was about 10 months old, my kids took him out for a walk down to a local park. At that period in his life, he was already a little anxious but not overly and he coped well in general. So imagine what went through his head when suddenly out of the blue, a young boy literally tackles him to the ground because he wanted to pat him and had no idea how to do it properly. This young boy was excited, unsupervised and out of nowhere, landed on my dog. As I wasn’t there when it happened, I heard all about it and instantly thought, uh oh, that is not good. We already had a mildly anxious dog who was still learning about the world and then in a moment he was launched at by some unsuspecting child. In that moment, what also occurred was a rewiring of his head; children cannot be trusted therefore they must never come near me again!
You can see how easily it can twist and turn in a moment, in one event. The purpose of this article is not to scare parents or banish the dogs into their kennels or backyards. The purpose is to raise awareness and I guess a reminder that dogs are dogs and yes for the most part, amazing around children and people but sometimes, just sometimes, the combination does not work as well as anticipated.
So how do we prevent these dog bites?
Well here are some simple pointers to help you and your children work with the your dog, as family member; as a team player.
- If you know you plan to have children in the future, expose your dog as much as possible to children and ensure the interactions are always positive and maintain this until your child arrives. If despite this you see your dog is just not that good with children, then accept that this is how it will be and then work with your dog so it can still continue to be part of the family without being too stressful.
- We need to always respect a dog’s personal space. This means its kennel, bed, mat, crate, even the corner of the kitchen if that is where it likes to relax.
- All dogs have the right to eat in peace. This means children should not be hovering over them, grabbing at them or shoving hands in the dog’s bowl while it eats. When the dog gets a raw bone, it should have the pleasure of enjoying such a treat without a child trying to take it away.
- All dogs should have the option to move away when they want to. They should not be cornered, chained or boxed in where they cannot escape if the child annoys them. They should have the liberty to move away knowing they are not being stalked.
- All dogs have the rights to sleep in peace. Children must learn to leave dogs alone when they are resting.
- All dogs, no matter how well trained they are, no matter how good they are, should be supervised when with children and vice versa. Dogs are not baby sitters.
- Children need to learn how to be gentle around dogs, how to be calmer around dogs, to not stare at dogs, pinch, kick or hit dogs, to leave them alone when they eat, sleep and rest.
- Parents need to learn canine body language so they understand when the dog has had enough, feels threatened or is not feeling comfortable. The most common early warning signals when a dog is not comfortable with a situation: tongue flicking, lowering head, avoiding eye contact, yawning, licking lips and vocalising while yawning followed by rigid body, tail tucked under, body lowering, ears pinned back against the head, holding breath, mouth clamped shut or panting rapidly, growling, showing teeth, snarling, air snapping and muzzle punching. If all of these are ignored or punished, the dog may eventually resort to biting. Instead, change the current situation.
- Parents need to learn when to call the child away (or dog) or remove it from the situation and earlier is always better than later! If the dog growls at the child, immediately change the situation but avoid punishing the dog. Remember this is a warning signal; suppress this and now you no longer have a warning.
- Parents need to ensure the dog is well, not in pain, is healthy and fit and if it isn’t, address the issue with the vet and give the dog more space and time so it can cope better. Your dog is more likely to be annoyed by children if it feels stiff, sore or itchy!
- Parents need to accept that sometimes their dog is just not great with children and that management will be the key to harmony rather than training alone.
As you can see, a lot can be done to reduce the chances of having your child bitten or your dog biting a child. It doesn’t just happen out of the blue. The dog doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide it wants to grab a child by the arm. The dog will do its best to avoid harming the child and it will tolerate an awful lot but there is no room for ignorance, complacency or lack of supervision.
Now that you know all of this, the next time you hear on the news or read in a paper that a child was bitten, instead of thinking how crazy the dog was or wondering what breed it was, stop for a moment and reflect on the points mentioned above and I can almost guarantee one of those was overlooked.
Bites can be prevented and children can grow up with dogs and with a bit of a better understanding, a bit of fairness tossed in, respect for the dog, supervision, good management and responsible parenting, training and common sense, it can be awesome and it can be safe!
Thank you to Shelley Morgan for her beautiful photo of Ben the Labrador and her first child Jack who have an amazing bond together!