In the “dog world”, the month of May is recognized as Dog Bite Prevention Month. With dogs residing in the majority of American households, it’s rare, if not impossible, to travel through our daily lives without encountering dogs.
In the “dog world”, the month of May is recognized as Dog Bite Prevention Month. With dogs residing in the majority of American households, it’s rare, if not impossible, to travel through our daily lives without encountering dogs. If you’re reading this, chances are you have resident dogs of your own, or at the very least are meeting and greeting dogs at your friends and families homes. Dogs are some of the greatest creatures on Earth and can offer a level of companionship we can’t compare to anything else. To understand and know them for what they truly are is a beautiful thing. Part of that understanding is knowing that ALL dogs can and will bite under the right circumstances. Statistically, majority of dog-to-human reported bites involve children under age 10 (with special emphasis on babies and toddlers) and elderly adults, from a dog who is considered “familiar” (a resident, family, friend or otherwise known dog). Nearly all of these dog bites are preventable. One of my greatest hopes is that one day the “dog world” can celebrate the month of May as “Dog Appreciation Month” as education to prevent dog bites becomes more commonplace. Check out my family oriented tips to ensure you and your family are set up as best as possible for safety and ideal relationships with your dogs.
Body Language Cues
Dogs communicate primarily with each other and us through body language. There is a common myth that dogs can “bite out of the blue,” This is almost never true. While signals such as growling, snapping and ultimately biting,are quite obvious, there are many more subtle cues that dogs are becoming uncomfortable. Familiarizing yourself with these less obvious signals is of extreme importance, particularly if you have small children who reside or visit areas where dogs are present. Some of these signals include: yawning, heads and/or bodies turning away, lip licking, tongue flicking, whale-eye (which means the white area surrounding your dog’s eye is visible), freezing or frozen posture. Many of these signals are the first clues that your dog is getting anxious or stressed.
When interacting with a dog I recommend doing a 3-5 second petting test. Pet a dog for a few seconds then stop. See if the dog continues to solicit your attention or would rather be left alone or wander off to do something else. If your dog does not continue to want your attention, don’t take it personally. Practicing respecting your dog’s desires paves the way for a better relationship with your dog. When your dog predicts that you are most likely to be tuned into his comfort level, his overall comfort level being handled is better. The more history you have of positive interaction with your dog, the less likely your dog will resort to putting teeth on skin when you have an “oops” moment.
As a general rule, I do not encourage children under the age of 5 to have free access to touching dogs. Babies in the early months of life tend to grasp things tightly before learning how to let go. This is normal child development, but not so enjoyable for dogs. A great way to create positive associations between dogs and babies is to practice a guided touch. This means that an adult's hand is on top of a child’s hand, guiding the touch gently from neck to tail. This ensures there is no accidental grabbing of fur, ears, tails, face, etc. and protects your child in the event that your dog changes her mind about being touched.
Humans and other primate species have a tendency to want to grasp and hold objects and people we are attracted to and love. We hug things. While our dogs and children are undoubtedly cute, I strongly discourage hugging. The majority of dogs do not like hugs (there are exceptions when dogs are being hugged by certain trusted adult humans). Hugs often bring young faces close to dog faces, increasing the risk of facial bites. In Family Paws (an international group of dog training professionals dedicated to educating and supporting families that I am licensed and affiliated with), we practice the motto with our families “Hug a stuffy, not a live puppy!”
Types of Supervision
Dog enthusiasts, trainers, veterinarians and the like often repeat the mantra “never leave your children unsupervised with a dog.” It’s true, children of a young age should never be left unsupervised with a dog but what exactly does good supervision look like and what types of things should you be looking for? This fabulous infographic put together by Family Paws Parent Education gives great examples of what active supervision looks like.
In the early sleep deprived days of parenting, it’s easy to take advantage of every napping opportunity you have. It’s important should you find yourself getting sleepy, to make sure your dog is in an area where they do not have any sort of access to your newborn. It may seem common sense, but in this past year there have been dog bite fatalities that resulted from a dog having access to a newborns sleeping area where there was not an awake adult present.
In this era of social media and electronic communication, it’s habitual and tempting to get sucked into our connected devices. If you are reading your cellphone, your tablet, or even a book – you are not able to monitor what your children and dogs are doing. REMEMBER, it takes a split second to have an irreversible accident. There is nothing wrong with indulging in personal Facebook scrolling time, but be sure that your dogs and young children are set up for safety and success by managing their access to each other when you can’t be focused on them at the same time.
For many new parents, our dogs were often our “first babies.” But those fur-babies can become scary when we bring newborns home to dogs who have mouths with teeth inside them. Creating positive associations with each other safely is important to the growth of their relationship. If we react in a way that is scary or punishing to our dogs every time they are near our children, this reaction can become confusing. While we want their interactions to be safe and properly supervised, we don’t want their presence near each other to become a trigger for anxiety or stress.
Ideally, I like to see families practicing levels 4 and 5. When dogs and children aren’t able to be actively monitored, there are gates, crates or barriers in place to limit each other’s access to one another. Families who spend time including their dogs in age appropriate activities with their children will be the most set up for that idealistic, fun, loving relationship we all hope our children to share with our dogs. Practicing including young children in safe appropriate ways decreases the likelihood that our dogs will resort to biting.
Age appropriate inclusive activities can include: tossing a toy or treats to a dog who is practicing obedience cues while nursing/feeding/holding a newborn while you are resting comfortably on a couch, sitting on the floor between a growing infant having tummy-time and a dog who is comfortably resting in a down-stay, practicing and rewarding having a dog lay on a mat or other trained spot while changing a diaper, practicing guided touch, inviting a dog to sit near you while you have story time with a toddler, allowing a toddler to scoop dog food into a dish while dogs wait behind a gate or barrier, playing hide-and-seek in teams of dogs vs. adult and child pair, having a toddler help stuff kongs to be frozen and served at a later time, walking a dog with two leashes – one for and adult (who is really leading the walk) and one for an older toddler to hold. All of these types of activities will have to take into consideration the personality and characteristics of your individual dog.
I spend a lot of time talking with families who have young children and dogs in my private consulting business and in my daily life. It is not unusual to hear the phrase “Fido is such a great dog for my kids. He lets them sit and lay on top of him and he doesn’t do a darn thing." While I know this comes from a place of good intentions, it truly comes from a place of misunderstanding. Dogs are only tolerant until they are not anymore. Period. Search through images of children sitting on, laying on, and riding dogs and chances are you will see some or all of the above mentioned stress signals. Tolerance isn’t a horrible quality to have in a dog who interacts with children, but allowing children to act this way towards dogs isn’t safe. “Sit on the ground, not the hound!” is a good family motto to practice. Sitting on or laying on a dog can be a mild discomfort or downright painful for the dog. Dogs who reside with children who are allowed to do this may do a great job of tolerating – but think about what the relationships you have with other people whom you only tolerate are like. I’m a big advocate for making sure that dogs are truly enjoying an interaction versus simply tolerating one.
Absence of a bite incident does not equal “fine,” and a tolerant dog isn’t necessarily a happy one.
Dogs in Public
Young children should be discouraged from approaching dogs in public without permission. Even when permission is granted, an adult should be present and actively supervising, making sure the dog seems happy to be greeted (remember those body language cues). If you have family dogs and toddlers in your own household who live harmoniously together, it does not mean that your dogs will be as comfortable with visiting children. My personal dogs live quite comfortably with an active toddler but I rarely let neighborhood kids greet us on our walks and our dogs are always crated during play dates.
Dogs who are chained or tethered or live outdoors full time without being an active member of the family are statistically more likely to bite. Chained dogs are often unsocialized, highly stressed & may have poor quality of life. Caretakers should take extra caution to actively supervise children anytime they may be in an area where chained dogs are present (ideally children should not be allowed access to areas where chained dogs are).
Stressed Dog, What to do?
If you’re seeing signs that your dog is stressed or anxious, the first steps should be getting your dog into your veterinarian’s office. Keep current with preventative wellness measures and get annual exams to make sure your dog is in good health. If your dog is behaving abnormally or in a way that is concerning, it’s best to rule out that these signals are not the result of a physical ailment or illness.
Get in touch with a qualified dog trainer who subscribes to modern, positive reinforcement dog training methods. If you already have a dog and are planning on welcoming home children in the future, meeting with a professional who can help you prepare for this transition cuts down on stress and increases safety. If you have toddler or older aged children and are considering bringing home a dog, meeting with a professional prior to this can help you navigate how to choose the right dog for you family and make sense of realistic expectations.
With good training, management, active supervision, better understanding of our dogs and time & effort we can prevent nearly all dog bites from happening!
Kat Stevens-Stanley is a certified dog trainer who services individuals and families throughout the greater Detroit area. One of her greatest passions is supporting families who have children as well as dogs. She can be reached directly via her website at, www.katstevensdogtraining.com, and on Facebook at, www.facebook.com/katstevensdogtraining.