Why Dogs Bite Children: A Lesson in Preventing Dog Bites in Kids

This animation may seem shocking to some; however according to studies published in the journals American Surgeon and Pediatrics a majority of injuries in kids are to the neck and face. Furthermore dog bites are not uncommon. Nearly a million people—both adults and kids—are bitten badly enough to require a hospital visit.

To some people the bites may seem out of the blue, but to those in the know, the causes are obvious.

Says Dianne Fabretti, a registered veterinary technician for the Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation, “We read [bite reports] and it tends to be people don’t know body language of animals [and] they don’t exhibit proper behavior to the animals so the animal behaves as an animal.”

She emphasizes further, “People don’t educate their children as to how to handle and act around animals.  I know that. I have one son and two stepsons and I was always amazed what kids do and how much more training kids need in terms of how to act around the animals.”

It’s all in the education according to Fabretti and the worst part, is that when children are not taught what to do and what to avoid around dogs, dogs get into situations where they need to defend themselves and the results are not only bad for the kids but can be much worse for the dog. Says Fabretti, “When animals do bite, people get emotional. The [dogs] end up here and most are euthanized.”

What is it that kids do so wrong?

So just, what is it that kids do that’s so wrong? Fabretti has firsthand knowledge of this too because when one of her step sons was younger he would harass their Australian Cattle Dog. “He would go around and stick his face in the dog’s face and go Amos Amos Amos. And I’d say don’t do that. That’s rude to dogs. He was behaving in a way that boys do but is inappropriate to dogs.”

While the internet is riddled with examples of kids behaving similarly, when you know how to read a dog’s body language you realize that many of these kids are just lucky.  Due to her training, Fabretti could tell the rude interactions were making Amos nervous.

“[Amos was] putting his head down, trying to avoid eye contact.” Because Fabretti was always supervising their interactions, she could call her step son away and prevent a disaster from happening.

“People always want to be in the dog’s face. Kiss them,” says Fabretti. “Even if the dog says he doesn’t like that, they don’t listen. So the dog has to go beyond putting his head down and growling and maybe he goes beyond that and then bites because he is so stressed.”

Of course once the dog is pushed to that level, the owner may report that the dog is vicious and has bitten out of the blue. The humans assume that dogs should put up with children no matter what, when even humans can’t put up with their own kids all the time. Human parents have babysitters, spouses, family members and baby cribs and play pens to help give them relief from caring for and dealing with their kids yet they expect the household dog to get along no matter what.

How come sometimes only one family dog is aggressive?

When informed that their kids may not be interacting in the most appropriate way with the family dog, some owners ignore the advice saying, it never bothered their last dog. Making an assumption that all dogs and all interactions are the same can be a big mistake. One of my classmates from college, Christina Martin, and her family know from experience. Martin relayed her message me, “We have an 8 month old puppy who’s great with our older kids but growls at our youngest girl. At first we were puzzled about why she growls. We have two other adult Labrador retrievers and they were always good with the kids.”

When they described what had been going on, the cause of the aggression was clear. The youngest daughter always wanted to hug or kiss or chase the puppy around to pick him up. She basically pestered him all day and he had no way of predictable escape. So he would warn her by getting tense and raising his lip and when these signs didn’t work he would snap. The reason the other family dogs had never been aggressive to the children is that they were older when the kids were born. The kids never hounded them in the same way. But bring in a puppy and for the kids meant open season on hugging and squeezing.

Luckily Martin knew better than to just reprimand the puppy to try to stop the growling. Doing so can cause dogs to become more stressed and then they learn to hide the outward warning signs of their emotional state. When this occurs what can happen is that when the dog can’t stand it any more he erupts in a full-fledged bite. This bite is, of course, seemingly unprovoked because the warning signs of fear have been punished out.

Instead, the Martin’s trained their youngest daughter how to interact appropriately. Most of her interactions were when she was training the puppy by giving rewards for following her or running with her and then sitting. That way the puppy was learning polite fun behavior and getting rewards and learning to associated the youngest daughter with good things.

There are a number of factors that can cause dogs to bite kids. If adults educate their children about dog body language and how to interact, fewer children will suffer bites and more family dogs will live longer, happier lives.

Here are a some tips for preventing dog bites:

  • Before getting a dog, seek advice from veterinarians, vet techs or other knowledgeable pet care professionals.
  • Make sure any dog acquired by a family with children was well-socialized, especially to children, as a young puppy and into adolescence.
  • Teach kids to stay out of the dog’s personal space when the dog is eating, sleeping, injured or has puppies.
  • Don’t startle or surprise any dog –let the dog know when you are approaching.
  • Avoid hugging, kissing or any activity that puts your face in close proximity to the dog’s face.
  • Supervise all interactions between dogs and children and be sure that both adult and child know the body signs that indicate fear or anxiety.
  • When signs of fear or anxiety are observed, stop interactions between child and dog.
  • Provide dogs with a child-free zone in which to retreat—such as a baby-gated room or a kennel or crate.
  • Don’t allow children to mistreat the family dog, teach them to interact appropriately.
  • Don’t approach strange dogs without the owners’ permission.
  • Don’t approach loose dogs or ones tied out on long lines.
  • Don’t reach through a fence to pet a dog.
  • Don’t reach into a car window to pet a dog.
  • Do train your pet to obey basic commands such as sit, lie down and come when called by having clear expectations and rewarding the good behaviors with something the dog enjoys
  • For dog households with children, teach the dog good things happen when children are close by.

Here are some other articles and resources that may help you:

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Positively Expert: Sophia Yin

The late Dr. Yin was an internationally-acclaimed veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist who lectured and taught workshops to dog trainers, shelter workers, and veterinary staff. She is the author of three books including a veterinary textbook and DVD set on behavior. Her "pet-friendly" techniques have set the standard of care for...


29 thoughts on “Why Dogs Bite Children: A Lesson in Preventing Dog Bites in Kids

  1. Pingback: Why Dogs Bite Children: A Lesson in Preventing Dog Bites in Kids - Beagle Forum : Our Beagle World Forums

  2. kc

    Years ago when my three year old son was nipped by the elderly Beagle-Greyhound we had just moved in with my fiirst response was "What did you do to the dog?" (he put his fingers in the dogs ears) He got a few stiches and, until she died several years later, a loyal protector. He also received a lesson about respect and paying attention to the reactions to his actions which made him a better person.

  3. Bob

    Anyone know how to repost this to my facebook wall ?

    Tried all the buttons and couldn't locate the facebook option.

    I think there is great info on her blog - and much of it - we think is common sense - but u would be suprised on how little common sense is out there with canine owners !!!

  4. Barbara Talbot

    Will you please send me some printed information? I do Humane Education lessons at schools and other youth groups. I could definitely use his information in my presentations.
    Thank you,
    Barbara Talbot

  5. Donna

    Fanastic article. It always angers me when I hear about dog bites/children. It is never the dogs fault and not even the child's fault - it's the owners/parents that fail to teach their child how to treat dogs and even leave them unsupervised together! It also annoys me when I try to take my very excitable dobermann for a walk and a lot of children in our area will just run up to us screaming - fortunately my dog takes this as an opportunity to play but behavior like that will not exactly encourage my dog to play gently!

    I hope more people see this article. Maybe there should be a mandatory training course for parents who have both children and dogs (or other animals)!

  6. Linda Deavy

    This is so good , just what some good dog owners need as some to show there children what to do and look out for,I will pass it on to all my clients. just Loved it

  7. Elaine Staples

    I just moved to another house. I have an 11 yr old Shitzu who is trained to a training pad. Never an accident. I have a Yorkie Poo who occasionally has an accident if she is showing an attitude and feels neglected. In the old house I had wood floors and tile. In the new house I have cream colored berber carpeting. Since I moved, BOTH dogs urinate and defecate on the carpeting. I spank them and put them in the shower and say bad dog and they both still persist. What can I do. I still have the training pads down on the white tile in the den.

  8. Rachael Langley

    Hi Elaine,

    I couldn't tell if you were serious, but in case you are - the whole idea is *positive* reinforcement. Spanking your dogs for urinating and defecating in your home (especially if they've been taught to go inside before on a training pad) will only lead to them being confused. When you move it's not just stressful for you, it's incredibly stressful for your pets, they understand nothing about the situation. I've had to put my dog through refresher courses on house training before after I've moved. Take your shihtzu and yorkie *outside* every hour/two hours and walk them around, when/if they go potty praise them or give them a favorite treat. They will begin to associate good things with going potty outside. Soon you will not have to take them out so often, but in the beginning it's necessary to help them understand where it's appropriate to relieve themselves. I'm not sure how your dogs are supposed to differentiate between a puppy pad or your new berber carpet/tile when they've never seen it before and wouldn't know it's off limits, it would all be the same to them - however you can try taking them over to the pad and praising them when they relieve themselves on it. But please, do not hit them, yell at them, or put them in the shower - they do not understand what you want from them!!! And there is no such thing as a dog with "attitude" - it's called learned behavior. Good luck.

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  15. Rebecca

    To those that say it's not the dog. I have a pit bull mix that is aggressive toward small children that are simply standing there doing nothing - 30 feet away. He growls & wants at them. Thankfully he was on a leash anytime I was near a 2-3yo. He has bite/nipped ppl & kids. I know you will make excuses for him, as I did. How many times do I make excuses before he hurts someone? I am no longer making excuses for him before he really hurts someone. I may try a trainer, but they don't come with guinea pig kids. I am hoping to find him a home where he doesn't interact with kids. Maybe a farm?

  16. Stacy Braslau-Schneck

    There is great information here, but I feel that a lot of people who are campaigning against dogs will find this just as "blaming the victim". Also, I'd like to see more information here about properly socializing dogs to kids (not just exposing them but making sure that they have many, many positive experiences), and how to find a trainer to do or coach an owner through a program of desensitization and counter-conditioning with care for threshold levels. This article is a great start but it needs to go deeper (or lead to more resources).

  17. Apryl

    I agree with your post if you're talking about children older than toddlers. Sorry, but there is no way I can teach my BABY to not hurt the dog as she doesn't understand language or know right from wrong yet. So in that case they'd both be the victims and perpetrators. The safety of my child is a billion times more important than an animal.

  18. Hayley

    I have a chorkie, she is 3 yrs old and we adopted her a year ago. Up until now she has been great with my children who are now almost 4 and 7. But recently she turned and bit my youngest when all she was doing was stroking her. I dismissed it thinking perhaps she caught her or hurt her in some way, although I was watching and she was very gentle. I never allow my children to play rough, or put their faces in hers, or invade her space when she wants to be alone. I always supervise and encourage them to be calm and gentle and not chase her. Now it has happened again. Again, she was just stroking her and very gently. I don't understand why she would bite?

  19. Pam

    To Hayley, I know this is late, but is it possible your dog isn't feeling well or in pain? Rule out a physical illness first.

  20. bob sanders

    I have a black lab mix that is awesome. Never had any behavior problems besides her being a hard head except for about the last week or two as I haven't been able to be home I think this a cry for attention but i don't know if dogs do that.Then a whole lot of people showed up yesterday for a craw fish boil and apparently the kid was petting my dog looking away not paying it much attention and then Lucy the lab bit the kid with no warning. I just don't believe my dog didn't give any type of warning before biting the kid right in the face i don't believe she bit him at all because i think she could of easily crushed the kids head with her massive jaws now my dad says she has to go Im desperate she is my best friend I love her.

  21. Susan H

    Bob, I too have a black lab mixed thats a year and a half. She's never shown any aggressive behavior but bit a friend daughter in the face. We have a child and she's been raised around our kid so not sure what has caused her to this. Our state requires a dog be put down if this happens. We are so upset, she's our family. Good Luck.

  22. Cat Travis

    Another problem, not addressed here, is when an adult is teaching children that it's OK to hit dogs. I ran into this a few years ago and it didn't end well. No one got bit, but my dog ended up getting hit by a child while she was asleep on the chair next to me. The adult in question thought it was perfectly OK to teach children that it's OK to hit dogs. I survived an unprovoked dog attack when I was a child, I am badly scarred and have PTSD from that accident. So, I know that it's never OK to hit or tease a dog. My dog doesn't do well with small children, she hasn't spent much time around them. So I am very watchful when she is around my grandchildren. I don't let them touch her head or face, and I don't let them stress her out. Adults need to be more attentive around their dogs with children. Then maybe we'd have less bites happening.

  23. MontieR

    This is perfect evidence of the decrepit state of common sense in America today. The fact we NEED psa's to teach people how NOT to get bitten is ridiculus at best.

  24. Jayprime

    Something else parents need to teach their kids it never run, especially whilst shouting, yelling or screaming, towards, or close to, a dog, especially one they do not know. The dog might be afraid that it is being attacked.

  25. jaime4brienne

    Our dog has bit our son three times. The dog isn't vicious at all so I know he had to have done something to the dog to make him get bitten. (I think one of the times he said he stepped on the dog by accident but I don't think that would have caused him to bite). Our son was about 10 when he was bitten, so old enough to know not to bother the dog.

  26. Abbie Clarke

    I really don't know what to do I've got a 5month of pomeranian puppy didn't have a great start to life and is very nervous of other people although he is very affectionate to me he has nipped my four year old nephew twice, my nephew is always getting in his face and I believe that's why but my sister just doesn't tell him, I don't want him to bite and have to be put down is there any tips, I have five nephews and his the only one my puppy bites

  27. Truth Hurts

    Oh, were people just Born dog behavior experts back in the Good Ol Days, or are your Rose Colored Glasses just set to Alternate Facts?

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