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

Dr. Yin is an internationally-acclaimed veterinarian and applied animal behaviorist who lectures and teaches workshops to dog trainers, shelter workers, and veterinary staff, and 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 veterinarians.


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