For the most part dogs are our loveable, goofy, tail-wagging companions and important family members. However, teaching children to be safe around dogs, both those they know and those they don’t, is an important part of being a pet parent.
Around 10,000 people attend the emergency department due to dog bites each year, and in cases where children are involved, the trauma involved is much more serious. The following guide will help your children be safe around dogs and avoid your dog being placed in a compromising position.
There are over 89 million dogs in the US, and there are only a small number that will ever bite a child. It is important to know that in the right circumstances even the most placid dog can snap. The common refrain when it does happen is ‘he’s never bitten anyone before’. It is known that rather than being a random event 60% of dog bites occur in the home or backyard of family, neighbours or friends. Even the most placid dog can bite and children under the age of 10 are at higher risk. Children under 4 years should never be left alone even with a family pet.
Dog Body Language
Sometimes we forget how easily we read dog body language without even thinking about it. This is a learned skill and children need to be helped to understand when a dog is not friendly. For example when dogs bare their teeth some children can interpret this as a smile. Teach your child what a relaxed and happy dog looks like and avoid any other dog. A wagging tail can just meant the dog is keen to interact, but does not necessarily mean he is happy. In particular an erect, upright, slow wag is a sign a dog is on high alert and should be approached with caution. If a dog yawns, licks his lips or looks away, he does not want to be touched. The following video can be useful to show your children how dogs communicate and they can be quizzed on which dogs are happy and can be approached.
How to Approach a Dog
Children should be told to always ask permission before approaching a dog, particularly if that dog is tied up outside a shop. They should never attempt to pat a dog who is eating, sleeping or has a toy. Many dogs are ‘resource guarders’ and will bite if they feel they have to protect their possessions and territory, but are absolutely fine in most other situations. A dog should be approached slowly with a closed hand, giving time for the dog to sniff the back of the hand. If all goes well, the dog can be gently patted on the chest or rubbed under the chin. Avoid the typical pat on the top of the head, as this can be a little daunting for some dogs. The following video demonstrates a ‘consent test’, to determine if a dog wants to be patted.
Be a Tree
Practice with your children the Be a Tree game. When a child is approached by a strange dog they should stand still, arms by side, eyes cast downwards and stay absolutely still and silent. You can practice this game at home with children by pretending to be a dog yourself and pretending to bound over to sniff your child. Many dogs will react if a child runs and shrieks, so practicing how to stay calm and still as a game will help your child be safe.
Many bites are from a trusted family pet. Little wonder, when children are their adorable but noisy and unpredictable selves. They stare dogs directly in the face and are often at eye level and holding food, which can be very confrontational to your furry friend. It is important to protect your dog from being in a situation where he feels that he needs to snap. He should feel that you have his back and that he does not need to protect himself or his resources.
- Teach your children to ask you to get their toys back off your dog, and always give your dog another toy or treat in return when you take something from him.
- For pets over the age of 7 years, regular veterinary check ups can ensure there are no health problems, such as pain, vision or hearing problems that might mean your pet is easily startled or grumpy.
- Banishing your dog to outside can have the effect that he feels isolated from the family. If you have a suspicion that your dog is not safe around children seek the attention of a behaviour veterinarian who can help before problems develop.
- Place some strategic baby gates, so that if you need to leave the room your dog is not alone with the children.
- Gently touch your dog around the head, ears and tail and pair this with treats. Reward relaxed behaviour.
- Allow your children to give your dog treats and take them all for walks together to make sure your dog feels a part of the family.
- Practice how to play ball with your family dog if that is going to be an activity you want them to enjoy. Teach your dog to drop the ball on command and give a treat in return.
- When you first bring baby home, make sure all routine changes for your dog have occurred well beforehand. If your pet needs to sleep somewhere else, or will be spending more time outside, change this so that he doesn’t associate the baby with the changes.
Dogs are treasured members of our families and we want them to be safe around our children and other peoples families. Ensure you teach your children how to approach dogs safely, how to read dog body language and how to behave around their own pets. For further reading The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne in Australia have put together a detailed resource called Dogs’n’Kids which covers dog bite prevention and socially responsible dog ownership.