Preventing dog bites in children

Every year, many children are bitten by dogs. Reliable and up to date statistics on the subject are rare. However, a Léger survey conducted in 2010 for the Association des médecins vétérinaires du Québec (AMVQ) revealed that approximately 45,000 incidents of dog bites involving children took place each year in the province.

Surprisingly, in close to 40% of cases, the bite was not the result of an encounter with an unknown dog but rather with the family dog.

Why? It is difficult to find a single factor to explain this situation, but the numbers unequivocally show that dog-child cohabitation is not without risks.

The importance of canine body language

Firstly, the language that dogs possess to express their discomfort in various situations is limited. Contrary to humans who have diverse means of expression, dog communication is essentially expressed through body language with which children (and even adults!) are often unfamiliar or even ignore.

In fact, certain online videos where children are seen playing with dogs can often be quite chilling. In many of these videos, no attention is paid to the dogs’ repeated expressions of fear or discomfort, with no adult putting an end to the dangerous interaction. Moreover, some of these videos result in a bite that could have – and should have! – been prevented. In other cases, it is evident that there is an extremely high risk of the bite occurring during the next interaction.

Contrary to what one might believe, dogs should never be punished for presenting warning signs (by growling for example) as these techniques are a part of their vocabulary. Once deprived of this means to communicate a warning, the dog is likely to simply bite without giving any warning signals at all. With the help of positive reinforcement, you can teach your dog other more acceptable reactions, for example, retreating to his or her cage when in need of space.

For both children and adults alike, it is necessary to learn to respect and listen to dogs when they communicate with us through their body language. This can often prevent an escalation to biting as well as the serious consequences the incident can have for the victims.

Learn more: Canine language: recognizing doggy signs of discomfort

Behaviour to avoid

Furthermore, children, especially toddlers, have a tendency to behave incorrectly in the eyes of our canine companions. For example, in consultation, I have seen children grab the tail or paws of a dog to get his or her attention. To the child, this behavior seems completely normal seeing as they take mom or dad’s hand when they want to interact with them and are even rewarded for doing so.

Children can also play with the animal in an inappropriate manner (by grabbing their toy away from them, for example) and even accidentally hit them. Parents who are used to a child shouting in their ears or receiving an occasional accidental blow from said child will understand what I am talking about! Unlike us, dogs cannot put these attitudes into perspective, because their understanding of the world is different from ours. Thus, their reaction in the face of these extremely unpleasant situations can put children at high risk of being bitten.

Socializing the animal

A dog who has never been exposed to children as a puppy can have a hard time understanding these little creatures who scream, cry and move about in such an unpredictable fashion. It is possible for the dog to be afraid of them or to feel very uncomfortable in their presence. He or she might also have had negative experiences with children in the past and retained unpleasant memories of the incidents.

Rules to follow to reduce the risks

In order to reduce the risk of unfortunate incidents, certain rules must be respected during dog-child interactions.

1- Never leave a child under 10 alone with a dog without supervision, even if they live together (the statistics speak for themselves on this subject!)

2- From the earliest age possible, establish rules that the child needs to respect with dogs, namely:
Do not disturb a dog who is sleeping, eating, chewing on a bone or in his or her cage.
Never approach an unknown dog without their guardian’s permission (even if the dog is on a leash or behind a fence).

3- Explain dog body language to children as soon as they are old enough to understand.
The more they are able to properly identify the signs a dog sends, the less you will have to manage their interactions! Confirm whether or not the dog actually wants to participate in the interaction, and explain to the children that he or she is allowed to not want to be petted.  Instilling this respect in children from an early age will help them understand that a dog is not a toy but rather a living being with emotions.

4- Explain to children how to react in the face of an unknown off-leash dog :
Never run; this could trigger an even quicker reaction in dogs, and as they run faster than young children, they can easily catch up to them.
Never yell; this is likely to surprise or rile up the animal and trigger an undesirable  reaction.
Keep your arms close to your body (because a dog can perceive gesticulating as a threat, aggression or provocation), stand still and look at the ground. Wait for an adult to arrive.
If the dog causes the child to fall, he or she should curl up into a ball and protect his or her face without moving.

Finally, we must remember that regardless of a dog’s breed or size, it is impossible to eliminate risk entirely; we must always be cautious. Do not hesitate to consult a dog trainer who can help you maintain a harmonious relationship at home between your two-legged and four-legged children.

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