Your young child and beloved golden retriever are lying on the floor together, your child building a castle of blocks. You look down at your reading or walk into another room for just a moment — and then you hear it: a short rumble of a snarl and the cry of a child who has just been bitten. Just as quickly as you jump into action to help, a thought flashes through your mind: why on Earth would your mild-mannered retriever bite your child?
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, between the years 2003 and 2012, dog bites were the 11th leading cause of nonfatal injury to children between the ages of 1 and 4 years old. They're the ninth leading cause of injury for children ages 5 to 9, and for ages 10 to 14, they are the 10th leading cause of injury. In 2013 alone, 26,935 reconstructive procedures were performed for repair injuries caused by dog bites, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. And the AVMA notes that most bites to young children happen during normal activities and are caused by familiar dogs.
We expect strange dogs to be the source of a bite, but it doesn't have to be the crazy-eyed barking dog down the street that causes an injury. It could come from one's own furry family member. That's why understanding dog body language and setting up children and family dogs for successful interaction is so important. There are appropriate ways to interact with strange dogs. But we often overlook how careful we need to be even with a trusted family animal.
Even the most happy-go-lucky dog can snap under certain circumstances. Does the dog feel ill, threatened, trapped, frustrated or frightened? Is he guarding food or a toy? Dogs give rapid warning bites to youngsters, usually a bite to the snout, which is a way of saying "knock it off" — but if the youngster is a human and not a puppy, that warning bite can do serious damage. Thankfully, there are many experts on dog behavior who provide an abundance of information about how to prevent a child from being bitten by a familiar dog.
Dr. Michele Wan of Advanced Dog Behavior Solutions is a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) and an expert on the topic. She says that one of the most important distinctions parents should understand is the difference between a dog enjoying interacting with young family members, and a dog that is simply tolerating the interaction.
"Many dogs simply tolerate, rather than enjoy handling by children, especially close handling, like hugging and kissing, or touching of sensitive areas, like the paws, ears and tail," she says. "In some of these situations, you might start seeing a stressed dog respond with snapping, growling, lip-lifting, lunging and/or biting. To keep everyone safe, it is important to have controlled, supervised interactions between dogs and young children, to give dogs their space when needed, and to monitor the dog's body language during interactions to make sure that both dog and child are having fun."
Dogs often tolerate particular things for a very long time — for instance, they will allow a veterinarian or their adult owner to touch their paws, but will cease to tolerate it when a child with unpredictable movements does the same thing. A family dog might be perfectly well behaved 99.9 percent of the time. But then there's that one time he got fed up during a certain interaction and that's when disaster struck. Even a single reactive bite from a dog can have serious consequences for the child, so it's always better to avoid that scenario.
Wan provides four guidelines to minimize the possibility of a bite from the family dog.
Engage in active supervision
Active supervision is being in the same room and paying attention to what is going on with everyone else in the room, dogs included. Being in the room but distracted by a book, laptop or television screen isn't the same thing as active supervision. Being watchful isn't merely for the child's benefit; a parent can keep an eye on the dog's body language to make sure the dog is feeling calm, comfortable and not pressured to interact if he doesn't want to. Watching the dog for signs of nervousness, frustration or excitement can make all the difference in preventing a bite.
Jennifer Shryock is a certified dog behavior consultant, founder of Family Paws Parent Education, and vice president of Doggone Safe, a nonprofit focused on dog bite prevention. "In so many of the videos we see [on YouTube] when a child is interacting with a dog, we see the dog looking," she says. "People think it’s funny, they think that the dog is enjoying something, but often the dog is checking in with the person holding the camera and you can see that look; it’s almost like, 'Help me. Help me.' They’re looking for praise or guidance. If I assume that that’s what they’re doing, then I can immediately assist them. And as soon as a family starts taking it from that point of view, then they start going into action rather than sitting there thinking that the dog is doing well."
Wan notes that the challenge of active supervision is often a frustration for parents, who point out that they're already busy enough with the day's demands, they don't have the time or energy to constantly focus on the dog. She reminds parents that if they need to be focused on something else or need to leave the room, then just take an extra moment to separate the dog and child. This can be as simple as the dog going to another room or behind a child-proof gate, or even their crate.
Behaviors such as food guarding and other resource protection can become serious especially if a child is left unsupervised with a family dog. (Photo: Goran Bogicevic /Shutterstock)
Provide space and escape routes
Negative interactions are more likely to happen if the dog feels trapped when trying to get away from a child. This can happen in tight spaces like hallways, between pieces of furniture like a couch and coffee table, and in the corners of rooms where furniture blocks off possibility of getting away, says Wan. Dogs can be great at avoiding situations, but if they feel trapped with a child clamoring toward them or grabbing them, they may feel the need to protect themselves. Set up your home to allow plenty of space between the dog and child to minimize that possibility. This includes arranging furniture to provide easy escape routes, and being particularly vigilant when children are interacting with your dog in close quarters.
Shryock refers to cramped spaces as "grumble zones" and "growl zones." Grumble zones are hallways, stairways, entryways that can get crowded, and areas where newly crawling babies or newly toddling children are going to want to go — like the edge of a couch — but those are places where the dog is going to want to go too. "That space can become crowded very quickly. So we want to be mindful of that. The best thing to do is identify those zones ahead of time and prevent them," she states.
Meanwhile, growl zones are places where there are resources. "There may not be an escape route or there may be an escape route but the dog doesn’t choose it because there’s a resource there that’s worth staying for." For instance, a dog curled up under the coffee table may view the area as a resource, especially if he has a toy under there with him.
"It’s incredibly important that dogs have plenty of opportunities to leave. We encourage parents to pay attention to when their dogs are checking in with them, so looking and engaging with eye contact. When the dog glances at them, even subtly looking at them, usually [means] a dog is looking for either praise or guidance. So my Siberian husky might be in the living room just relaxing and my daughter enters the room. My dog might check in with me, so I say, 'Come here.' Now I’ve given him an opportunity to come and get my attention while my daughter moves around the room; now he has an option to leave the room and go somewhere else, or to sit with me."
Set up rules for interactions
Wan highlights the importance of knowing what your dog merely tolerates or clearly doesn't like. Determine your dog's triggers and create rules around them. If your dog doesn't like his paws or tail touched, or he doesn't enjoy hugs or having his face touched, then be sure your child knows both the triggers and the way to deal with them — only interacting with the dog in a way that the dog enjoys.
Dogs are great avoiders, so if your dog decides to get up and leave a situation with a child, it's smart to include a rule that the child should not pursue the dog to keep up the interaction. The dog just said in no uncertain terms that he would rather not be petted or played with, and that needs to be respected.
Another common scenario that leads to a potential dog bite is when children pick up smaller dogs. Wan notes that some dogs will begin to avoid or to flat out dislike being petted or even approached by a child, because they are lifted, grabbed or otherwise overhandled. The frustration or fear the dog has at being continually lifted can manifest in a bite if his warnings are ignored.
Another big rule that Wan and many dog other behaviorists agree on is simple but important: no hugging or kissing a dog unless you’re 110 percent sure your dog enjoys it. And that means the dog is not just tolerating it, but enjoying it. Look for signs that a dog is merely tolerating such close and often uncomfortable contact. Some signs include the dog going stiff, closing his mouth, avoiding eye contact, yawning, showing tension in the face with the ears or lips pulled back tightly, or leaning away from the hugger. If your dog shows one or more of these signs, then it's important to enforce the no-hugging or no-kissing rule. This is especially pertinent since the AVMA reports that about 66 percent of bites to children occur on the head and neck. You can read more about why dogs often don't like hugs, and learn more about the ways to read body language.
It may look cute when children climb on top of large dogs, but this is serious no-no behavior. (Photo: Iakov Filimonov /Shutterstock)
The AVMA suggests more rules for good interactions including:
- Teach children that if a dog goes to bed or to his/her crate, don’t bother them. Enforce the idea that the bed or crate is the dog’s space to be left alone. A dog needs a comfortable, safe place where the child never goes. If you’re using a crate, it should be covered with a blanket and be near a family area, such as in your living room or another area of your home where the family frequently spends time. Do not isolate your dog or his/her crate, or you may accidentally encourage bad behavior.
- Educate children at a level they can understand. Don’t expect young children to be able to accurately read a dog's body language. Instead, focus on gentle behavior and remember that dogs have likes and dislikes. This will help children develop understanding of dog behavior as they grow older.
- Teach children that the dog has to want to play with them and when the dog leaves, he leaves — he’ll return for more play if he feels like it. This is a simple way to allow kids to be able to tell when a dog wants to play and when he doesn’t.
- Teach kids never to tease dogs by taking their toys, food or treats, or by pretending to hit or kick.
- Teach kids to never pull a dog’s ears or tail, climb on or try to ride dogs.
- Keep dogs out of infants’ and young children’s rooms unless there is direct and constant supervision.
- Tell children to leave the dog alone when the dog is asleep or eating.
- Sometimes, especially with smaller dogs, some children might try to drag the dog around. Don’t let this happen. Also discourage kids from trying to dress up the dog — some dogs don’t like to be dressed up.
This may seem like a lot of rules. Ultimately, parents simply need to model the behavior they want to encourage their children to follow. "Parents need to learn early on and evaluate how they interact and engage with their dogs," says Shryock. "We’ve got a huge opportunity to model really safe interaction and really safe body language for our young children in the home. And the more parents know ahead of time and practice what they’re doing with their dogs prior to their baby actually being able to observe that, the better."
Shryock gives the example of inviting a dog over to say hello rather than approaching the dog. "We say, 'Invites decrease frights and bites.' We know parents want to see engagement, but there’s a safer way to do it versus allowing a baby to crawl up to a dog." Parents can simply model the safer behavior early on by always inviting a dog to come over to interact, rather than approaching the dog. The child will pick up on this and mimic it, basically making safer behavior the standard.
Modeling how to interact with a dog is one of the best things a parent can do for a young child. (Photo: AntonioDiaz /Shutterstock)
Be aware of how behavior and expectations change
Wan also points out that children have developmental stages that can change how comfortable a dog feels around them. Dogs might feel fine about an infant who stays put, but once the child hits toddler stage, with erratic and unpredictable movements, a dog might be far less comfortable around the child. Keep up supervision as your child grows because as they change in their development — becoming more mobile, more active, faster, louder, and so on — your strategy to keep everyone happy at home may change and require new techniques.
If you see warning signs that your dog is less comfortable around your child — including stiffness, looking away or avoiding contact, a lifted paw, lip-licking or yawning — Wan encourages seeking out expert advice from a certified trainer or behaviorist before a situation escalates.
"Many times, people feel embarrassed to admit that their dog has shown any signs of discomfort or even aggressive behavior towards children," says Wan. "But there are qualified professionals out there who can help you through this difficult situation. And it is important to know that there are many other families who are dealing with this type of situation, as well. We all want to have the perfect dog who is comfortable in every situation that life can present and who absolutely adores children all the time, but the reality is that many, if not most dogs, are uncomfortable at least to some degree with certain interactions involving children. Also, if we can admit that our dogs aren't 100 percent in love with kids all the time, then we can help set our dogs up for success by doing the things that we've talked about, such as active adult supervision and judicious use of gates and crates."
A change in behavior doesn't necessarily spell disaster for family dynamics. Sometimes it's a medical issue. If your usually happy-go-lucky family dog begins showing signs of being short-tempered with your children when everything seems normal, you may want to head to the vet. Often, illness or pain can cause a dog to become snappish, especially with children. Ear infections, arthritis or other painful issues can make a dog react in ways he normally wouldn't if he were feeling his best.
One last tip: Brush up on dog body language
Doggone Safe has an excellent explainer on reading dog body language and warning signs. The site notes, "Many dogs are exceptionally tolerant of mishandling by both kids and adults. They show signs of anxiety, yet never get to the point of biting. Other dogs tolerate things they don't enjoy for a period of time, or from certain people and not others, but at some point they have just had enough and they growl or snap. Most people are shocked when this happens. 'He has never bitten anyone before' or 'there was no warning,' they say. Dog behavior experts will tell you that there is always a warning — it's just that most people do not know how to interpret dog body language."
You can also take this quiz on dog body language to see how savvy you are in dog-speak.