I was recently interviewd regarding dog bites, children and prevention. Many of these questions come up over and over so i thought it useful to post them here. Enjoy!
Question; Why do half of all bites involve children and the family dog? Is it simple proximity, kids provoke dogs; dogs are frightened of children, etc?
Dogs communicate their frustrations, dislikes or fears in many subtle ways, these subtle ways are often missed by humans so the dog’s communication progresses through a hierarchy of events until eventually the dog bites if it isn’t understood. In most of the cases we take on, where a dog has bitten a family member, we are informed “the bite came from nowhere”. We then discover, during our assessment, that the dog had been giving a variety of signals for months if not years. These signals can be things such as freezing, snarling or snapping. A dog considers these signals requests to “increase the distance” between them and you. If we ignore them they increase the signal, like when we shout at a child who is ignoring us. Dog aggression can be based on either their genetic responses to the outside world, such as predatory drive, or they can stem from learned behavior. In both cases the aggression can be resolved or prevented with the correct socialization and management of dogs through their critical learning phase.
Dogs bite under an array of circumstances. Resource guarding is one example such as when the dog has not been trained to relinquish something they value (toy, food bowl, treats etc.) and a child or adult attempts to take the valued item away, the dog may bite. Another example is when the family pet is fearful and is placed in a situation where it bites to escape or avoid something. Dogs may also bite when displaying predatory behaviors such as chasing small quick animals (like children) which can result in bites. A dog can also display aggression if they are in pain and are approached or touched in a sensitive area. The median age of dog bite patients is 15 years old and boys aged from 5 to 9 have the most incident rates. It is not a surprise to learn that 77% of dog bites on children are in the facial area, whereas with adults and postal carriers it is the lower extremities.
Question; Are most of the bites involving children simply accidents or misunderstandings since most dogs I know usually adore all the family members?
When dogs bite it is not an accident. Dogs have huge control over the speed and effectiveness of their mouths. Teaching puppies bite inhibition is the most important thing we can do and they can learn. Bite inhibition teaches dogs the power of their jaws. The only difference between a bite that does significant damage and a bite that just bruises is whether or not the dog has “acquired bite inhibition”. Dogs cannot write to their congressman, or email their family members, they communicate in dog language. When pushed they will bite. It is our responsibility to ensure we understand our dogs, know when they are in pain, showing fear or in need of training to relinquish objects and to prevent and manage resource guarding. This is one of our key roles as dog owners, we must raise socially savvy dogs who are polite family members and we must do this by exhibiting benevolent leadership so they can live safely in our world.
Question; What is a dog trying to communicate when they do actually bite a family member or child?
Dog biting is aggression. In the canine world aggression can mean any act or behavior that intimidates or harms. We consider growling and snapping as the first stage of aggression. When a dog bites they have reached the last stage of the aggression ladder. There are lots of reasons dogs bite but fundamentally they are attempting to create distance between themselves and something they fear or need to avoid.
Question; Can you give some tips on how parents can make sure children and the family dog live in harmony? Maybe some important do's and don'ts
When you bring a dog into the home enroll it into a good obedience class. This not only gives you verbal control of the dog but also builds trusting relationships. Have children involved in the training. The training methods used now are so dog friendly that small children can quickly gain control of a 100 or more pound dog. Make sure your dog is well socialized, desensitized to having its collar grabbed or having food taken from its mouth and having people pick up its toys and anything else the dog considers valuable. Teach the dog bite inhibition. The mother does not have time to fully do this because we take puppies from their “bite school” before they have learned this crucial skill from mum and their litter puppies. Teach children to respect animals and treat them kindly. Do not allow children to grab at the dog, pull tails, ears etc. Crate train the dog so it has somewhere quiet to go if it needs to and have children respect that the crate is the dog’s private space. Ensure the dog gets adequate exercise and mental stimulation; do not tether dogs for too long. Always ensure your dog is part of the family. Dogs that are tethered, not sufficiently exercised or isolated are more likely to be involved in a bite incident.
Question; Of these do's and don'ts, what is the most important thing a parent can do to make sure no problems occur?
Train the dog starting from when it is a puppy. Teach the dog to have a soft mouth. So in the event the dog is ever stressed or pushed and an emotional response results in a bite, the damage is minimal.
Question; Does it matter whether the dog or the child arrives first in a household? How does this affect their interaction going forward? For example, a dog has been the "child" in a household and then a new baby arrives.
Each of these situations is unique and will need to be assessed based on the household, the dog and other variables.
Question; Anything else you would like to add?
At the first sign of any aggression contact a professional trainer so it can be rectified. Do not wait until you are dealing with an actual bite. A small financial investment in training a dog can ensure a healthy and happy union between dog and human.