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?
In my opinion most people who are dog owners do not have much if any education or understanding of dog communication systems. Dogs communicate their frustrations, dislikes or fears in many subtle ways, these subtle ways are missed so their communication progresses through a hierarchy of events until eventually the dog bites. 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 functional assessment process that the dog had been giving of signals for months if not years in the way of appeasement signs or minor signs of aggression such as freezing, snarling or snapping. Subtle distance increasing signs that were ignored and thus failed are replaced by more overt signs. Dog aggression can be either nonaffective dog aggression or affective aggression and they are very different. Nonaffective aggression involves components of the natural modal action patterns of a dog, their predatory behavior. Affective aggression is an emotional response that involves a package of operant’s and respondents. 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, the dog has not been trained to relinquish something they value and thus a child or adult attempts to remove a dogs bone, toy or food bowl and the dog bites. The family pet is fearful and is placed in a situation where it bites to escape or avoid something. The dog displays predation, chases, grabs and bites small quickly moving objects such as children. The dog is in pain and is approached or touched in a sensitive area. The dog is mistreated, punished or threatened and bites to avoid the punishment. The aggression is misdirected when the dog is prevented or stopped from some other activity. 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, where as with adults and mail men it is the lower extremities.
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.
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 aggression, it is the first stage. When a dog bites they have reached the last stage of the aggression ladder. There are lots of reasons dog’s bites but fundamentally they are attempting to create distance between themselves and something they fear or need to avoid.
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; having food taken from its mouth and having people pick up its toys and the things the dog considers of value. 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, and have children respect that the crate is the dogs private space. Ensure the dog gets adequate exercise and mental stimulation, do not tether dogs for too long and ensure they are a part of the family. Dogs that are tethered, not sufficiently exercised or isolated are more likely to be involved in a bite incident.
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.
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.
In my opinion they are both unique situations and will need to be assessed based on the household, the dog and other variables.
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. Contact your local DogSmith, a certified Dog Trainer and Behavior Analyst